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Journal of Social Archaeology


Journal of Social Archaeology A R T I C L E Copyri ght © 2004 SAGE

Copyright © 2004 SAGE Publications ( ISSN 1469-6053 Vol 4(1): 81–98 DOI: 10.1177/1469605304039851

Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, USA

ABSTRACT One of the most fundamental problems in archaeology is interpreting the spatial distribution of artifacts and styles. There is a particularly long tradition of argument about the meaning of widespread art styles and artifacts assemblages, in other words, the spread of archaeological ‘cultures’ or ‘horizon styles’. In Mesoamerica, the spread of ‘Olmec’ and ‘Olmecoid’ artifacts, ritual practices and iconography is a case that has generated many explanatory models. In this article, I draw on studies of modern cultural practices like beauty pageants and the marketing of consumer products to suggest some alternative modes of archaeological interpretation. In particular, the idea of ‘common difference’ may provide a richer and more complex way of thinking about the spread of styles and practices.

KEYWORDS anthropology archaeology diffusion Mesoamerica Olmec



82 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) ■ MAKING BOUNDARIES One of the fundamental problems of archaeology

Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1)


One of the fundamental problems of archaeology has always been estab- lishing the boundaries – in time and space – of archaeological ‘cultures’. It is very rare that a capping layer of destruction is overlain by a completely different material culture and rarer still to find a physical boundary on the ground where a wall, mountain range, or river neatly separates one entire cultural assemblage from another. Instead the real world is filled with ambi- guities, transitions of varying speeds in different kinds and styles of material culture and unclear boundaries that only exist for selected kinds of material culture or styles (Hodder, 1982). Harder still is interpreting stylistic simi- larities in the material culture of distant sites and the presence of imported goods and raw materials. The majority of sociocultural anthropologists have never paid very much attention to these problems. They wrote books about ‘the Nuer’ and ‘Tikopia’ and did not worry very much about the boundaries of those groups in time or space, though in fact Evans-Pritchard did go on at some length in The Nuer on the problem of finding group boundaries and the disturbing way the people he calls Nuer shaded into the neighboring people he calls Dinka. 1 But in the last 25 years, most sociocultural anthropologists have belatedly recognized that we do have a problem with cultural bound- aries in time and space that cannot be encompassed by terms like accul- turation or diffusion; this is exactly the same problem that archaeologists have confronted more directly for a much longer time. 2 The reason sociocultural anthropology was able to avoid confronting the boundary problem for so long was that the basic bounded taxonomic units of culture seemed so ‘natural’, confirming expectations that each culture had a territory. Later generations of ethnographers went out into a world divided up into ethnic zones demarcated on maps, each labeled with a name. In a blending of present and past, these maps were meant to repre- sent the way things were before European contact and sometimes off on the edges there would be empty areas where an anthropologist could still explore and fill in the blanks with new lines and labels. We now know that this world of neat cultural provinces, rather than being a primordial or natural state of human affairs, was largely the administrative creation of either indigenous or European colonial states. In most of the colonial world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European administrators and officials were very uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the way indigenous peoples identified themselves. The indi- genes called themselves ‘people’ in their languages, or sometimes they used the names of a village or river or hill. People in a single village might speak two or three different languages. Chiefdoms and other polities could be named after rulers, lineages, totems or deities. There were far too many names with many depths of historical meaning, shifting far too often. In


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


response, administrators insisted that each person had to belong to one cultural group, they named groups that seemed closely related and drew boundaries around them. Sometimes their goal was to create areas with unified administration and cultural homogeneity, like ideal little European nation-states, but just as often ethnic groups were divided between admin- istrative areas or colonies in order to make them easier to rule. In all this, they had the help of missionaries, teachers, linguists, anthropologists and local religious and political powers (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). Unfortunately, once created for analytical or political purposes, these carefully bounded ‘cultures’ took on a timeless and frozen quality. Many sociocultural anthropologists were willing to reinforce the primordial fiction through numerous textual devices, selectively reading historic accounts and discarding contradictory evidence as ‘recent introductions’, often with the best of intentions (Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Fabian, 1983). By the mid-twentieth century, many indigenous peoples had themselves become invested in boundary-making projects that connect direct ancestral lines to named cultures and sites. The arbitrary names of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became the accepted taxonomy of ‘peoples’ or ‘races’ in the twentieth. It is no surprise that archaeologists’ articles and field reports also have maps where areas are divided into named territories and phase charts where time periods have distinct beginnings and endings. This is no more than a reflection of the best wisdom of mid-twentieth century sociocultural anthropology about the state of the world before European colonial expansion. My own ethnographic work in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean has confronted issues of boundaries from the day I walked into the field and found myself taken captive in a Kekchi Mayan village as a possible Guatemalan spy by a group of Gurkha (Nepalese) troops in the British army patrolling the disputed Belizean border. At that time the people I identified as ‘Kekchi Maya’ called themselves ‘Christians’ (kristianeb) and ‘people’ (gwink) and by one of the names of the village they lived in (Wilk, 1997). Only in the 1980s did they begin to follow the practice of govern- ment officials and anthropologists, by calling themselves ‘Kekchi Indians’ and identifying themselves as ‘indigenous’ people (though this is a legally contested issue; Wilk, 1999). By the late 1980s these same Kekchi were starting to grow marijuana for the US market, watching Chicago Cubs baseball on satellite television and developing rainforest healing trails for ecotourists. Over the last 20 years of the twentieth century, anthropologists working all over the world have had to face similar developments and changes, as a discourse of rights based on ethnic identity has become an international standard and global consumer culture has appeared almost everywhere, transformations that in earlier times were inadequately captured with terms like ‘diffusion’ and ‘acculturation’. The fascinating contradiction in the literature about globalization is that


84 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) on one hand there is a huge increase in the

Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1)

on one hand there is a huge increase in the speed and volume of commerce, transportation, communication, migration and travel. But on the other hand, differences, contrasts, boundaries and distinctions continue to abound and new kinds of cultural distinction continue to appear (Appadu- rai, 1996; Watson, 1997; Wolff, 1997). My own work on the topic has considered the way the small country of Belize, with very weak economic and cultural institutions, has managed to create and maintain a distinctive national culture during the last quarter-century, while inundated with foreign capital, media, goods, technology and tourists (Wilk, 1995a). My conclusion is that there is nothing incompatible about the formation of local identity and even strong and discrete cultural boundaries, in a situation where material culture, ideology and people move easily across those very boundaries and in and out of local identities. In some circumstances, I argue, localism and the defense of boundaries and borders is a strategic response to globalization and may even be a constituent part of the larger global process itself. It says something about the intellectual relationship between sociocul- tural anthropology and archaeology that changes in the way sociocultural anthropologists understand cultural boundedness through history have some parallels in archaeological theory (Bender, 2001). In many parts of the world archaeologists have become more concerned with regions, economies, trade networks, spheres of interaction, peer polities and other concepts that draw away from the grid of culture, from analysis predicated on connecting similarities between regions and phases. The fallacies of ‘marching potsherds’ and identifying cultures with diagnostic artifacts have long been critiqued by archaeologists, most of whom recognize that archaeological cultures are analytical constructs. Nevertheless, the prevail- ing mode in many parts of the world is still to use monolithic cultural entities like ‘The Maya’ and ‘The Khmer’ and to act as if these labels had ethnic, linguistic and cultural unity, with frontiers and capitals just like the imagined communities of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe (Anderson, 1983). Whole epochs of prehistory are still recognized by horizon markers, generally styles attributed to a single cultural origin that become widespread, providing a temporal boundary, like a dated layer of volcanic ash from a single eruption.


The Olmec are one of the better examples of a horizon style in the New World. Defined originally as an art style common to artifacts found in various places in Mesoamerica, it was later attached to several large sites with stone monuments in the gulf coast of Veracruz in the 1920s. Sites in


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


the same area were further explored in the 1930s through to the 1950s, well publicized by National Geographic as the discovery of a ‘lost civilization’. During succeeding years better dating methods pushed these sites further into the past, so they clearly preceded the Classic civilizations already known elsewhere in Mesoamerica. After the gulf coast was identified as the Olmec ‘heartland’, ceramics, carved stone objects and a few cave paintings and carved stones with similar motifs and styles were identified at sites in many other parts of Mesoamerica. As would be expected, this situation led to many contending theories and explanations, discussed in a long sequence of conferences, symposia, texts and review articles. 3 The standard view for many years was that the Olmec was the ‘mother culture’ of all subsequent civilization in Meso- america, inventing the calendar, writing system and most of the other elements that distinguish all the later societies of Mesoamerica. At various times the spread of Olmec culture and art has been attributed to religious missionaries, militant kings and marching warriors, organized trading parties and even a great political empire. There is no question that the area over which objects with distinctive ‘Olmec’ iconography are found is vast, covering most of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. The question of how the objects or styles got there and what they signify remains one of the most contentious issues among Mesoamerican archaeologists. Despite all the attention given the spectacular Olmec art objects and monuments, very little actual dirt archaeology was done in the putative Olmec homeland in the gulf coast until very recently. The largest finds of Olmec portable objects from secure archaeological contexts came from relatively small communities in temperate highland zones far away in the basin of Mexico (Porter, 1953; Weaver, 1967). In the late 1960s, Kent Flannery started to question the unity and coherence of Olmec culture or empire, after digging at the formative period site of San Jose Mogote in the valley of Oaxaca, where he found a workshop for making magnetite mirrors (Oaxaca is also at a great distance from the putative Olmec ‘heartland’). These small mirrors turned up in tombs and caches in the gulf coast Olmec sites at about the same time (Flannery, 1968). In some of the ceramics from his excavations, Flannery found stylistic similarities with those identified as typically Olmec on the gulf coast and in the basin of Mexico. A few figurines also looked ‘vaguely Olmecoid’ (Flannery, 1968: 85), but otherwise the pottery, houses and other artifacts looked like other contemporary materials from elsewhere in highland Mexico. His interpretation was that during the formative period, social stratification was just beginning at San Jose Mogote in response to local agricultural surpluses. As the local elite tried to solidify their position, they acquired foreign ‘Olmec’ goods and trappings as a way to reinforce their status. By trading their magnetite mirrors they took part in an inter-regional trade in elite exotic goods, which gave them legitimacy in the local struggle


86 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) for power, especially in making that power hereditary through links

Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1)

for power, especially in making that power hereditary through links with the supernatural. Gradually the local elites would become ‘Olmecized’, imitating Olmec art and culture, but never losing their local identity. Flannery cleverly drew upon an ethnohistoric example of the cultural influ- ence of the Tlingit of the Canadian west coast on their inland Athabaskan neighbors to illustrate his case. Mary Helms later elaborated and developed the idea that foreign goods have special powers in local competitions for power in a lengthy comparative study (Helms, 1988). Flannery’s attack on the Olmec mother culture model and the various scenarios of Olmec conquest was startlingly original, in that it asked why people might have wanted Olmec-style objects, rather than how they could have been spread, broadcast, or imposed on people. He posed the possi- bility of willing imitation through market participation (as in modern consumer culture), rather than the epidemic spread of style through ruthless empire, conquest, or conversion. His solution suggests that when you find stylistic similarity, or even the same exact goods in two places, there may not be simple domination or incorporation, but an internal dynamic that drives external contact. What looks, therefore, like a flood of foreign influence leading to the rise of local social complexity may in fact be just the opposite – an indigenous and local growth of social complexity that leads to an immediate demand for foreign symbols, goods and ideolo- gies. Inspired by Flannery’s article, I spent most of a year in graduate school writing a paper applying his model to the flood of Chinese cultural influ- ence into Japan during the eighth and ninth centuries AD. Flannery was actually describing a special case of a general principle described much earlier by the sociologist and historian George Simmel. In 1904, Simmel published an article called ‘Fashion’, in which he states:

in addition to the element of imitation the element of demarcation constitutes an important factor of fashion. This is especially notable wherever the social structure does not include any super-imposed groups, in which case fashion asserts itself in neighboring groups. Among primitive peoples we often find that closely connected groups living under exactly similar conditions develop sharply differentiated fashions, by which means each group establishes uniformity within, as well as differences without the

prescribed set. On the other hand, there exists a wide-spread predilection for importing fashions from without and such fashions assume a greater value

within the circle, simply because they do not originate there

matter of fact the exotic origin of fashions seems to strongly favor the exclusiveness of the groups which adopt them. (Simmel, 1904: 141)

Simmel defines fashion as a system that thrives on inclusion and exclusion, uniformity and differentiation. The dynamism of fashion emerges from social games when people seek to imitate some ‘others’ and to be different from and superior to ‘other others’. Fashion is about being both similar and different at the same time – and as people strive to change their social positions, fashions change. Because he thought that there was little social

As a


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca















Figure 1

and commoners in each location and between elites in the two locations

A diagram of a basic fashion system, where flow is between elites


differentiation among what he called primitive peoples, he did not think nonwestern people had fashion systems, but he does note the fashion-like aspect of primitive money and he describes the power of imported fashions in local hierarchies of value. Simmel and Flannery are describing the same kind of phenomenon, a basic kind of fashion system where local social competition drives impor- tation of objects, ideas and practices from elsewhere and the development of local copies and variations of imports by lower ranking local competi- tors, as shown in Figure 1. (Other, more complex fashion systems can also be defined; fashions can flow from commoners to elites, or between commoner groups in different places.) Through time, one would expect that the local elites become more like the elites they emulate and admire; they are Olmecized, but do not ever become Olmec. In fact, for this system to operate it is not even necessary, eventually, for there to be a group of real Olmec at the center, since the objects that circulate are made by the various local elites, who can keep the system going on their own (Flannery and Marcus, 2000).


Good ideas have a way of resurfacing in new and distant contexts. Several years ago, I co-edited a book about the contemporary florescence of beauty


88 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) pageants in different cultures around the world, as the form

Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1)

pageants in different cultures around the world, as the form of the pageant has spread outwards from its origins at the hands of Phineas T. Barnum in 1854 (Cohen et al., 1995). Pageants are just one excellent example of a common set of issues that face anthropologists trying to understand what is now called ‘globalization’ (Wilk, 1995a). One of the central controversies among anthropologists and others looking at the relationship between local cultures and new global forms of governance, media and commodification is over the idea of cultural imperialism. To simplify a long and complex argument, on one hand we have proponents of global cultural imperialism who see globalization as a process of centralization (Tomlinson, 1991), or even ‘McDonaldization’ (Ritzer, 1996). The new global culture will be a uniform consumer culture, domi- nated by large multinational corporations, concentrated capital in ‘world cities’ and a few powerful northern countries; a ‘McWorld’ to use Barber’s (1995) term. On the other hand is the argument that instead of centraliza- tion, the current trend is towards regionalization, fundamentalism, cultural fragmentation and the proliferation of blended and mixed identities, multi- culturalism, migration and ‘hybridities’ (Featherstone, 1990; Foster, 1991). For some, the world is becoming an increasingly uniform and homogeneous place, with a clearer center and periphery, while for others a brief period of modern order is falling rapidly into postmodern chaos and a welter of new hyphenated and sub-identities (Friedman, 1994). Most sociocultural anthropologists in the age of Boas were true believ- ers in the idea of cultural imperialism and saw it as the great enemy of cultural diversity. Their mission was to save or at least document cultures before they were bulldozed under or absorbed by an onrushing tide of missionaries and Coca-Cola. Today, however, we have mostly lost our fear that our research subjects are about to disappear for good and instead we celebrate the ability of local people to resist, adapt to and eventually localize and indigenize foreign objects, images and ideas that flow through markets, televisions and schools. Watson (1997), for example, published an edited collection that shows how McDonalds restaurants have been absorbed and localized differently in East Asian countries and Tobin (1992) shows how innumerable foreign objects and practices from baseball to tango have been absorbed into Japanese culture without destroying or threatening Japanese identity. There is something gratifying about this kind of David-beats-Goliath story and it gives us hope for the future. It certainly makes me feel better when I go back to the Kekchi villages I worked in 24 years ago and find that most of the rainforest is gone and everyone is running around on motorbikes, speaking English and watching the same programs I see at home on television. In many parts of the world it is now commonplace to hear anthropologists say that what appears to be globalization is really just the local appropriation of foreign goods, styles, ideas and culture. In other


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


words, we have adopted Flannery’s argument about the Olmec! What looks like empire or conquest is really the appropriation of a foreign symbolic system and material culture into a very local cultural and political dynamic. It may look like they are being conquered by Olmecs, but they are really just using Olmec masks in their own local and regional affairs. Of course, the key question is, how far do you have to go before you can actually become or pass for Olmec?


If local appropriation was really all that was going on in the process of globalization, sociocultural anthropology could go on very much the way it always has. Local culture would just constantly reassert itself and anthro- pologists would never run out of villages. The common metaphor of ‘idols behind altars’ (Brenner, 1929) used in Mesoamerica to describe the conti- nuity in native cultures behind a superficial modern façade makes just this argument. The dramatic changes of the present can be ignored, because underneath there is an unbroken continuity to the past maintained by the timeless spirituality of native religion. 4 There is too much evidence to the contrary, showing that the kinds of local cultural identities we see today are self-conscious, political and reflex- ive, in ways that are quite distinct from the colonial world of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries. The current period of globalization is marked instead by contradictory trends of unification and fragmentation in economic, social and cultural systems. On one hand there is greater unifor- mity, homogenization and centralization, for example in mass media, sports and investment banking. On the other hand nation-states are fragmenting, indigenous movements are growing and rich and poor parts of the world are diverging rather than converging. What anthropologists have great trouble articulating is the way that cultures can become both more connected with one another, share more material culture, yet be more distinctive and self-consciously different at the same time. How can homogenization and differentiation, creolization and purification, be going on simultaneously, when they seem to be opposite principles? Unfortu- nately, this argument often devolves into a sterile debate about which trend is more ‘real’ and which one is just an illusion or a temporary counter-trend. When I began to work with beauty pageants in Belize, I encountered exactly this debate, both among intellectuals and the organizers of and spec- tators at the pageants. At a global scale you have two giant mega-struc- tures, Miss Universe® Inc. owned by Donald Trump and NBC (who also own Miss USA® and Miss Teen USA®), and Miss World® Inc. (also Miss America®) owned by Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, which


90 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) includes Fox Entertainment. Each of these pageants reaches a global

Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1)

includes Fox Entertainment. Each of these pageants reaches a global media audience of over two billion people and has franchise holders in more than 150 countries. They control national pageants through an elaborate set of contracts and rules that specify the physical, social and moral qualities of all contestants. For many critics, beauty pageantry is just another form of Euro-American neo-colonialism that commoditizes and essentializes women, promotes a Western ideal of physical beauty in many places where it can never be realized and gives poor people only an illusion of real participation in a global sorority where all nations are on an equal footing. Instead of real diversity, it presents 5 foot, 7 inch cloned Barbies in expen- sive costumes as role models. In Belize, I mostly heard this ‘hegemony’ critique of beauty pageants from foreign residents, conservative church people and a few foreign- educated intellectuals. Most Belizeans on the contrary did not seem to resent the fact that there was little chance that Miss Belize was ever going to win Miss World or Miss Universe, just as they never expected to see a Belizean athlete winning a gold medal at the Olympics. This did not in any way stop them from thoroughly enjoying (and arguing about and criticizing) a plethora of local pageants that continue to proliferate in amazing diver- sity. When I studied the history of pageantry in Belize, I found that, from their start in 1946, the pageants were deeply involved in local politics and ethnic rivalry, so there had been multiple and contending pageants from the very beginning and often conflict over who was the legitimate Miss Belize. By 1990 when I did my fieldwork, in a country with only 15 towns of over 1000 people, there were hundreds of beauty pageants a year. They included ethnic contests (Miss Garifuna, Miss PanAmericana), commercial ones (Miss Tourism, Miss Citrus) and those based on sporting events (Miss Cycling), age divisions (Mrs Senior Belize, Miss Belize Pre-Teen), physical size (Ms Big and Beautiful), as well as the conventional ones based in schools, villages, cities and districts. Each had its own unique qualities, which made them in some way very Belizean, though they also retain the basic foreign form of the pageant. They feature local musicians performing foreign songs, local dresses made from imported materials following models in foreign fashion magazines and foreign-educated judges. Here we have the Olmec problem in a contemporary form, with the same central question at the end; how much does the spread of a cultural form tell us about cultural similarity and difference, hierarchy and power? My solution to this puzzle has been to try to unpack the idea of beauty that is being used by the players, both in the pageants and in the debates about the pageants (Wilk, 1995a, b). Before you can enter a beauty pageant, there has to be some agreement about what beauty means. Even a smattering of ethnology shows that there is no such thing as a cross-culturally universal concept of beauty. The Kekchi people I worked with, like the Navajo, had


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


no word that translated as ‘female aesthetic beauty’, or even ‘visual beauty’. In some cultures, beauty is a spiritual concept, not a visual one, or it may be a quality of old age and experience rather than youth, or of fierceness and power. In some cultures, like the famous WoDaaBe of Niger, men, not women, are the objects of aesthetic appreciation. The idea of a beauty contest cannot be translated without an elaborate explanation and people still might not understand what you really mean by it, or why you would do such a thing. Thus, before you can have a contest over who is more beautiful, you need some degree of agreement about who and what constitutes beauty and how it can be judged. Two cultures with completely incompatible and untranslatable ideas can only look at each other and evaluate each other according to their own standards. To a Kekchi, a white person looks pale and bloated, like a chicken without feathers; at first they probably did not look human at all. Similarly, at first contact, many Europeans wondered if Amerindians were actually human. There can be no competition without a common understanding of the limits, terms and rewards of the game. Before you can have a Western beauty contest you have to take all of the globally diverse and alien ideas of beauty and flatten them out to a limited number of named dimensions and essentialize them as ‘natural’ aspects of women and youth. Euro-Americans emphasize visual beauty, especially of the face and hair enhanced by cosmetics and of course the sexual qualities of a woman’s body as revealed and concealed artfully by clothing. Only by accepting that these are indeed the characteristics of the category ‘beauty’ can you enter into a contest over the content of the category. In the process, though, you have to discard all the other dimen- sions of beauty, such as wisdom, intelligence, age, spirituality, etc. This kind of framing through a common idiom is actually a specific instance of a general process that I have called common difference. Two cultures that do not share a common idiom cannot compete; they cannot enter into any of those fascinating forms of gift-giving and economic exchange characterized so well by Douglas and Isherwood (1979) as ‘tour- naments of value’. What, to me, is a perfectly normal hat may, to you, be so alien it is even hard to visualize or see and would certainly not be desir- able or valuable. This is why, when first contacts took place in the Pacific, island people rarely found very much on European ships that they wanted (Thomas, 1991). The objects did not fall into recognizable categories of valuables; they might as well have been Olmec pots or Dali etchings. The world is full of institutions, often hierarchical ones, that create common difference by providing standards and terminology that allow disparate groups to compare themselves along a common set of dimensions. It is not hard to think of organized sports, cookbooks, a population census, or even a kinship typology as systems that make contests or comparison intelligible, by narrowing and selecting the dimensions of difference. The


92 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) framework of common difference can indeed spread through processes like

Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1)

framework of common difference can indeed spread through processes like those called ‘cultural imperialism’, while the same framework provides (or even demands) locally specific content. Pageants therefore do not make Americans and Belizeans the same; the pageantry system does not operate hegemonically by making everyone in the world look American or European. In fact the very attraction of the international pageants requires that the contestants from the various coun- tries look different from one another in ways that are emblematic of their national origins, within the common framework of female beauty. The pageant promotes and thrives on difference of a particular and restricted kind, much as modern tourism and other cultural markets thrive on cultural difference, exoticism, tribalism and new identities. The pageant is no more than a system that narrows (and domesticates) differences into a common set of dimensions, standardizing and translating them so they are widely intelligible. In the process, of course, other kinds of difference are suppressed and eliminated, so it becomes unthinkable to have men and women on the same stage competing with each other, for example, or people of different ages, or couples, or women with no makeup and mastec- tomy scars, or women who have had children. But at the same time, the pageant makes it possible for everyone to participate in the contest and share in the possibility of winning, providing a visible form of categorical equality. The common possibility of winning means that there really is a kind of structural equality among all members, which explains some of the eager- ness of even very small, poor, or marginal nations (like Tibet and East Timor) to participate with their own expensive national franchise. During the last 30 years, many small developing countries have pursued the possi- bility of winning one of the major contests as well and this raises the question of power within the global system. When Miss Jamaica became Miss Universe, some Jamaicans claimed a victory for all black people, in breaking the firm grip that white people held on international beauty stan- dards up to that time. There were similar bursts of rhetoric around the recent global victories of Miss India and Miss South Africa. In one sense these are transforming global beauty culture. Today you do see many more models of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds and cosmetics are now made for a much broader range of skin and hair colors and textures. The content of the category of beauty has changed, but the dimensions have not. The specification of what is meant by beauty and the huge business that defines and feeds it has not changed very much at all. As a business, cosmet- ics, fashion and other beauty products have become one of the fastest growing sectors in developing and poor countries, expanding at a far faster rate than other industries (Burke, 1997). In a regime of common difference, there are two kinds of power. 5 At one level you can compete and win the contest and wear the crown and


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


carry the scepter (or collect the biggest piece of jade, or stand on the big stone head). The other kind of power works behind the scenes to set the rules of competition, defines who can compete and what the stakes will be (or read the glyphs, or decide who can play the sacred ball game). Both types of power are real and both have value, but one acts within a set of categories that are defined and controlled by the other. This is the story that I brought back from my work with beauty pageantry in Belize:

pageants have indeed been locally appropriated and ‘Belizeanated’ and they have allowed Belizeans to act on a global stage, but in the process Belizeans have accepted a narrowed and commoditized idea of beauty. In the long run, I think this has helped make them economically more depen- dent on the USA for consumer products of all kinds and certainly less culturally creative when it comes to alternative ideas of what beauty could be. However, beauty salons are the most successful independent small busi- nesses for female entrepreneurs in Belize, enabling many to survive and some to escape from poverty. Now there is also a small and growing export and tourist trade in ‘natural rainforest’ beauty products made from local ingredients.


My argument to this point has paralleled Flannery’s. We should expect conquest and true colonialism to lead to a very different kind of consump- tion pattern from that which we find in a system of common difference. Instead of little Olmec colonies in Oaxaca, we find local groups who are in various ways engaging in competitive ‘Olmecing’. The idea of common difference can present an alternative way of thinking about these situations that does not force us to answer the question ‘were they really Olmec?’ since that was exactly the issue that kept the system going and gave it dynamism for so many centuries. Legitimacy was at stake and could not be determined by any simple presence or absence of traits. Common difference may also help rethink the internal dynamics of ancient cultures whose uniformity has been relatively undisputed for far too long. Even an easily recognizable ancient civilization like ‘the classic Maya’ can be seen as a very complex entity that varied over time and space, with both tremendous coherence and great differentiation. It has always been a matter of choice whether to emphasize coherence and uniformity or fragmentation and disunity, since one can find evidence for both in

different artifacts and styles at any period. Perhaps what we call ‘Maya’ was

a system of common difference that allowed a large number of quite

disparate and varied peoples to compete with each other and participate in

a single arena. This might help explain why, for example, some perfectly


94 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) prosperous areas used ‘Mayan’ pottery and lived in ‘Mayan’ houses,

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prosperous areas used ‘Mayan’ pottery and lived in ‘Mayan’ houses, but did not build big temples or carve monuments; they did not compete at that level. The concept of common difference provides one way to find order in what is otherwise a welter of contradictions. If the elites in Oaxaca are trying to look and act ‘Olmec’, they may certainly achieve their local goals, but it does not necessarily mean that they gain the power to define Olmec. The ‘Olmec’ art style was clearly a common arena of competition over large parts of Mesoamerica, with many diverse players. As with any system of common difference, though, some groups had more power to define what Olmec art was and they had institutional channels for judging it, deciding what met the standards and what did not. It is likely that the actual groups that controlled the arena and the rules – the showroom – changed several times over the approximately 650 years the style lasted. It would not be surprising if there were two contending Olmec styles at some times (e.g. Miss Universe – Miss World, National League – American League, USA – USSR), or times when the whole system broke down into chaos before re- forming under new management. One could also imagine various kinds of hierarchy within structures of common difference. In the USA in the 1950s through to the late 1980s, most country and state pageants were part of an hierarchical ‘feeder’ structure managed by universities, Rotary Clubs and other civic organizations, all leading up to the Miss America pageant. At each level, this puts pressure on pageant organizers to suppress local stan- dards, in hope of choosing a contestant who can win at the next higher level, leading to greater overall uniformity in the contestants (Deford, 1971). Clearly, these speculations could go on, but the main point here has been made. What we think of as ‘cultures’ or ‘civilizations’ both in the present and in the past might be better thought of as ‘arenas’ or even ‘circuits’ of often linguistically and culturally disparate groups of people who partici- pate in one or more structures of common difference. From the point of view of an external observer, the participants appear to be both converg- ing and becoming more alike in some dimensions and diverging or main- taining degrees of difference in other dimensions. That is not to say that all historical periods have been dominated by common difference; of course there were conquest states that imposed uniformity in administration and public architecture and confederacies that may not have had any kind of common difference. Longstanding empires such as Rome or the Ottomans actually did create large areas of cultural uniformity. My goal here has been to provide archaeologists with another tool in the intellectual project of understanding uniformity and difference in the archaeological record. The next step might be to pursue specific ethno- graphic analogies for systems of common difference that might resemble those of the formative horizon styles like Olmec and Chavin. This may not be fruitful, however, since it is quite possible that the ethnographic record


Miss Universe, the Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca


contains nothing like these ancient widespread systems, for they would have been very unlikely to survive even the earliest impacts of colonial expansion. We might instead look to the archaeological evidence of public spaces and the disposition of artifacts and monuments for clues to the kinds of performances and settings where common difference could be displayed and assessed. While the very detailed ‘backstage’ work of common differ- ence may have taken place in very private settings, for such a system to work there must also be public display, leaving a record that may still be waiting for a new interpretation.


Anne Pyburn has been my intellectual partner on this project at every step to the point where I really cannot separate my ideas from hers. She is entirely responsible for showing me how to bring the idea of common difference to bear on archaeo- logical issues, but cannot be blamed if I have done a poor job of it, since I wrote the article myself. I also thank Fulbright and Wenner-Gren for supporting my work on beauty pageants, Bill Rathje for inspiring me to think about the Olmec in creative ways since he has always done so much of it himself and Howard Winters for starting me off in the right direction.


1 Eggan, Kroeber and other archaeologically minded anthropologists of the American Southwest did work hard to connect modern named Dine and Puebloan groups back to archaeological sites, relating ethnohistory and legend to archaeological findings. But it was never clear if their taxonomic units were lineages, extended families, cults, political splinters, or cultural sub-groups. The question of boundaries was certainly contentious for colonial period anthropologists, but mainly as a political rather than theoretical issue. Anthropologists knew the boundaries were artificial and wrongly placed, but they were not in a position to challenge the idea that cultural boundaries always exist.

2 Failing a thorough bibliographic essay on the history of recent sociocultural anthropology, I will just touch on a few of what I see as the key sources in rethinking the primal nature of indigenous groups. One of the earliest arguments was made by Frank (1967) in an essay on Indians in the Americas. Other important pieces of the argument appear in Fabian (1983), Fried (1975), Kuper (1988), Said (1978) and Wolf (1982) and give a general discussion of the way sociocultural anthropologists constructed primitive society as an ideal type. Thomas (1994) is a useful source on the culture of colonial administration. In the text, I use the Belizean spelling ‘Kekchi’ instead of the Guatemalan Q’eqchi’.

3 The voluminous literature on the Olmec is summarized ably by Grove (1997) and this synthesis is attacked with acid humor by Flannery and Marcus (2000).


96 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) working in Mesoamerica who do not see indigenous people through

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working in Mesoamerica who do not see indigenous people through any lens except the traditional past (Cook, 2000), despite clear arguments about the perils of doing so (Hervik, 1999). The inability of anthropologists to recognize that local identities do persist in modern globalization has led to a situation where many indigenous peoples now have to tell anthropologists, with varying degrees of politeness, that they do not need to be protected, or documented, or treated like ‘disappearing remnants’ any longer.

5 The two dimensions of power here are precisely those defined by Frederick Bailey (1969).


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Brenner, A. (1929) Idols Behind Altars. New York: Harcourt, Brace. Burke, T. (1997) Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press. Clifford, J. and G. Marcus, eds (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cohen, C., R. Wilk and B. Stoeltje, eds (1995) Beauty on the Global Stage: Pageants and Power. New York: Routledge. Cook, G.W. (2000) Renewing the Maya World: Expressive Culture in a Highland Town. Austin: University of Texas Press. Deford, F. (1971) There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. New York:

Viking. Douglas, M. and B. Isherwood (1979) The World of Goods. New York: Basic. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1940) The Nuer. New York: Oxford University Press. Fabian, J. (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press. Feathersone, M., ed. (1990) Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity. London: Sage. Flannery, K. and J. Marcus (2000) ‘Formative Mexican Chiefdoms and the Myth of the “Mother Culture” ’, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 19: 1–37. Flannery, Kent V. (1968) ‘The Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca: A Model for Inter- Regional Interaction in Formative Times’, in E. Benson (ed.) Proceedings of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec, pp. 79–117. Washington, DC: Dumb- arton Oaks. Foster, R. (1991) ‘Making National Cultures in the Global Ecumene’, Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 235–60. Frank, A.G. (1967) Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America. New York:

Monthly Review Press.


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Fried, M.H. (1975) The Notion of Tribe. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings. Friedman, J. (1994) Cultural Identity and Global Process. London: Sage. Grove, D. (1997) ‘Olmec Archaeology: A Half Century of Research and Its Accom- plishments’, Journal of World Prehistory 11(1): 51–101. Helms, M. (1988) Ulysses’ Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge and Geographical Distance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Hervik, P. (1999) Mayan People Within and Beyond Boundaries: Social Categories and Lived Identity in Yucatan. London: Routledge. Hobsbawm, E. and T. Ranger, eds (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press. Hodder, I. (1982) Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kuper, A. (1988) The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge. Porter, M. (1953) ‘Tlatilco and the Pre-Classic Cultures of the New World’, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology 19. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Ritzer, G. (1996) The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge. Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. Simmel, G. (1904) ‘Fashion’, International Quarterly 10(1): 130–55. Thomas, N. (1991) Entangled Objects. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Thomas, N. (1994) Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Tobin, J., ed. (1992) Re-Made in Japan. New Haven: Yale University Press. Tomlinson, J. (1991) Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Watson, James L., ed. (1997) Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Weaver, M.P. (1967) ‘Tlapacoya Pottery in the Museum Collection’, Indian Notes and Monographs, Miscellaneous Series 56. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. Wilk, R. (1995a) ‘The Local and the Global in the Political Economy of Beauty:

From Miss Belize to Miss World’, Review of International Political Economy 2(1): 117–34. Wilk, R. (1995b) ‘Learning to Be Local in Belize: Global Systems of Common Difference’, in D. Miller (ed.) Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local, pp. 110–33. London: Routledge. Wilk, R. (1997) Household Ecology: Economic Change and Domestic Life Among the Kekchi Maya of Belize. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. Wilk, R. (1998) ‘Emulation, Imitation and Global Consumerism’, Organization and Environment 11(3): 314–33. Wilk, R. (1999) ‘Whose Forest? Whose Land? Whose Ruins? Ethics and Conser- vation’, Science and Engineering Ethics 5(3): 367–74. Wolf, E. (1982) Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of Cali- fornia Press. Wolff, J. (1997) ‘The Global and the Specific: Reconciling Conflicting Theories of Culture’, in A. King (ed.) Culture, Globalization and the World System, pp. 161–73. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


98 Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1) RICHARD WILK is a professor in the Department of Anthropology

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RICHARD WILK is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. He has done research with Mayan people in the rain- forest of Belize, in West African markets and in the wilds of suburban Cali- fornia. He has published on topics as diverse as beauty pageants, household organization, power and decision-making, economic anthro- pology and the effects of television on culture. Most of his recent work concerns the global environmental impact of mass consumer culture, gender and consumer culture, and the history of the global food system. He is now working on a book about gender and the origin of consumer culture. His most recent publication is The Anthropology of Media, co- edited with Kelly Askew (Blackwell, 2002). [email:]