Elizabeth Brumfiel

Elizabeth Brumfiel, In Memoriam – Archaeology & the Aztec World

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With deep sadness: Dr. Elizabeth Brumfiel, Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University, passed away on 1 January 2012 after battling cancer. Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel–known to so many as “Liz”–was an inspiring and engaged scholar, training and encouraging new perspectives on anthropology and archaeology.

I met Liz when she taught at Albion College–I feel particularly indebted because she gave me my first adjunct courses, and I probably would never have become an academic professor without her help. I had just finished a dissertation and was tremendously unprepared to teach. Liz started me on upper-level seminars and then some introductory classes, keeping me employed and encouraged until I was able to find more permanent teaching.

Liz was always a strong advocate for teaching and for engaged anthropology. She took pride in educating undergraduates, teaching year after year of Introduction-to-Anthropology and taking personal responsibility for a public presence and political commitments. Many anthropologists saw this side of Liz when she was AAA president and took the stand to not hold the annual meetings at a hotel during a labor dispute. It was–and still is–a controversial position, but Liz thought it was an important stand for human rights, a win for the AAA as well as the workers, who won health insurance in their contract.

Liz was a tireless promoter of human diversity and non-determinist approaches to analyzing human life. This perspective emerged in her recent contribution to the December 2010 forum On Nature and the Human organized by Agustín Fuentes:

If there is one great lesson that anthropology teaches, it is that human biology, human psychology, and human behavior are all context dependent. This enormous biological and behavioral flexibility–the ability to adopt different physiological, perceptual, and behavioral repertoires–has enabled humans to survive across the extremes of climate and habitat, from the frozen tundra to the burning desert. Humans are the only biological species to achieve such broad dispersal. This biological and behavioral flexibility enables humans to move from foraging camps to industrial cities and to supplement communication with ancestral spirits with communication via the Internet at speeds that outstrip the rate of natural selection, often within the course of a single lifetime.

Yet this is a lesson that people in the contemporary United States resist. (516)

For approaching these issues and presenting them to non-anthropologists, Brumfiel argued for a practical approach, drawn from classic anthropological perspectives:

Anthropologists may understand that biology, language, and behavior are mutually constituting. But I am afraid that this message is too subtle for public consumption. In addressing nonanthropologists, I would use cross-cultural and historical data to argue that human nature is variable in its biological, psychological, and behavioral dimensions and is always context dependent. I would emphasize that, even within societies, individuals are molded biologically, psychologically, and behaviorally by their experiences. And finally, I would affirm that broad, flexible social institutions are needed to encourage all individuals to explore and cultivate their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. (516-517)

I was also very pleased to be able to bring Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel to Hartwick College for a special Hardy Chair Public Lecture in October 2009. Her talk, “Presenting Aztec Culture: Archaeology as an Antidote to Great Art,” showcased Liz at her best: first-rate scholarship harnessed to public presentation, four-fields anthropology with a liberal arts perspective, engaging undergraduates and the public.

Elizabeth BrumfielLiz donated a copy of her newly edited volume, Aztec WorldElizabeth Brumfiel - Aztec World, to the Hartwick College Library. The day after her talk, Liz was in the Yager Museum Collection, cataloging artifacts and again speaking to undergraduates.

Liz’s influence has been and will continue to be enormous–she truly pioneered archaeological research on gender and the non-elite, supporting anthropology in the classroom, in public, and fighting to train a generation of scholars.

Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel will be deeply missed.


For a collection of news articles, tributes, and short bibliography, see In Memoriam: Elizabeth Brumfiel 1945-2012.


Update 2016: In thinking about the passing of Sidney Mintz and Teaching Latin America and Caribbean Anthropology, I’ve returned to this In Memoriam from 2012. Liz and Sid were in many ways complementary: their love of fieldwork and commitment to regional studies; genuine investment in teaching anthropology, especially introduction to anthropology; concern with the untold and uncelebrated people who really made history. I was fortunate to have both as mentors, and to have been able to host both at Hartwick College.


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  • John Hoopes

    Liz was the first anthropologist I ever invited to come speak at KU, in conjunction with an exhibition on Xico at the Museum of Anthropology. She spoke about Aztec women and we talked over a long and leisurely breakfast at the old Village Inn in Lawrence. She was gracious and caring and encouraging. That must have been in 1991. She was one-of-a-kind.

  • Jorge Ortiz

    I had the great blessing to meet Elizabeth Brumfiel as a guest is our hotel in Mexico City. She was always an inspiration, we will miss her a lot.

  • Jerry Moore

    This is such a loss. Liz was an enormous inspiration, a brilliant and graceful intellect.

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  • Alex Miller

    Liz was my advisor as an undergraduate and I was twice able to spend the summer in Xaltocan with her, which was a privilege and an unforgettable experience. She was a bright, indomitable, brilliant professor and friend. I know all her students and friends will miss her immensely.

  • We will miss Elizabeth Brumfiel… I live in Xaltocan where she worked for some years, I had the opportunity to meet her. Xaltocan is grateful with her for all the investigation she did and because now Xaltocan is known for his history. Thanks Liz…

  • Deil Lundin

    I am saddened to hear of her passing. Liz was my advisor at Albion College and she was everything a hungry, young liberal arts student could ever hope for in a professor–patient, open, and willing to share her knowledge. Upon my graduation, through her professional connections, she helped me to procure my first job in archaeology. From that, a career was born. Many thanks to you, Liz.

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  • Lexi Jahnke

    Although I did not know Dr. Elizabeth Brumfiel, I am appreciative of her sincerity to anthropology and her apparent passion for a clear perspective. The passage specifically discussed her contribution to “On Nature and the Human” and quotes her claim that “if there is one great lesson that anthropology teaches, it is that human biology, human psychology, and human behavior are all context dependent.” This directly relates to the current class discussions on conquest, colonialism, and resistance. Both readings emphasize how cultural background can influence one’s perception of new environments. The values which people often hold so tightly are rooted
    within personal background, experience, and frame of mind. I agree with Dr. Brumfiel’s claim, particularly because the study of interactions between cultures shows how each side develops a story. For instance, Sanabria speaks of “godparenthood” or “coparenthood/compadrazgo” throughout chapter four. The concept was derived from a European heritage, but developed in Latin America and the Caribbean throughout colonial rule. Overall, the ritual created “networks of fictive kin bound to each other through mutual rights and obligations” (Sanabria: 90). At their base, such networks were unequal relationships between different classes or categorized worlds of people. However, such relationships were also used as justification of inequalities across the “colonial and ethnic spectrum-between, for example, indigenous an colonial elites, ethnic lords and community members, and estate owners and tenants” (Sanabria: 91). Although this attributes godparenthood with the ability to create wider social networks, I am curious how far the rights and
    obligations would stretch as well. What godparenthood represents to one individual may be indicative to one’s social bonds (voluntary and involuntary). I find it interesting that there are negative connotations associated with the term today. It remains disrespectful and therefore nearly impossible to say no, but yet the standards of a godparent seem high. One article claims “as time passes, things slip” and attributes lack of attention to weaker social networks (Stenham). Therefore, I am curious how rituals developed throughout Latin America were accounted for as years passed. A ritual with such strong European roots likely experienced alterations into Latin American customs.

    Stenham, Daisy. “Middle Class Problems: Being Asked to Be a Godparent.” Independent. Independent Voices, 28 Feb. 2015. Web.

    • Hi Lexi, thank you for a particularly perceptive comment. On the issue of compadrazgo, there is a particularly famous anthropology article titled An Analysis of Ritual Co-Parenthood (Compadrazgo) by Sidney W. Mintz and Eric R. Wolf. Although it is quite a classic (from 1950), it has been very cited and influential and may be worth revisiting.