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Looking at a map (Figures 1.1, 1.2, 2.1), South America hangs heavily from the narrow, funnel-like Isthmus of Panama, which thus serves to delimit the continent on the north. Indeed, it was through Panama’s densely vegetated tropical environment that the first settlers of the vacant (in human terms) continent had to pass, and adapt, more than ten thousand years ago (Ranere and Cooke 2003); maritime movement hugging the coastline was also a possibility (Fladmark 1979). Oceans border South America on all sides, further defining and, until the age of European exploration, largely isolating it from the rest of the world, save for intrepid indigenous navigators who trafficked luxury goods, including Spondylus shell, between Ecuador and the west coast of Mexico (Marcos 1977–78) and Panamanian chiefs who pursued esoteric knowledge in the more complex chiefdom societies of northern Colombia (Helms 1976). But this hyper-geographical continental essence—or South America as a natural unit—is belied by what may have been the world’s greatest linguistic, cultural, and botanical diversity. This extraordinary heterogeneity is the challenge that faced Julian H. Steward (Figure 1.3) in the early 1940s as he sought to devise a framework with which to organize the approximately two hundred chapters commissioned for the six-volume Handbook of South American Indians (HSAI; the seventh volume is the index) from an international cast of more than ninety leading ethnographers, archaeologists, physical anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists, cultural geographers and art historians.

In this introduction to the Handbook of South American Archaeology (HSAA), I consider Steward’s organization of the HSAI and some of the continental schemes that followed it. I do not discuss exclusively ethnographic volumes (e.g., Gross 1973; Lyons 1974). I conclude with comments on a new critical scholarship for supra-area archaeology.

Keywords

Culture Area Smithsonian Institution American Archaeology World Archaeological Social Science Research Council 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helaine Silverman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of IllinoisUrbanaUSA

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