Uncovering the Past, Guiding the Future

Discovering and studying sites in regions of early civilization, bringing cultural heritage to light, and refining history

We move in the present: most of us are aware of and affected by our economic and governmental concerns, but not many of us understand how we got to this point and why. We are often taught history in school through a limited perspective, and we don't look much deeper into its implications other than those suggested by the textbook. However, the past is more multifaceted than most people think. It is thus very important to have a reasoned and empirically grounded perspective on the past, because the present builds on the past, and is the foundation for the future. Dr. Gary Feinman, of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, connects the past with the present through dedicated, multiscalar archaeological field research and analysis. Focusing primarily on preindustrial economies, for which many preconceived notions are not grounded in data, as well as the rise and fall of different systems of governance and inequality, Dr. Feinman studies the material residues of the past to provide new perspectives and insights regarding dynamic episodes of change across deep history. "If scholars begin with false premises regarding how past economic systems worked," Dr. Feinman believes, "then it is easy to see how models that aim to explain the transition to modernity could go wrong."

In conjunction with colleagues, representatives of the Mexican federal government, and the local community, Dr. Feinman has helped establish a small community museum in Santiago Matatlan, a town where his team excavated for a decade. In Shandong, China, their discoveries are featured in at least three local museums. Dr. Feinman's work in China, Mexico, and at the Field Museum has helped promote respect for and the preservation of ancient cultural heritage resources, which may provide the only record for many past individuals and communities. As a teacher who has spent decades in classrooms teaching before his time as a curator, a coauthor of a popular text book Images of the Past, and currently a content advisor for many museum exhibitions, Dr. Feinman endeavors to translate what he has learned from studying the past for broader publics.

One example of inexact representations of the past is the way that preindustrial economies are represented as mostly local, based on self-sufficiency, with a high degree of centralized political control. Yet broad-scale social and economic networks, cooperation, and even markets have a much longer history than many have supposed. Through his work in multiple excavation sites and regions, Dr. Feinman has found that ancient economies were not always entirely local in focus nor directly under the hand of political authorities. Furthermore, long-distance interrelations have now been shown to have been more significant than most imagined. These are important findings as they open up new discussions of how we arrived at the present and the differences and parallels across the preindustrial world. To understand the modern global economy, we need to understand its historical legacies and their intercontinental foundations.

Currently, there are three field dimensions to Dr. Feinman's research program:

  • Understanding the long-term history of the Valley of Oaxaca: The Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, was dominated for more than a millennium by one major city, Monte Alban. The weakening and eventual collapse of this long-enduring monumental center ca. AD 750-850 led to marked political and economic changes in the region, which continued until Spanish Conquest. Excavating at four different lesser centers in the region, his teams have yielded new perspectives on the timing and nature of this key transition. Currently, focused on a second-tier center, Lambityeco, Dr. Feinman is documenting shifts in leadership, extra-regional networks, and even ritual at the cusp of Monte Alban's collapse.

  • Revealing the long-term history of China: In coastal Shandong, China, Dr. Feinman in conjunction with colleagues from Shandong University, has conducted two decades of regional-scale archaeological survey. Through systematic pedestrian coverage that painstakingly records changes in how people were distributed across this landscape over millennia, he has documented how this region of Shandong was engulfed into larger states and ultimately China's first empire. One of those polities, the Qi state, built China's first Great Wall, during the Warring States period when different states constructed extensive fortifications to protect their own borders. This wall runs through the study region and part was mapped by the team. This detailed tracing of the path has helped preserve wall remnants roughly 2500 years old. By understanding the long-term history of this part of China, Dr. Feinman and his colleagues have provided a new multiscalar vantage on China's first unification as well as novel insights on the relative durability of China as a political and cultural entity.

  • Discovering the sources of volcanic glass known as obsidian: The newest project that Dr. Feinman has embarked on is studying the sources of obsidian in prehispanic Mesoamerica using a portable X-Ray Fluorescence device. The Valley of Oaxaca is a near-perfect location for this investigation as there are no mines of volcanic obsidian in the whole state. To date, obsidian from more than a dozen different sources has been identified in the artifacts that have been examined from sites in the region. The goal of this research is to examine cross-regional exchange and economic networks over the last three thousand years of prehispanic Mesoamerica's history. Through source identifications of large samples of obsidian from well-dated archaeological contexts, Feinman and colleagues have defined long-distance patterns of interaction that shift dramatically over time, illustrating that this preindustrial economic system was not entirely local, static, nor monopolized by a dominant center.


Dr. Gary Feinman is deeply interested in why and how people cooperate, the diversity of institutions they establish, and how these arrangements and networks break down. While he keenly engages theories and models drawn from a number of disciplines, he also believes that painstakingly collected empirical knowledge is a cornerstone of understanding. For that reason, Dr. Feinman has spent more than three decades building this knowledge base through concerted and collaborative archaeological field and laboratory research in Oaxaca, Mexico, and subsequently Shandong, China, endeavoring to understand the rise of early cities, states, and the nature and the bases of the preindustrial economies in these regions.

Dr. Feinman conducts his research and analysis with his wife and research partner, Linda Nicholas. In China, their work is collaborative with Shandong University, in particular Professor Fang Hui. Every field season, Dr. Feinman and Linda train students, mostly from China, in the procedures of systematic archaeological survey. They have trained more than 75 students over the course of their investigation. Their fieldwork at Lambityeco in Oaxaca is conducted in a partnership with the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) on land that the Mexican government has purchased to construct an expanded archaeological zone for tourism and conservation. Dr. Heather Lapham at Southern Illinois University has also collaborated with Dr. Feinman for almost a decade, studying faunal remains from the excavations. Dr. Feinman also partners with two Field Museum postdoctoral scientists, Mark Golitko and Ronald Faulseit, in different spheres of work on ancient Mesoamerican systems of production and exchange. Dr. Feinman has a long history of collaborative research endeavors and has co-published with all of the colleagues mentioned.

To learn more about Dr. Feinman, visit his website at: https://fieldmuseum.academia.edu/GaryFeinman


American Association for the Advancement of Science


Presidential Recognition Award

Society for American Archaeology