Ethnoarchaeologists examine the behavior of modern-day societies to help understand the activities of prehistoric people. They go beyond the study of artifacts left behind in archaeological sites by seeking clues to human behavior. By looking at current societies, ethnoarchaeologists can infer that artifacts served a similar purpose in the past as they do currently. They form a hypothesis from the material left behind by ancient societies using cultural information of existing groups of people.
Traditional archaeologists identify, classify, interpret, and attempt to date artifacts found at sites. They attempt to learn how people adapted to the environment through what was left behind. Ethnoarchaeologists add human behavior to the puzzle to get a better understanding of prehistoric life. They incorporate data from museums, experiments, and observations of living societies.
One of the most famous studies cited by ethnoarchaeologists involved the Nunamiut Eskimos living in northern Alaska. Archaeologist Lewis Binford attempted to understand the seemingly random nature of animal bones found in prehistoric archaeological sites in the region. He began observing the Nunamiut society and how they conducted caribou hunts twice each year.
The study included ways the Eskimos adapted to the harsh environment in which they lived. This society of hunters and gatherers endured extremely cold winters and total darkness more than half of each year. Binford learned that the Nunamiut lived in base camps and used smaller, temporary camps during their hunts. Animals were butchered in the hunt camps and bones left behind, often along with tools used to cut and prepare the meat.
Studies also were conducted by ethnoarchaeologists looking at Native American populations and Australian aborigines. Some scientists believe certain activities reflect shared purposes throughout history. They conclude there is no way to positively know what happened in the past, but analysis of the present adds to archaeological knowledge.
Ethnoarchaeologists explore ways people process food and use tools necessary for survival. They hope to understand how prehistoric people evolved and used improved technology to foster their survival. These scientists use published and unpublished information passed down through generations to help understand the past when exploring archaeological sites using traditional methods.
Some traditional archaeologists hold critical views of ethnoarchaeology, calling it new archaeology. They argue theories developed by studying modern people give no more than a probable analogy that might be invalid. These researchers believe the empirical evidence found at prehistoric sites should stand apart from modern-day inferences.