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Course Spotlight

About the Instructor

Howard Tsai is a lecturer at the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies. He received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan specializing in the archaeology and prehistory of Andean South America. His research examines the interaction of ethnic groups in the river valleys of the Andes Mountains. He is the director of the Las Varas Archaeological Project, which investigated ethnic interaction at an 11th-century village located in the Middle Jequetepeque Valley, Peru. The results of his excavation at Las Varas will be published by the University of Alabama Press.

Tell me about the history of developing your course on the archaeology of Mexico and Peru

The inspiration behind this course initially came from my dissertation advisor, Dr. Joyce Marcus (UM Anthropology). In 2012 Dr. Lenny Ureña, LACS assistant director, approached me to see if I was interested in teaching a course on the archaeology of Latin America; I consulted Professor Marcus and she suggested that I cover not only the Incas and Aztecs, but also that crucial moment straddling archaeology and history—the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. I was trained as an archaeologist and my expertise was on prehispanic periods, so learning about early colonial society was a real eye opener for me. Much of the assumed common knowledge about the Incas or Aztecs in fact came from Spanish sources at the moment of contact or, more specifically, after the dust of conquest had settled.

In developing this course I had the wonderful opportunity of collaborating with various research units and facilities around campus. My deepest gratitude goes to the Museum of Anthropology, my major benefactor in providing my class with access to artifacts from Peru and Mexico. The importance and joy of utilizing these materials for teaching are impossible to describe. Students get to see artifacts right in front of them, out of the museum display case, and that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I am extremely grateful for the help I received from the staff members of the Hatcher Map Library (Tim and Karl), Clements Historical Library (Brian), and the 3D Lab (Shawn and Ted); I cannot give them enough thanks. Years spent teaching this class have introduced me to such amazing resources on campus like 16th-century maps, letters, and books, and a cutting-edge 3D Lab engaged in various 3D printing, scanning, and virtual reality projects. Students taking this class will discover these hidden gems of the university.

What are the principal learning objectives in this course?

The goal of this course is to familiarize students with the cultures of the Incas and Aztecs, the native empires of Peru and Mexico encountered by Spanish conquerors around the 16th century. Since these societies did not possess writing, we rely largely on Spanish records and research by archaeologists and anthropologists to understand native ideologies and cosmologies. We use analytic tools from disciplines ranging from history, anthropology, to archaeology. Since no single source or line of evidence is perfect, we must combine them to arrive at the best explanation of events or processes. Every era has its own version of fake news, so I want students to acquire the critical thinking skills that will help them resolve or at least gain a deeper understanding of contradictory historical accounts.

An overarching theme of this class is media, or the means by which information is transferred. We need to think deeply about how we transmit knowledge  and how that affects our thinking and way of life. For example, students are surprised to learn that the Incas and Aztecs did not develop a true writing system, even though they were perfectly fine running large empires. It is we who have writing that constitute a strange society. Humans as a species have evolved and survived for hundreds of thousands of year relying solely on speech, song, dance, ritual, and craft.

How often is this course offered?

This course is offered in the summer semester. It is a 7-week class starting in late June and ending in mid-August.

What are the practical applications of the 3D lab's technology to the fields of history and archaeology?

The practical applications of 3D technology are twofold: (1) research/fieldwork and (2) education/dissemination. Not only can we 3D scan objects like artifacts, we can also 3D scan what archaeologists call “features,” or ephemeral things in the ground that we simply can’t bag and take away. This would include remnants of houses like postholes and walls, trenches or pits dug by prehistoric people, a campfire used for cooking, etc. Paleontologists have now 3D scanned dinosaur footprints, and this is great because it’s a non-destructive method of copying a footprint, whereas the traditional method of using plaster casts can slightly erode away the footprint in the soil. So in the rare case that we find ancient human foot- or handprints in a prehistoric house (and there are famous examples), wouldn’t it be neat to scan those imprints in the field, upload them to the cloud, and, copyright permitting, freely distribute them online

Who should take this course?

Students who are not afraid of a bit of intellectual romp and raucous. I tell the class that the seminar room is a time machine that will transport them to a distant land and time. The classroom itself, in fact (4009 Ruthven), is in an old, historic building—Ruthven Museum of Natural History—built in 1928. That same room was where some of the finest archaeologists in the world had been trained. So here students will learn about the Incas and Aztecs, see their artifacts, and imagine a different way of life. If you enjoy this kind of intellectual adventure, then this course is for you.

In terms of requirements and prerequisites, this course fulfills the LSA social science distribution and is suited for students of all majors. No prerequisites, and no background in history or archaeology is needed to take this course.

Do students need to have prior knowledge of Latin American history to take this course?

Not at all—students unfamiliar with Latin America are strongly encouraged to take this class. I teach this course like I’m promoting a tour package, a sales pitch I learned from Professor Christopher Donnan, with whom I took my first course on South American archaeology at UCLA. In class he repeatedly said that he expects every one of us, some day, to visit Peru, and he would list all the places we should see and all the foods we should try. So I’ve continued his tradition of telling students to go to Peru. In my class I divulge the secret locations of the best ceviche, chicha, and arroz chaufa, and students can see these places virtually with 3D glasses. Incas/Aztecs is a gateway course that will get you hooked on the wonderful sights and cultures of Latin America; you’ll travel there in hopes of kicking off the habit, only to relapse by taking more classes on the region and going back there time after time.