Lewis Binford is one of the most productive and influential archaeologists of the 20th century. His primary accomplishment has been the organization and definition of the so-called New Archaeology. Binford did graduate study as a student of A. C. Spaulding at the University of Chicago. Like Spaulding, Binford emphasized in his writing the importance of rigor in the process of making inferences about the past. During the late 1960s, Binford reacted to the chronology-obsessed archaeology of the day by suggesting a new emphasis on the explanation of culture change. He proposed that archaeology, newly equipped with absolute radiometric dating techniques, focus on the processes of culture change rather than simply the description of culture areas and chronological sequences. Binford also demanded that archaeologists be more explicit with their links between archaeological remains and inferences of behavior. He noticed that many archaeological interpretations were unsystematically based upon conjecture or ideas in the archaeologists’ minds. He proposed ethnoarchaeology and other so-called middle-range observations as ways of linking archaeological observations with the behavior in the past that produced them.
Binford also contributed a great deal to the study of taphonomy and the archaeology of the Paleolithic in the Old World. During his ethnoarchaeological research among the Nunamiut, Binford noticed the importance of carnivore accumulation of bones with respect to archaeological sites. He used this information to reinterpret the early hominid archaeological assemblages as not the work of mighty hunters, but instead the result of carnivore activity with marginal scavenging activity on the part of hominids. This critique fundamentally challenged current evolutionary theory, which had hominid hunting as the central feature, and changed the landscape of approaches to the Paleolithic. Binford’s effect on Paleolithic archaeology is palpable in the field’s modern sensibility toward issues of taphonomy and approaches to making inferences about past hominid behavior.
Binford has also contributed significantly to the study of modern foragers. His ethnoarchaeological accounts of the Nunamiut are a testament to his skill as an ethnographer. In addition, Binford conducted ethnoarchaeological work in Africa and Australia. His main contribution in the study of foragers has been an increased awareness of variability, and rejection of the notion of foragers as a cultural type. In his recent synthetic summary of recent foragers, he stresses variability provides a long-needed foundation and frame of reference for the archaeological study of foragers.
Despite his massive corpus of work, Binford’s most prolific output was his students. He closely contributed to more than 100 students, many of whom make up the elite scholars in the archaeological academy today and heavily populate anthropology department faculty. Through his research and through his care in direction of students, the effect of Binford’s work is ever present in archaeology today, and will continue to be felt for generations into the future.
- Binford, L. R. (1978). Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology. New York: Academic Press.
- Binford, L. R. (1981). Bones: Ancient men and modern myths. New York: Academic Press.
- Binford, L. R. (1983). In pursuit of the past. New York: Thames & Hudson.
- Binford, L. R. (2001). Constructing frames of reference: An analytical method for archaeological theory build using hunter-gatherer and environmental data sets. Berkeley: University of California Press.