In Memoriam: Elizabeth Brumfiel 1945-2012

On 1 January 2012, anthropology and archaeology lost a truly amazing and inspiring scholar, Dr. Elizabeth Brumfiel, affectionately known to so many as Liz. Please find a collection of tributes below. I also include a selection of articles and edited volumes. And to begin, this video of Touring “The Aztec World” with Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel provides a sense of voice and work.

Update: In thinking about the passing of Sidney Mintz and Teaching Latin America and Caribbean Anthropology, in 2016 I returned and updated 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.

Elizabeth Brumfiel, Obituaries

Elizabeth M. Brumfiel (1945–2012), Jeffrey R. Parsons and Deborah L. Nichols, American Anthropologist
Throughout her career, Liz demonstrated that for an archaeologist innovative thinking and sound empirical practices in the field and laboratory are by no means mutually exclusive but are, in fact, interdependent. Elizabeth Brumfiel led by example, extending traditional approaches to address difficult questions of broad general interest, many of which had been neglected by archaeologists; encouraging and inspiring students at all levels; serving her profession with dedication and good sense; and creating goodwill among scholars and local people in Mexico that will long be remembered.

Elizabeth Brumfiel dies at 66; feminist archaeologist, Ronnie Reese, Los Angeles Times
Elizabeth Brumfiel, a widely recognized scholar in the field of feminist archaeology who studied Aztec culture, examining not only the functional and economic significance of ancient relics but what scholars learned about changing gender roles and relations in society, has died. . . . In 2007, the Mexican village of Xaltocan presented her with the Eagle Warrior Prize–named after the highest warrior class in Aztec society–for her dedication to the Xaltocan community.

Northwestern Anthropologist Brumfiel Dies at age 66, Wendy Leopold
Elizabeth Brumfiel transformed and humanized the field of archaeology. Brumfiel brought the study of social and economic inequality to the forefront of archaeological research. As a pioneer in the field of feminist studies, she transformed the field of archaeology, ensuring that archaeological research extended to work on gender, class and other lines of social differences in society.

Elizabeth Brumfiel was “real Indiana Jones,” examined women’s role in Aztec culture, Maureen O’Donnell
Elizabeth Brumfiel . . . became a pioneering, world-renowned scholar on the Aztecs by examining their history and culture through women, farmers, artisans and the common folk. When other archeologists were studying the tombs and temples of the elite, she saw equally important history lessons in pottery shards. She recognized that changes in cooking utensils illustrated how indigenous women in Aztec-conquered towns handled the Aztec call for tributes–usually, food or cloth.

AAA Mourns Loss of Elizabeth Brumfiel
During her presidency, Brumfiel was instrumental in establishing the World Council of Anthropological Associations, obtaining funding for the AAA’s RACE: Are We So Different? public education project and furthering the Association’s support of social justice and human rights initiatives. In 2011, AAA’s Committee on Gender Equity in Anthropology awarded Brumfiel the CoGEA Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated the courage to bring to light and investigate practices in anthropology that are potentially discriminatory to women.

Albion Mourns Passing of Former Anthropology Professor
Elizabeth Brumfiel, who served as professor of anthropology at Albion College from 1977-2003, passed away January 1. Brumfiel, who was named the John S. Ludington Endowed Professor at Albion in 1996, was well known for conducting an archaeological project at the site of Xaltocan in Mexico.

Anthropology Blogs on Elizabeth Brumfiel

A Moment for Elizabeth Brumfiel, Colleen Morgan
I was speaking about feminist lineages in archaeology; how as an undergraduate I benefitted from strong female leaders in archaeology and their students becoming teachers of a new generation (and supermajority) of women in the field.

Liz Brumfiel will always be remembered, Rosemary Joyce
In her 1991 Distinguished Lecture for the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association, Brumfiel makes a strong, compelling argument for taking the actions of men and women seriously, replacing what she suggested were models overly-dependent on systems with models that would, as she said in her conclusion, “enable us to create a more humane archeology, an archeology that will acknowledge the creativity and discretion that women and men, subjects and rulers have exercised in the past to fashion their livelihoods and promote their well-being” (1992:560). Today, a whole generation of students can take this goal for granted. They don’t have to fight to have this kind of thinking accepted as viable and important.

In memoriam Elizabeth Brumfiel, 1945-2012, Gabriela Vargas-Cetina
Hoy la antropología internacional está de luto, pero en particular la arqueología mexicana, que ha perdido a una de las grandes representantes de los estudios de género en la arqueología de la vida cotidiana del pueblo azteca. Descansa en paz, Liz, y gracias por tu trabajo, dedicación, alegría y calidez mientras nos honraste con tu presencia en la tierra.

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Brumfiel, Jason Antrosio
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.

Journal Articles by Elizabeth Brumfiel

Human Nature: Always Context Dependent
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.

Cloth, Gender, Continuity and Change: Fabricating Unity in Anthropology
In this article, I compare backstrap-loom weaving in three cultural contexts: the ancient Maya, the ancient Aztecs, and 20th century Mesoamerica. Although continuities are present, important differences exist in the ways that weaving was situated historically. Among the Classic Maya, weaving defined class; in Aztec Mexico, weaving defined gender; and in 20th-century Mesoamerica, weaving defined ethnicity. A comparison of these cases suggests that historical study is a useful tool for both archaeologists and ethnographers. It promotes recognition of the diversity of practice and belief in ancient societies. It helps to define the scope of contemporary ethnographic study. It combats cultural essentialism and injects agency into our accounts. It enables us to acknowledge both the rich heritage of indigenous peoples and the fact of culture change. Comparative historical study provides a strong rationale for the continued association of archaeology and cultural anthropology as parts of a wider anthropological whole.

Distinguished Lecture in Archeology: Breaking and Entering the Ecosystem–Gender, Class, and Faction Steal the Show
This paper argues three points. First, the ecosystem theorists’ emphasis upon whole populations and whole adaptive behavioral systems obscures the visibility of gender, class, and faction in the prehistoric past. Second, an analysis that takes account of gender, class, and faction can explain many aspects of the prehistoric record that the ecosystem perspective cannot explain. Third, an appreciation for the importance of gender, class, and faction in prehistory compels us to reject the ecosystem-theory view that cultures are adaptive systems. Instead, we must recognize that culturally based behavioral “systems” are the composite outcomes of negotiation between positioned social agents pursuing their goals under both ecological and social constraints. (551)

Elizabeth Brumfiel, Edited Volumes

Gender, Households, and Society: Unraveling the Threads of the Past and the Present, Cynthia Robin and Elizabeth M. Brumfiel
This volume demonstrates how archaeological data viewed through the lens of gender studies can lead researchers to question and reformulate current models of household organization, subsistence and craft production, ritual performance, and the structure of ancient states. Existing models of prehistoric societies often assume the existence of rigidly binary gender systems. After three decades of feminist anthropology, few archaeologists claim that sex/gender roles and identities are fixed by human biology, yet a residue of assumptions from earlier views of male and female roles continues to color archaeologists’ understandings of their data.

The Aztec WorldElizabeth Brumfiel - Aztec World, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman
The Aztec World is an illustrated survey of the Aztecs based on insightful research by a team of international experts from the United States and Mexico. In addition to traditional subjects like cosmology, religion, human sacrifice, and political history, this book covers such contemporary concerns as the environment and agriculture, health and disease, women and social status, and urbanism. It also discusses the effects of European conquests on Aztec culture and society, in addition to offering modern perspectives on their civilization. The text is accompanied by colorful illustrations and photos of artifacts from the best collections in Mexico, including those of the Templo Mayor Museum and the National Museum of Anthropology, both in Mexico City, as well as pieces from archaeological sites and virtual reconstructions of lost artwork. The book accompanies an exhibition at The Field Museum.

Specialization, Exchange and Complex Societies, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Timothy K. Earle
This book, a comparative study of specialized production in prehistoric societies, examines both adaptionist and political approaches to specialization and exchange using a worldwide perspective. What forms of specialization and exchange promote social stratification, political integration and institutional specialization? Can increases in specialization always be linked to improved subsistence strategies or are they more closely related to the efforts of political elites to strengthen coalitions and establish institutions of control? Are valuables as important as subsistence goods in the developmental process?

These and other questions are examined in the contexts of ten prehistoric societies, ranging from the incipient complexity of Mississippian chiefdoms through to the more complex systems of West Africa, Hawaii and Bronze Age Europe, to the agrarian states of Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, Peru and Yamato Japan. Each society is the subject of a separate study by a scholar whose own research has provided new insights into the interplay of specialization, exchange and social complexity in the region studied.

Factional Competition and Political Development in the New World, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and John W. Fox
Factionalism is an important force of social transformation, and this volume examines how factional competition in the kinship and political structures in ancient New World societies led to the development of chiefdoms, states and empires. The case studies, from a range of New World societies, represent all levels of non-egalitarian societies and a wide variety of ecological settings in the New World. They document the effects of factionalism on the structure of particular polities: for example, how it might have led to the growth of social inequality, or to changing patterns of chiefly authority, or to state formation and expansion, or institutional specialisation. The work is a creative and substantial contribution to our understanding of the political dynamics in early state society, and will interest archaeologists, anthropologists, political scientists and historians.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “In Memoriam, Elizabeth Brumfiel 1945-2012” Living Anthropologically website, Originally posted 5 January 2012 on the Anthropology Report website, Revised 3 December 2017. (This page was originally posted on Anthropology Report in January 2012. Anthropology Report has now consolidated with Living Anthropologically, and I made this a sub-page of the Archaeology pages, since Brumfiel was so crucial to re-orienting archaeological inquiry.)