Nathaniel Parker VanValkenburgh

Nathaniel Parker VanValkenburgh

Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (2012-2013)


Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Brown University


Andes; ceramic technology; GIS (information systems); archaeology; colonial architecture and urbanism; early modern; landscape


The core focus of my current research is the interface between imperial politics, landscape and domestic economy in late Prehispanic and early Spanish Colonial Peru. In the course of pursuing these interests, I have built methodological expertise in geographical information science and ceramic analysis, as well as a strong commitment to engaging archaeological scholarship with interdisciplinary social theory — particularly in political, historical, and ecological anthropology and cultural geography.

My doctoral dissertation (Harvard University, 2012), explored landscape transformations bridging the late Prehispanic and Spanish colonial occupations of the Zaña and Chamán valleys, in Peru’s North Coast region. Its central case study focused on how the Spanish Colonial reducción (reduction) movement transformed indigenous political subjectivities in the late 16th century. Initiated in 1572 C.E. by viceroy Francisco de Toledo, reducción sought to resettle over one million native people into planned towns over the course of a few short years and to transform them into “civilized” subjects of the Spanish crown. Yet despite being one of the largest waves of forced resettlement in human history, reducción has only been summarily treated in previous historical scholarship, and we know little about how its grand imperial aims were articulated and contested at local scales, by subjects, institutions, and arrays of landesque capital. I have sought to demonstrate archaeology’s potential for demonstrating how reducción and similar state planning projects take shape (and loose ground) in social and material life.

In 2008, I started the Proyecto Arqueológico Zaña Colonial to pursue these objectives. Over the course of two archaeological field seasons and several sustained periods of archival research, I led a pedestrian survey of 150 km2 of the Zaña and Chamán valleys, excavations at three reducción sites, geophysical survey (GPR and magnetometry), and documentary research in Peru and Spain. Through analysis of the resulting data in GIS — patterns of site clustering and distribution; relationships between sites and major landscape features such as canals, rivers, and roads; and statistical analysis of demographic data and its relationship to settlement patterns — I found that reduccion’s impacts on native settlement and political affiliation were heavily influenced by its unanticipated demographic and environmental consequences. On the one hand, Spanish misreading of the landscape and placement of reducción villages in marginal environments led to successive waves of site abandonment and undermined the goals of permanent resettlement. On the other hand, indigenous demographic decline closed the door on a return to previously disperse modes of settlement. As regional population rapidly decreased, native communities found that they had to collaborate across longstanding ethnic and political divisions to maintain subsistence infrastructure – namely, irrigation canals and agricultural fields. In turn, these new solidarities worked to congeal the somewhat arbitrary political units into which the viceregal government had resettled them, and indigenous peoples’ collective petitions to protect land and water rights worked to inscribe them as legal subjects of the viceroyalty. Tragically, then, indigenous agency became one of the fundamental vehicles through which the goals of colonial resettlement were realized among native populations.

Through this exploration of the dense and dynamic connections between human lifeways, demography, urban planning, political power, and subjectivity, I have become heavily invested in developing new, integrative approaches to the study of archaeological landscapes. Following recent contributions to the archaeology of political life, I understand landscapes as fields that mediate political relationships. However, I believe that so-called “political landscape approaches” have underplayed the role that the landscape’s stubborn materiality plays in shaping processes of subject formation. The story of reducción in Zaña/Chamán has led me to believe that the study of political landscapes benefits greatly from approaches that draw both on the interpretive sophistication of political anthropology and cultural geography and the analytical potential of GIScience.

Beyond resettling populations on a regional scale, reducción was a fractal phenomenon that sought to perform similar processes of ordering at the scale of settlements and houses. To understand these additional dimensions of the resettlement process, I initiated a second stage of research in the lower Zaña valley in 2012, focused on extensive horizontal excavations at two adjacent domestic occupations at the site of Carrizales – one, a late Prehispanic fishing village; the other, the reducción into which its residents were forcibly resettled in the late 16th century. With support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and National Geographic Society, excavations over our first two seasons allowed us to reconstruct the floor plans of quincha (wattle-and-daub) structures, to create a site-level GIS built around three-dimensional models of house structures (created using low altitude aerial photography and photogrammetry), and to carry out substantial analysis of zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical remains from house floors and middens. Architectural layouts indicate that houses were smaller and increasingly compartmentalized following resettlement, but that they retained essential elements of their earlier organization. At the same time, food remains (particularly marine species) demonstrate a drastic drop in species presence and diversity and a marked increase in economic plants demanded of local populations in Spanish tributary records. My colleagues and I interpret these patterns as indices of native peoples’ strategic responses to declining labor availability, increasing tributary demands, and the changing temporality of life under Spanish colonial rule. With support from a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant, we conducted a final field season in 2015 focusing on domestic structures in both site sectors and additional work around the colonial church, followed by an extensive laboratory season in 2016.

In addition to forming the focus of several research papers, the results of both stages of the Proyecto Arqueológico Zaña Colonial form the core study of a monograph entitled Building Subjects: the Archaeology of Reducción and Forced Urbanism, under contract with teh University of Arizona press. In this volume, I explore the reducción movement’s philosophical precedents as well as its linkages to 20th and 21st century projects in “green governmentality” — e.g., the so-called “sustainable rural cities” of Chiapas, Mexico and the Chinese government’s “converting pastures to grasslands” program in Tibet. As the Proyecto Arqueológico Zaña looks to its end date in 2016, I am also laying the groundwork for new archaeological survey and excavation projects, including a collaboration with my colleague Abel Traslaviña, focused on the Inka and colonial period site of Nieve Nieve, in the Lurín valley of Peru.

Finally, in addition to my work in landscape archaeology, I am also actively conducting collaborative research with colleagues Sarah Kelloway and Karen Privat (of the University of New South Wales, Australia) on ceramic technology in colonial Peru, through light microscopy, INAA, LA-ICP-MS and refiring studies of glazed ceramics.

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Book Manuscript

  • Building Subjects: the Archaeology of Reducción and Forced Urbanism (under contract, University of Arizona Press)

Edited Volumes

  • Traslaviña, T. A., Chase, Z., VanValkenburgh, P. and J.M.B. Weaver, eds. in press (2017). Arqueología Histórica en el Perú. Boletin de Arqueología PUCP.
  • Osborne, James F. and Parker VanValkenburgh, eds. 2013. Territoriality in Archaeology. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 22. Washington, D.C.


  • VanValkenburgh, Parker. 2017. “Historias galonadas: la genealogía de reducción, paisaje y población en los valles de Zaña y Chamán, Perú,” en Saito, Akira y Claudia Rosas Lauro, eds. Las reducciones indígenas en debate: su impacto en los dominios de la monarquía hispánica. Lima: Fondo Editorial PUCP. Pp. 223-260.
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker. 2017. Unsettling Time: Persistence and Memory in Spanish Colonial Peru. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
  • Sobotkova, A., Ross, S., Ballsun-Stanton, B., Fairbairn, A., Thompson, J., & VanValkenburgh, P. 2017. Measure twice, cut once: cooperative deployment of a generalised, archaeology-specific field data collection system. In E. W. Averett, J. M. Gordon, & D. B. Counts (Eds.), Mobilizing the Past: Recent Approaches to Archaeological Fieldwork in the Digital Age: University of North Dakota Digital Press in conjunction with Mukurtu 2.0 (Center for Digital Archaeology).
  • Kennedy, Sarah and Parker VanValkenburgh. 2016. “Zooarchaeology and Changing Food Practices at Carrizales, Peru.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology.
  • Kelloway, Sarah J., Ferguson, Timothy Iñañez, Javier G., VanValkenburgh, Parker, Roush, Cody C., Gibbs, Martin, and Michael D. Glascock. 2015. “Sherds on the Edge: Characterisation of 16th Century Colonial Spanish Pottery Recovered from the Solomon Islands.” Archaeometry 
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker, Kelloway, Sarah, Laure Dussubieux, Quilter, Jeffrey, and Michael Glascock. 2015. “The Production and Circulation of Indigenous Lead-Glazed Ceramics in Northern Peru During Spanish Colonial Times.” Journal of Archaeological Science 61: 172-185
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker, Chester P. Walker, and Jennie O. Sturm. 2014. “Gradiometer and Ground-Penetrating Radar Survey of two Reducción Settlements in the Zaña Valley, Peru” Archaeological Prospection.
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker.  2013. “Creolization, Hybridity and Mestizaje: A Comment.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 28: 301-322.
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker and James F. Osborne. 2013. “Home Turf: Archaeology, Territoriality, and Politics.” Territoriality in Archaeology, ed. Osborne, James F. and Parker VanValkenburgh, eds. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 22: 1-27.
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker, Carol Rojas Vega and Rocío Torres Mora. 2013. “Arqueología Histórica en los Valles de Zaña y Chamán.” Revista Argumentos, año 7, n° 3. Lima: IEP.

Articles in Press

  • VanValkenburgh, Parker. in press. “Consumption and Commerce at Magdalena de Cao Through the Lens of Ceramic Analysis,” in Jeffrey Quilter, ed. Magdalena de Cao: An Early Colonial Town in Northern Peru. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press.
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker, Kennedy, Sarah, Rojas Vega, Carol and Gabriel Hassler. in press. “El Contrato del Mar: Colonial Life and Maritime Subsistence at Carrizales, Zaña Valley, Peru.”, Gabriel and Daniel Sandweiss, eds. Maritime Communities of the Ancient Andes. Gainseville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  • VanValkenburgh, Parker. in press. “Construyendo a Chérrepe: reducción, etnía y performance en los valles de Zaña y Chamán, siglos 16 y 17,” en Traslaviña, T. A., Chase, Z.  VanValkenburgh, P. and J.M.B. Weaver. Arqueología Histórica en el Perú. Lima: PUCP.

Book Reviews

  • 2014. The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, ed. Jeb J. Card. American Antiquity 79(4): 802-803.
  • 2014. Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes by Jeremy Mumford (Duke, 2012) and Negotiated Settlements: Andean Communities and Landscapes under Inka and Spanish Colonialism by Steven Wernke (Florida 2013). Colonial Latin American Review 23(2): 280-294
  • 2012. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross, by William Hanks. Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 351-353.
  • 2008. Heads of State: Icons, Power and Politics in the Ancient and Modern Andes, by Denise Arnold and Christine Hastorf.

Ph.D., Harvard University

M.S., University of London

M.Phil, University of Cambridge

B.A., Stanford University