Analogical arguments are central to and pervasive within archaeological discourse. Within these arguments, ethnographic analogies are often seen as being particularly problematic exercises in essentialism, which unthinkingly cast reified ethnographic schema back in time and thus perpetuate ideas about primitive indigenes, awaiting colonial contact to emerge from ahistorical primordial obscurity. The shadow of 19th-century social evolutionism, in which forager communities (not participating in agriculture and leading nomadic lifestyles) were represented as particularly primitive, has cast a pall of suspicion over ethnographic analogical models—especially as forager communities continue to feature prominently in such models to this day.
Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies in a variety of ways; these analogies are heuristic constructs tailored to research questions and to the stubbornness of particular suites of archaeological data. Such uses include inducing imaginative and revelatory modes of thinking about past societies, outside of the archaeologist’s usual experiences, as well as a suite of formal and relational analogies that seek to combine ethnographic data with data drawn from the physical sciences to help constrain archaeological interpretation.
Direct historical approaches utilize a collection of ethnographic and historical sources to construct analogies based on a relation of similarity between the communities of people involved; these frameworks, perhaps, carry the greatest danger of unwittingly casting modern populations as “contemporary primitives.” By emphasizing that source-side ethnographic datasets are heuristic tools rather than reflections of some sociocultural reality, such fears may (at least in part) be ameliorated. Saliently, archaeological data must operate as epistemologically equivalent to ethnographic data in order to resist the tendency to cast back a rich, textured ethnographic case study wholesale into the murky waters of prehistory. Only when this status is afforded archaeological data can is it possible to reveal the ways in which past conditions diverged from ethnographic ones.