Parker VanValkenburgh

Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Parker VanValkenburgh
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Parker VanValkenburgh studies the political dimensions of landscapes and the built environment. His portal to large questions about the evolution of individual and social culture is Peru, particularly the indigenous societies of the late pre-Hispanic and colonial period.

It’s not entirely the trash that attracts Parker VanValkenburgh to anthropology, but it’s an important part of the archaeological side of his work.

“The trash that we leave behind, the residues on our floors ... often tell completely different stories about our lives than tax records or biographies — the types of records that historians are often forced to use, because they are preferentially written down,” VanValkenburgh said. “Bringing those two kinds of archives together — physical and written evidence — you find points of tension where the trash tells you one thing and the diary or court case tells you something different. That’s when the ah-hah moments happen. And in some ways, that’s why I enjoy working with materials as well as with texts — because of the variety of ways in which you can be wrong.”

VanValkenburgh studies Andean societies of the late pre-Hispanic and colonial eras — Incas, but also a variety of distinct cultures along the coast of northern Peru. These were well-organized societies of considerable achievement, including some of the most accomplished sea-faring traders in the ancient world and a sophisticated fishing tradition that supplied fresh fish from the deep sea.

Inca society had organized a communication system around carefully planned way stations (tambos), supplied and maintained by local communities. Messengers — chaskis — would run or sprint between tambos, passing messages, parcels, and khipus (records preserved by lengths of knotted string) to the next relay runner. Communication between coastal Lima and the inland imperial capital of Cusco — a distance of nearly 700 miles across mountains and difficult terrain — took two or three days. Legend has it that the Inca emperor dined on fresh fish from the sea.

Most of that was lost in the 16th century. VanValkenburgh studies “reducción,” an effort by the Spanish to forcibly resettle the indigenous population into a series of planned towns.

“In some ways, the native people of the Andes seemed so different to the Spanish that they believed they had to ‘convert’ them into human beings before they could be converted to Christianity,” Van Valkenburgh said. “They thought the solution was to have them live in gridded planned towns with plaza at the center, a church alongside it, and a series of civic institutions, including a jail and an inn. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that the city can be a tool to change who people actually are.”

Archaeological digs of those planned towns — reducciónes — produce those ah-hah moments when the documents and the physical evidence tell different stories. The written records of reducciónes — high-level administrative documents — speak to planning and purpose. The physical record speaks to endemic anemia, dietary change (chickens and pigs displacing fish), the loss of labor and knowledge (fish now come from close to shore), and population loss.

It also speaks to modern assumptions about the human spirit and the built environment. “One of the reasons I return to this period is that it can continue to inform our studies of globalization, of empire, of settlement planning,” VanValkenburgh said. “We’re continuing to struggle with questions about the relationship between the ideology of planning and how it actually affects people’s daily lives. If you want to build a better society — literally building society by shaping cities — how do you do it? We look at 20th century examples, the failures of modernism after World War II, and try to avoid problems like Pruitt-Igoe.”

Peru and the larger questions that lie near the intersection of anthropology and archaeology captured VanValkenburgh’s interest early on. As an undergraduate at Stanford (B.A., anthropology), an archaeology class led to a summer of fieldwork in Peru. (“I was immediately drawn in by the distinctiveness, the noticeably different civilization that continues to exist today in Peru.”) There was further work in England (M.Phil. in archaeology, University of Cambridge; M.A. in Latin American studies, University of London) and a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard. He was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry at Washington University in St. Louis.

VanValkenburgh comes to Brown from the University of Vermont. Brown, he said, “has one of the most exciting groups of archaeologists and anthropologists in the country. I’m intrigued by the conversations going on between social anthropology and archaeology faculty particularly in regards to population and questions of violence. How do people become subjects? What is the role of state institutions in making us citizens? Those are the deep questions that drive my work. And the best, most critical questions I’ve ever had at a presentation were the ones I got when I had my Brown job talk.”