After twenty years conducting archaeological research on the Atacama plateau of Northwestern Argentina, in the Antofalla territory of the south-central Andes (where I also live and teach), I wanted to undertake a test excavation near the recently modified stone fence of an agricultural plot. I asked Severo Reales, the owner of the plot, for permission, though I had already acquired legal authorization from the state anthropology bureaucratic agency. Severo said he had no problem at all and that he would come with us (a small group of students and myself) the first morning of work. The next morning, he came along with wine, liquor, coca leaves, and cigarettes; he dug a hole near the spot I wanted to dig and gave ritual food to the antiguo. After lighting a cigarette, he invited each person present to make an offering of some food while he addressed the excavation site: “Holy Earth Pachamama, beautiful old things shall be bred for Mr. Alejandro.” Severo was severe enough: in addition to his words of friendship, he also provided me with a theory of relatedness, including relationships with antiguos, that is completely different from the theory of relatedness I assumed was valid.
According to Severo’s theory, antiguos are not vestiges from a perfect past, but are rather still alive, and breed themselves under the soil; the past is not gone and distant; the past has not past in a perfect sense; and the relationship with the past is not mainly about extracting knowledge but about reciprocal feeding, care, respect, fear, and love. For Severo, archaeological objects—considered by the archaeological discipline (as well as heritage legislation and international agreements) to be its exclusive domain, variously named but always referring to vestigial matter originating in the more or less distant past—instead exist and act upon people in the present, demand obligations of them, and, rather than being accessible or inaccessible in absolute terms, modulate their relationships—including access and avoidance—through ritual.
Severo’s significant practice challenged my common understandings of the relationship I have with the antiguos of Antofalla. But he also challenged the central assumptions of the archaeological discipline, its apparently solid foundations, and together with them every piece of legislation (provincial, national, international, and multilateral) that shared with the archeological discipline the same basic set of assumptions: the materiality of the archaeological object; vestigiality from a past located at a distance along a time vector; the archaeological discipline as the medium for relating with an otherwise inaccessible past; asymmetrical knowledge as the normal relationship; and the illicitness (and displacement along the vector) of relations-other-than-disciplined. It is not that there are simply other possible interpretations of history, but that history—the past and its objects—are interrelated and related with other things (people, the earth, the sun, the moon, food, and so forth) in completely different ways, according to Other theories of relatedness. Those Other relationalities are made through and by the relationship to the Other.
This Other is not the Other to the West, that is, the cultural Other to be placed at a different point along a vector of time, culture, or development, outside its own borders, out there to be reflected negatively in the configuration of a self-image and finally captured as an object of science, tourism, or social or international aid. Neither is it the negative of Western alterization, an alterization that would assume a local perspectival point for alterizing the West. The Other from the Other-to-the-West’s perspective is both metaphysical and immanent in a particular moment, given that its relation to those animated powerful beings is itself the fabric of those implied in the relationality. These theories of relationality are based on local ontologies (local epistemes) and are grounded locally; but they are not isolated from the Western hegemonic episteme, which includes the archaeological discipline. Severo knew quite well what I was thinking about the archaeological site, what my ontological assumptions were, what I was looking for, and what kind of praxis I would develop with respect to the antiguos. That is why he came to intervene before I started my excavation; he placed my relationship to the antiguos within the terms of the local theory of relatedness, and through our involvement in a ritual conversation with the antiguo he implicitly explained to my students and me what kind of relations they—antiguos—expected from us.
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