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absolute dating  A method of assigning archaeological dates in calendar years so that an age in actual number of years is known or can be estimated.
accelerator mass spectrometry  (AMS) A method of radiocarbon dating using an accelerator to count the individual isotopes of the carbon sample; advantages include small sample size, speed of counting, and accuracy.
Acheulean  A major archaeological culture of the Lower Paleolithic; named after the site of St. Acheul in France. A hallmark of the Acheulean is the handaxe.
achieved status  Social status and prestige attributed to an individual according to achievements or skills rather than inherited social position. See also ascribed status.
acropolis  (Greek, pl. acropoli) A raised complex of palaces and courtyards, especially in Mesoamerica and Greece.
Adena  A burial mound complex that developed in the Ohio River Valley toward the end of the last millennium b.c.
adobe  A mud mixture used to make sundried bricks for buildings in arid areas.
adze  A heavy, chisel-like tool.
alloying  A technique of combining or mixing two or more metals to make an entirely new metal; for example, mixing copper and tin creates bronze.
alpaca  A domesticated South American herbivore with long, soft wool.
altiplano  (Spanish) The high-altitude plain between the eastern and western ridges of the Andes in Peru.
Anasazi  One of three major cultural traditions of the American Southwest during late prehistoric times. The Anasazi were centered in the northern Southwest, on the high plateau of the Four Corners region.
ancient DNA  Genetic material preserved in archaeological remains of bones and plants that can be studied for information about past genetic relationships.
annealing  The process of heating and gradually cooling metal (or other materials) to reduce brittleness and enhance toughness.
anthropomorphic  Having human form or attributes.
archaeoastronomy  The study of ancient alignments and other aspects of the archaeological record and their relationship to ancient astronomical knowledge and events.
archaeology  The study of the human past, combining the themes of time and change.
archaeozoology  The study of animal remains from archaeological sites.
Archaic  The term used for the early Holocene in the New World, from approximately 6000 b.c. to 1500–1000 b.c.
artifact  Any object or item created or modified by human action.
ascribed status  Social status and prestige attributed to an individual at birth, regardless of ability or accomplishments. See also achieved status.
assemblage  The set of artifacts and other remains found on an archaeological site or within a specific level of a site.
association  The relationship between items in an archaeological site. Items in association are found close together and/or in the same layer or deposit. It is often used for dating purposes, because items found in association are assumed to be of the same age.
Atlantean column  A carved human figure serving as a decorative or supporting column, such as at the Mesoamerican site of Tula.
atlatl  A spearthrower, or wooden shaft, used to propel a spear or dart; first appeared in the Upper Paleolithic and also was used in precontact New World.
Australopithecus  The generic term for the various species of the genus Australopithecines, including A. ramidus, A. afarensis, and A. africanus.
bajo  (Spanish) A broad, flat, clay-lined depression in the Maya lowlands that fills with water during the rainy season.
ball court  An I-shaped or oval prehispanic structure, found throughout Mesoamerica and the southwestern United States, that was the site of ritual ballgames.
Bandkeramik  An archaeological culture of the early Neolithic in central Europe, referring to the style of pottery: linear bands of incised designs on hemispherical bowls.
barrow  An earthen mound covering a burial; found in prehistoric Europe and Asia.
bas-relief  A type of sculptural relief in which the figures project slightly from the background.
bier  A stand on which a coffin or a corpse is placed.
bifacial  A flaked stone tool on which both faces or sides are retouched to make a thinner tool.
binary-coded  A system of information storage or processing in two states (such as 0 and 1). Computers pro-cess immense amounts of information through the manipulation of such sequences.
bioturbation  Activities of plants and animals in the earth, causing disturbance of archaeological materials.
bipedalism  The human method of locomotion, walking on two legs; one of the first human characteristics to distinguish the early hominids, as opposed to quadrupedalism, walking on four legs.
blade  A special kind of elongated flake with two parallel sides and a length at least twice the width of the piece. The regular manufacture of blades characterized the Upper Paleolithic, with an efficient way of producing mass quantities of cutting edge.
blank  A piece, also known as a preform, that can be made into several different shapes or forms, usually in stone or metal.
bonobo  A small species of chimpanzee, closely related to humans.
bow-drill  A device for perforating beads or other small objects, in which a bow is used to rotate the shaft of the bit.
brazier  An open pan or ceramic vessel used for holding hot coals.
breccia  The accumulated materials from cave deposits that harden into a conglomerate rock, including sediments, rocks, and animal bones.
bronze  Amixture of copper and tin or arsenic to make a hard, durable metal.
brow ridge  That part of the skull above the eye orbits. This ridge of bone was particularly pronounced in the early hominids, when cranial capacity was less and the forehead absent or sloping. Brow ridges are largely absent in Homo sapiens sapiens.
bulla  (Latin, pl. bullae) A hollow clay sphere or envelope used to enclose clay tokens in ancient Mesopotamia.
burin  A stone tool with right-angle edges used for planing and engraving.
cacao  A bean of the cacao tree, native to Mesoamerica; used to make chocolate. Cacao beans also were used as money by the Aztecs.
cache  A collection of artifacts, often buried or associated with constructed features, that has been deliberately stored for future use.
calibrated dates  Dates resulting from the process of calibration, the correction of radiocarbon years to calendar years, by means of a curve or formula derived from the comparison of radiocarbon dates and tree rings from the bristlecone pine. Calibration extends approximately 6000 years into the past.
camelid  A ruminant mammal—such as camel, llama, and extinct related forms—having long legs and two toes.
cannibalism  The practice of eating human flesh.
carnelian  A red or reddish variety of chalcedony (a translucent variety of quartz) used in jewelry.
cayman  A tropical South American alligator.
celt  An implement shaped like a chisel or an axe; may be made of stone or metal.
cenotaph  A grave that does not contain a skeleton.
cenote  The Maya word for a sinkhole, a natural well in the Yucatán that provides water for drinking and bathing.
chac mool  (Maya) A life-size stone figure in a reclining position, with flexed legs and head raised and turned to one side. Chac mools served as altars and were often placed in temple doorways to receive offerings.
charnel house  A house in which the bodies of the dead are placed.
chert  A dull-colored, subtranslucent rock resembling flint that was often used for making flaked stone tools.
chicha  A South American beer made from maize.
Chichimec  A term loosely applied to the peoples who lived beyond the northern limits of Mesoamerica; nomadic people, considered to be uncivilized barbarians.
chinampa  (Spanish) An agricultural field created by swamp drainage or landfill operations along the edges of lakes. This intensive form of agriculture was especially prevalent in the Basin of Mexico but also was used elsewhere in the central highlands of Mexico.
chlorite  Akind of green stone that resembles mica.
circumscription  The process or act of being enclosed by either environmental boundaries, such as mountains, oceans, and rivers, or social boundaries, such as neighboring groups of people.
citadel  A hilltop fortress, the characteristic settlement of the ruling elite of Mycenaean civilization, 1700–1100 b.c.
Clactonian  A term used for assemblages from the Lower Paleolithic, lacking handaxes and characterized by large flakes with heavy retouching and notches.
class  A relationship of inequality between members of society in which status is determined by membership in a level or class. The caste system in India is a prime example.
cleaver  A companion tool of the Acheulean handaxe. Cleavers have a broad leading edge, whereas handaxes come to a point.
Clovis  An archaeological culture during the Paleoindian period in North America, defined by a distinctive type of fluted point; named for the original find spot near Clovis, New Mexico.
coca  A native Andean shrub whose dried leaves are chewed as stimulants.
codex  (Latin, pl. codices) A hand-painted book on bark paper or animal skins folded like a screen. In Mesoamerica, codices, which record historical, religious, and tribute information, were made both before and after the Spanish conquest.
comal  (Spanish) A flat, ceramic griddle used for cooking tortillas.
conquistador  (Spanish) A conqueror; refers to the Spanish explorers who conquered Mexico in the early 1500s and also ventured into the southern United States.
coprolite  Fossilized feces.
cord-marking  A decorative technique in Jomon Japan and elsewhere, in which cord or string is wrapped around a paddle and pressed against an unfired clay vessel, leaving the twisted mark of the cord.
core  The stone from which other pieces or flakes are removed. Core tools are shaped by the removal of flakes.
cosmology  The worldview of a group or society, encompassing their understanding of the universe, their origins and existence, and nature.
craft specialists  (or craft specialization) Individuals involved in part- or full-time activities devoted to the production of a specific class of goods, often highly valued. Examples include metalsmiths, potters, and bead makers.
cultigen  A cultivated plant.
cultivation  The human manipulation or fostering of a plant species (often wild) to enhance or ensure production, involving such techniques as clearing fields, preparing soil, weeding, protecting plants from animals, and providing water to produce a crop.
cultural resource management  The survey and/or excavation of archaeological and historical remains threatened by construction and development.
culture  A uniquely human means of nonbiological adaptation; a repertoire of learned behaviors for coping with the physical and social environments.
cuneiform  A writing system of ancient Mesopotamia involving a series of wedge-shaped marks to convey a message or text.
cutmark  A trace left on bone by a stone or metal tool used in butchering a carcass; one of the primary forms of evidence for meateating by early hominins.
Cyclopean  A term describing the huge stone walls of Mycenaean tombs and fortresses; from Cyclops, the mythical giant.
danzante  (Spanish) Dancer; a life-size carving of a captive or a prisoner of war depicted in bas-relief on stone slabs at San José Mogote and Monte Albán, Oaxaca.
débitage  A term referring to all the pieces of shatter and flakes produced and not used when stone tools are made.
dendrochronology  The study of the annual growth rings of trees as a dating technique to build chronologies.
dolmen  A generic term for a megalithic tomb or chamber with a roof.
domestication  The taming of wild plants and animals by humans. Plants are farmed and become dependent on humans for propagation; animals are herded and often become dependent on their human caretakers for food and protection.
dryopithecine  The generic term for the Miocene fossil ancestor of both the living apes and modern humans, found in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
ecofact  Any of the remains of plants, animals, sediments, or other unmodified materials that result from human activity.
economy  The management and organization of the affairs of a group, a community, or an establishment to ensure their survival and productivity.
edge hypothesis  The theory that the need for more food was initially felt at the margins of the natural habitat of the ancestors of domesticated plants and animals; a revised version of the population pressure hypothesis about the origins of agriculture.
effigy  A representation or image of a person or an animal.
egalitarian  A term that refers to societies lacking clearly defined status differences between individuals, except for those due to sex, age, or skill. See also hierarchical.
E group  An arrangement of buildings designed to mark the position of the rising sun during important solar events, such as equinoxes and solstices, in Mesoamerica.
El Niño  (Spanish) A warm-water countercurrent that periodically appears off the Peruvian coast, usually soon after Christmas, and alters the normal patterns of water temperature, flow, and salinity. These changes diminish the availability of nutrients to marine life, causing large schools of fish and flocks of seabirds to either migrate or die.
emblem glyph  A set of Maya hieroglyphs; generally, each emblem glyph is specific to a given Classic Maya city. Although most Maya epigraphers agree that emblem glyphs have a geographic referent, they do not agree on whether such glyphs stand for a place or for the royal family that ruled the place.
empire  A union of dispersed territories, colonies, states, and unrelated peoples under one sovereign rule.
endocast  A copy or cast of the inside of a skull, reflecting the general shape and arrangement of the brain and its various parts.
epigraphy  The study of inscriptions.
epiphysis  The end of a long bone in humans and other mammals that hardens and attaches to the shaft of the bone with age.
epoch  A subdivision of geological time, millions of years long, representing units of eras.
equinox  A time when the sun crosses the plane of the equator, making the night and the day the same length all over the earth, occurring about March 21 and September 22.
era  A major division of geological time, tens or hundreds of millions of years long, usually distinguished by significant changes in the plant and animal kingdoms; also used to denote later archaeological periods, such as the prehistoric era.
estrus  The cycle of female sexual receptivity in many species of animals.
estuary  A low area along a coast where the wide mouth of a river meets the sea and the waters of the two mix.
ethnocentrism  Evaluating other groups or societies by standards that are relevant to the observer’s culture.
ethnography  The study of human cultures through firsthand observation.
ethnohistory  The study of ancient (often non-Western) cultures using evidence from documentary sources and oral traditions, and often supplemented with archaeological data. Traditionally, ethnohistorians have been concerned with the early history of the New World, the time of European contact, and later settlement and colonization by Europeans.
evolution  The process of change over time resulting from shifting conditions of the physical and cultural environments, involving mechanisms of mutation and natural selection. Human biology and culture evolved during the Late Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene.
excavation  The exposure and recording of buried materials from the past.
extrasomatic  Literally, "outside the body"; nonbiological, nongenetic.
facade  The face, or front, of a building.
feature  An immovable structure or layer, pit, or post in the ground having archaeological significance.
Fertile Crescent  An upland zone in Southwest Asia that runs from the Levant to the Zagros Mountains, with adequate rainfall and many wild species that were domesticated.
fieldwork  The search for archaeological sites in the landscape through surveys and excavations.
flake  A type of stone artifact produced by removing a piece from a core through chipping.
flint  A fine-grained, crystalline stone that fractures in a regular pattern, producing sharp-edged flakes; highly prized and extensively used for making flaked stone tools.
flintknapping  The process of making chipped stone artifacts; the striking of stone with a hard or soft hammer.
floodwater farming  A method of farming that recovers floodwater and diverts it to selected fields to supplement the water supply.
flotation  A technique for the recovery of plant remains from archaeological sites. Sediments or pit contents are poured into water or heavy liquid; the lighter, carbonized plant remains float to the top for recovery, while the heavier sediments and other materials fall to the bottom.
fluted point  The characteristic artifact of the Paleoindian period in North America. Several varieties of fluted points were used for hunting large game. The flute refers to a large channel flake removed from both sides of the base of the point to facilitate hafting.
Folsom  An archaeological culture during the Paleoindian period in North America, defined by a distinctive type of fluted point and found primarily in the Great Plains.
fossil  The mineralized bone of an extinct animal. Most bones associated with humans in the Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene are too young to have been mineralized, but the term fossil skull or fossil bone is often used generically in those cases as well.
frieze  A decorative band or feature, commonly ornamented with sculpture, usually near the top of a wall.
galena  A common heavy mineral that is the principal ore of lead.
gallery grave  A megalithic tomb lacking an entrance passage; the burial room or rooms form the entire internal structure. Gallery graves are found in Neolithic western Europe.
gazelle  One of several species of small to medium swift and graceful antelopes native to Asia and Africa.
geoglyph  Ground markings, such as the lines and life-form representations found in the Nazca desert.
geomorphic  Having the form or attributes of surface features of the earth or other celestial bodies.
glacial  A cold episode of the Pleistocene, in contrast to a warmer interglacial period; also called an ice age. The classic European sequence of the Günz, Mindel, Riss, and Würm glacials has recently been revised, with the recognition of a large number of cold/warm oscillations in the Pleistocene.
glaciation  The expansion of continental glacial ice during a period of cold climate.
glume  The tough seed cover of many cereal kernels. In the process of the domestication of wheat, the tough glume becomes more brittle, making threshing easier.
glyph  (Greek) A carving; a drawn symbol in a writing system that may stand for a syllable, a sound, an idea, a word, or a combination of these. See also emblem glyph.
gorget  A circular ornament, flat or convex on one side and concave on the other, usually worn over the chest.
grave goods  The items that are placed in graves to accompany the deceased.
ground-penetrating radar  (GPR or georadar) An instrument for remote sensing or prospecting for buried structures using radar maps of subsoil features.
guano  Bird excrement.
half-life  A measure of the rate of decay in radioactive materials; half the radioactive material will disappear within the period of one half-life.
hammerstone  A stone used to knock flakes from cores.
handaxe  A large, teardrop-shaped stone tool bifacially flaked to a point at one end and a broader base at the other. The characteristic artifact of the Lower Paleolithic; for general-purpose use that continued into the Middle Paleolithic.
handedness  Preferential use of the right or the left hand; related to the organization of the brain in two hemispheres.
hard-hammer technique  A flintknapping technique for making stone tools by striking one stone, or core, with another stone, or hammer. See also soft-hammer technique.
hematite  A common heavy mineral that is the principal ore of iron.
hemp  A tall annual plant whose tough fibers are used to make coarse fabrics and ropes.
henge  A monument defined by the presence of an enclosure, usually made by a circular ditch and bank system, up to 500 m in diameter. Henges were erected during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age in western Europe.
hierarchical  A term referring to societies that have a graded order of inequality in ranks, statuses, or decision makers. See also egalitarian.
hieroglyph  Originally, the pictographic script of ancient Egypt; any depictive, art-related system of writing, such as that of Mesoamerica; also may refer to an individual symbol.
Hohokam  One of three major cultural traditions of the American Southwest during late prehistoric times. The Hohokam were centered in the deserts of southern Arizona.
hominid  A term that refers to the human members of the primates, both fossil and modern forms.
hominin  A term that refers to the human, chimp, and gorilla members of the primates, both fossil and modern forms.
hominoid  A descriptive term for any human or ape, past or present, characterized by teeth shape, the absence of a tail, and swinging arms.
Hominoidea  The taxonomic group (family) that includes the human and ape members of the primates, both fossil and modern forms.
Hopewell Interaction Sphere  A complex trade network involving goods and information that connected distinct local populations in the midwestern United States from approximately 100 b.c. to approximately a.d. 400.
horizon  A widely distributed set of cultural traits and artifact assemblages whose distribution and chronology suggest they spread rapidly. A horizon is often composed of artifacts associated with a shared symbolic or ritual system.
huaca  (Quechua) An Andean word for pyramid.
hunter-gatherer  A hunter of large wild animals and gatherer of wild plants, seafood, and small animals, as opposed to farmers and food producers. Hunting and gathering characterized the human subsistence pattern before the domestication of plants and animals and the spread of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers are also known as foragers.
hyoid bone  A delicate bone in the neck that anchors the tongue muscles in the throat.
iconography  The study of artistic representations or icons that usually have religious or ceremonial significance.
ideograph  A written symbol that represents an abstract idea rather than the sound of a word. See also pictograph.
ideology  A conceptual framework by which people structure their ideas about the order of the universe, their place in that universe, and their relationships among themselves and with objects and other forms of life around them.
incensario  (Spanish) An incense burner made of pottery and sometimes stone, used in Mesoamerican religious and political ceremonies.
inflorescence  The flowering part of a plant.
intaglio  An engraving in stone or other hard material that is depressed below the suface; an impression of the design produces an image in relief.
interglacial  A warm period of the Pleistocene, in contrast to a colder period called a glacial.
isotope  One of several atomic states of an element; for example, carbon occurs as 12C, 13C, and 14C, also known as carbon-14 or radiocarbon.
isotopic technique  A method for absolute dating that relies on known rates of decay in radioactive isotopes, especially carbon, potassium, and uranium.
jasper  A high-quality flint, often highly colored; often used as a raw material for the manufacture of stone tools, beads, and other ornaments.
jet  A compact, black coal that can be highly polished; used to make beads, jewelry, and other decorative objects.
Jomon  The archaeological culture of late Pleistocene and early Holocene Japan; primarily associated with groups of hunter-gatherers, but recent evidence suggests that these groups were practicing some rice cultivation.
jujube  A small, edible fruit from an Asian tree of the buckthorn family. The fruit has one seed in the center, somewhat like a cherry.
kiln  A furnace or oven for baking or drying objects, especially for firing pottery.
kiva  A semisubterranean ceremonial room found at sites throughout the American Southwest.
krater  A large metal vessel for mixing and storing wine, traded over a large part of Europe during the Iron Age.
lactational amenorrhea  The suppression of ovulation and menstruation during breast-feeding.
laguna  (Spanish) Lagoon; a man-made depression in Mesoamerica that may have begun as a borrow pit for the construction of an earthen mound. Lagunas were often lined with waterproof bentonite blocks and may have been used for ritual bathing.
lake dwelling  Former name for Early Neolithic lakeshore settlements originally thought to have been built over the water.
lapidary  Of or related to the practice of working or cutting precious or semiprecious stone.
lapis lazuli  A semiprecious stone of deep blue; used and traded widely in antiquity in the form of beads, pendants, and inlay.
lateralization  The division of the human brain into two halves. One side controls language; the other regulates perception and motor skills.
Levallois  A technique for manufacturing large, thin flakes or points from a carefully prepared core; first used during the Lower Paleolithic and remaining common during the Middle Paleolithic. The method wasted flint and was generally not used in areas of scarce raw materials.
Levant  A mountainous region paralleling the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, including parts of the countries of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.
lintel  A horizontal beam of wood or stone that supports the wall above a doorway or window.
lithic  Pertaining to stone or rock.
llama  A woolly South American camelid; used as a beast of burden.
locomotion  A method of animal movement, such as bipedalism.
loess  Wind-blown silt deposited in deep layers in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
lomas  (Spanish) Vegetation that is supported by fog in otherwise arid environments.
Long Count  The Classic Maya system of dating that records the total number of days elapsed from an initial date in the distant past (3114 b.c.). The system is based on multiples of 20 beginning with the kin (1 day), uinal (20 kins or 20 days), tun (18 uinals or 360 days), katun (20 tuns or 7200 days), and baktun (20 katuns or 144,000 days).
longhouse  A wooden structure that is considerably longer than it is wide that served as a communal dwelling, especially among native North Americans in the Northeast and on the Northwest Coast.
lost wax casting  A technique for casting metal in which a sand or clay casing is formed around a wax sculpture; molten metal is poured into the casing, melting the wax. The cooling metal takes on the shape of the "lost" wax sculpture preserved on the casing.
macaw  Any of several varieties of parrots from Mexico and Central and South America that were prized for their colorful feathers.
magnetite  A black iron oxide that can be polished to a lustrous surface.
maguey  Any of several species of arid-environment plants with fleshy leaves that conserve moisture. The fiber and needles of magueys were used to make rope and clothing in Mesoamerica and the southwestern United States.
mano  The hand-held part of a stone-milling assembly for grinding maize or other foods.
marketing  An exchange system that frequently involves currencies and generally extends beyond close kinsmen and a small group of trading partners. Market participants try to minimize their costs and maximize their returns to make a profit.
megalith  A large stone monument.
menhir  A large, standing stone, found either alone or collectively in lines.
Mesoamerica  The region consisting of central and southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and the western parts of Honduras and Nicaragua that was the focus of complex, hierarchical states at the time of Spanish contact. The people of this area shared a basic set of cultural conventions. Also called Middle America.
Mesolithic  The period of time of hunter-gatherers in Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia between the end of the Pleistocene and the introduction of farming; the Middle Stone Age.
Mesopotamia  The flat plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq where the world’s first civilization developed.
mesquite  A tree or shrub of the southwestern United States and Mexico whose beanlike pods are rich in sugar.
metallurgy  The art of separating metals from their ores.
metate  The stone basin, often trough-shaped, or lower part of a stone-milling assembly for grinding maize or other foods.
mica  Acolored or transparent mineral silicate that readily separates into very thin sheets. Mica was carved to make ornaments and crushed as an inclusion to clay in the fabrication of pottery.
microband  A small family group of hunter-gatherers.
midden  An accumulated pile of trash and waste materials near a dwelling or in other areas of an archaeological site.
Milankovitch forcing  A term describing the phenomenon considered to be the prime reason for glacial fluctuations and climatic change. Changing factors are the distance between the earth and the sun and the tilt of the earth’s axis, which play major roles in the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, atmospheric temperature, and the expansion and retreat of continental glaciation. The cyclical nature of variation in these factors was recognized by Yugoslavian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch.
millennium  A period of 1000 years.
Mississippian  The collective name applied to the societies that inhabited portions of the eastern United States from approximately a.d. 700 to approximately a.d. 1600. Mississippian peoples practiced an agricultural way of life, constructed earthen platform mounds, and shared certain basic cultural conventions.
mit’a system  A means of tribute in prehispanic Andean South America that involved the use of conscripted laborers to complete discrete organizational tasks.
mitmaq  A system of colonization used by the Inca to minimize provincial rebellion by moving people around to break up dissident groups.
mitochondrial DNA  Genetic material in the mitochondria of human cells that mutates at a relatively constant rate. Because mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, it provides an unaltered link to past generations.
Mogollon  One of three major cultural traditions of the American Southwest during late prehistoric times. The Mogollon were centered in the mountainous areas of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.
monochrome  One color; describing pottery decorated with only one color that contrasts with the underlying color of the paste of the vessel.
montaña  (Spanish) Mountain, specifically referring to the wet, tropical slopes of the Amazonian Andes.
mortar  A bowl-shaped grinding tool, used with a wood or stone pestle for grinding various materials.
motif  A recurring thematic design element in an art style.
Mousterian  A term describing the stone tool assemblages of the Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic, named after the site of Le Moustier in France. See also Acheulean.
multivallate  A term describing complex defenses of multiple ditches and ramparts at large Iron Age hillforts.
mural art  One of the two major categories of Paleolithic art, along with portable art. Mural art consists of painting, engraving, and sculpting on the walls of the caves, shelters, and cliffs of southwestern Europe; one of the hallmarks of the Upper Paleolithic.
m.y.a.  Abbreviation for millions of years ago.
natural habitat hypothesis  The theory about the origins of agriculture associated with Robert Braidwood, suggesting that the earliest domesticates appeared in the area that their wild ancestors inhabited.
necropolis (Greek)  Cemetery.
Neolithic  The period of time of early farmers with domesticated plants and animals, polished stone tools, permanent villages, and often pottery; the New Stone Age.
net-sinker  A small weight attached to fishing nets.
nome  A geographic province incorporated within the ancient Egyptian state.
oasis hypothesis  The theory about the origins of agriculture associated with V. Gordon Childe and others, suggesting that domestication began as a symbiotic relationship between humans, plants, and animals at oases during the desiccation of Southwest Asia at the end of the Pleistocene.
obsidian  Translucent, gray to black or green, glasslike rock from molten sand; produces extremely sharp edges when fractured and was highly valued for making stone tools.
occipital bun  A distinctive shelf or protrusion at the base of the skull; a feature usually associated with Neanderthals.
Oldowan  The name given to the assemblages of early pebble tools and flakes belonging to the Basal Paleolithic, derived from Olduvai.
Olmec  The Aztec name for the late prehispanic inhabitants of the Gulf Coast region of Mexico. This term has been extended by archaeologists to describe the sites, monuments, and art found in the same region during the Formative period. Aspects of this art style and related motifs had a wider distribution across Mesoamerica during the Early and Middle Formative periods (1150–700 b.c.). This broader distribution is called the Olmec Horizon.
oppidum  A massive fortification in western Europe, often on a hilltop or a bluff, built for defensive purposes during the Iron Age; described in some detail and often conquered by the Romans.
optical emission spectroscopy  A technique used in the analysis of the elemental composition of artifacts. Material is heated to a high temperature, causing its electrons to release light of a particular wavelength, depending on the elements.
oracle bone  An animal bone with cracks (due to heating) or other markings, used to foretell the future.
organization  The arrangements between individuals and groups in human society that structure relationships and activities.
oxygen isotope ratio  The ratio of different isotopes of oxygen in ocean water, varying with the temperature of the water; measured in seashells and used as an indicator of temperature change over time.
paleoanthropology  The branch of anthropology that combines archaeology and physical anthropology to study the biological and behavioral remains of the early hominids.
paleoethnobotany  The study of plant remains from archaeological sites.
Paleoindian  The period of large-game hunters in North America at the end of the Pleistocene. Paleoindian remains are characterized by the presence of fluted points and frequently the bones of extinct animals.
Paleolithic  The first period of human prehistory, extending from the time of the first tools, more than 2.5 m.y.a., until the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago. Characterized by the use of flaked stone tools, it is also known as the Old Stone Age.
palisade  A fence of posts or stakes erected around a settlement for defensive purposes.
panpipe  A wind instrument consisting of bound sets of short pipes in graduated lengths.
pantheon  The officially recognized gods of a people.
papyrus  A tall marsh plant, or reed, of the Nile Valley that the ancient Egyptians cut into strips and pressed into a kind of paper to write on.
Paranthropus  Genus of early hominins, contemporary with Australopithecus, that includes boisei and robustus as species.
passage grave  A megalithic tomb entered via a long, low, narrow passage that opens into a wider room, generally near the center of the structure.
pastoralist  An animal herder. Pastoralism is a subsistence strategy generally associated with a mobile lifeway.
patrilocal  Describing a residence pattern in which married couples live with or near the husband’s family.
pectoral  A large ornament worn across the chest, especially for defensive purposes.
percussion flaking  A technique for producing stone artifacts by striking or knapping crystalline stone with a hard or soft hammer. See also pressure flaking.
petroglyph  A drawing that has been carved into rock.
petty state  A small, socially stratified political unit prevalent in Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest. Similar political formations have been found in other regions as well.
phonetic  Pertaining to the sounds of speech.
photomicrograph  A photograph of a microscopic object, taken through a microscope.
pictograph  A written or painted symbol that more or less portrays the represented object. See also ideograph.
pipal tree  A species of fig tree on the South Asian subcontinent that has had sacred significance for many cultures and religions throughout the region for thousands of years.
pithos  A large clay storage jar.
pithouse  A prehistoric semisubterranean dwelling in which the lower parts of the walls are the earthen sides of a shallow pit; the top parts of the walls often consisted of a framework of poles intertwined with small twigs, covered with mud.
Plio/Pleistocene  A term used to describe the time between the appearance of the earliest hominids during the Pliocene and the beginning of the Pleistocene.
pochteca  A privileged, hereditary guild of long-distance Aztec traders.
polychrome  Multicolored; describing pottery that has been decorated with three or more colors.
polygynous  Having more than one mate.
population pressure hypothesis  Lewis Binford’s theory that population increase in Southwest Asia upset the balance between people and food, forcing people to turn to agriculture as a way to produce more food.
porphyry  An igneous rock with visible quartz or feldspar crystals embedded in a finer-grained base.
portable art  One of the two major categories of Paleolithic art, along with mural art. Portable art includes all decorated materials that can be moved or carried; found throughout Europe and much of the Old World.
post mold  The circular remains, often just a dark stain in the soil, of a wooden post that formed part of the frame of a prehistoric structure; also called a posthole.
potassium-argon dating  See radiopotassium dating.
potlatch  A large feast among Northwest Coast Native Americans that included the display and dispersal of accumulated wealth to the assembled guests.
potsherd  A fragment of a clay vessel or object.
prehistory  In general, the human past; specifically, the time before the appearance of written records.
pressure flaking  A technique for producing stone artifacts by removing flakes from a stone core by pressing with a pointed implement. See also percussion flaking.
primate  The order of animals that includes lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and humans; characterized by grasping hands, flexible limbs, and a highly developed sense of vision.
pueblo  A stone-masonry complex of adjoining rooms found in the American Southwest.
puna  (Spanish) High grassland plateaus in the Peruvian Andes.
quern  A stone grinding surface for preparing grains and other plant foods and for grinding other materials.
quetzal  A bird native to the humid mountain forests of Mesoamerica, prized for its brilliant feathers.
quinoa  A pigweed (Chenopodium quinoa) of the high Andes. Seeds of the plant were ground and used as food in the past and still are today.
quipu  The Inca word for an elaborate knotted string device used by the Inca and other peoples in Peru for record keeping. A quipu consists of a horizontal cord from which a series of smaller knotted strings hang. The placement, color, and nature of the knots on the cords convey numbers and other information.
rachis  The stem that holds seeds to the stalk in wheat and other plants; changes from brittle to tough when wheat is domesticated.
radiocarbon dating  An absolute dating technique based on the principle of decay of the radioactive isotope of carbon, 14Carbon; used to date archaeological materials within the past 40,000 years.
radiopotassium  An absolute dating technique based on the principle of decay of the radioactive isotope of potassium, 40K; used to date materials ranging in age from 500,000 years old to the age of the oldest rocks in the universe. Also called potassium-argon dating.
ramon  ramón- A tree that grows abundantly in the tropical forests of the Maya Lowlands and bears an edible fruit; also called breadnut.
rank  A relationship of inequality between members of society in which status is determined by kinship relations of birth order and lineage.
reciprocity  The exchange of goods between known participants, involving simple barter and face-to-face exchanges.
redistribution  The accumulation and dispersal of goods through a centralized agency, individual, or institution.
red ochre  An iron mineral that occurs in nature; used by prehistoric peoples in powdered form as a pigment for tanning animal skins; often found in burials from the late Paleolithic and Mesolithic.
reducing atmosphere  The oxygen-deficient atmosphere that is achieved in kilns for baking pottery or smelting ores.
reduction technique  In archaeology, a manufacturing process involving the removal (as opposed to the addition) of materials from a core that becomes the finished product; includes techniques such as flintknapping and wood carving.
relative dating  A technique used to estimate the antiquity of archaeological materials, generally based on association with materials of known age or simply to say that one item is younger or older than another.
repousse  repoussé (French)- The process of forming a raised design on a thin sheet of metal by placing it over a mold and hammering it into place.
retouch  The shaping or sharpening of stone artifacts through percussion or pressure flaking.
rhizome  An edible, rootlike subterranean plant stem.
robust  "Big-boned," heavy, thick-walled skeletal tissue. Robust early hominins had very large teeth.
roof comb  An architectural feature, frequently carved with glyphs and figures, that is placed on the top of Mesoamerican temples.
sacbe  The Maya word for a raised causeway constructed of stone blocks and paved with gravel and plaster.
sarcophagus  A stone coffin, usually decorated with sculpture and/or inscriptions.
scapulimancy  The ancient practice of seeking knowledge by reading cracks on bones. Symbols were written on an animal’s scapula (shoulder blade); the bone was heated until a series of cracks formed; then diviners interpreted the pattern of cracking to foretell the future.
scepter  A staff or baton borne by a ruler as an emblem of his or her position and authority.
scheduling  The process of arranging the extraction of resources accord-ing to their availability and the demands of competing subsistence activities.
seasonality  The changing availability of resources according to the different seasons of the year.
sedentism  Living in permanent, year-round contexts, such as villages.
serpentine  A stone of dull green color that often has a mottled appearance.
setaria  A wild grass with edible seeds.
sexual dimorphism  A difference in size between the male and female members of a species; for example, male gorillas are significantly larger than females.
sexual division of labor  The cooperative relationship between the sexes in hunter-gatherer groups involving different male and female task activity.
shaduf  An Egyptian bucket-and-lever lifting device that enables one to raise water a few feet from a well or ditch onto fields and gardens.
shaft grave  A vertical tunnel cut into rock and holding the tombs of Mycenaean elite.
shaman  An anthropological term for a spiritualist, curer, or seer.
shattering  A natural mechanism of seed dispersal.
shell midden  A mound of shells accumulated from human collection, consumption, and disposal; a dump of shells from oysters, clams, mussels, or other species found along coasts and rivers, usually dating to the Holocene.
shicra  The Inca word for meshed bags containing rocks, used as fill in the construction of ancient Andean structures.
sickle  A tool for cutting the stalks of cereals, especially wheat. Prehistoric sickles were usually stone blades set in a wood or antler handle.
sickle polish  A clear polish that forms along the edges of flakes and blades that are used to cut reeds, grass, wheat, and other long-stemmed plants.
site  The accumulation of artifacts and/or ecofacts, representing a place where people lived or carried out certain activities.
slash and burn  A type of farming in which the ground is cleared by cutting and burning the vegetation on the spot. The burned vegetation serves as a natural fertilizer. The field is farmed until yields decrease; then it is allowed to lie fallow. Also called swidden farming.
slate  A fine-grained rock, with a dull, dark bluish-gray color, that tends to split along parallel cleavage planes, often producing thin plates or sheets.
soapstone  Asoft stone with a soapy feel that is easy to carve; often referred to as steatite.
social hypothesis  The theory that domestication allowed certain individuals to accumulate food surplus and to transform those foods into more valued items, such as rare stones or metals, and even social alliances.
sodality  An alliance or association among some members of a society, often based on age and sex, with a specific function. Sodalities can be ceremonial, political, or economic; examples include dance societies, warrior groups, sororities, clubs, and fraternal organizations.
soft-hammer technique  A percussion technique that involves the use of a hammer of bone, antler, or wood, rather than stone. See also hard-hammer technique.
solifluction  A phenomenon in which freezing and thawing of the ground results in slippage of the surface.
solstice  The time of year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator, occurring about June 21 and December 22.
sondage  (French) A test excavation or test pit made at an archaeological site to determine the content and/or the distribution of prehistoric materials.
Southern Cult  A network of interaction, exchange, and shared information present over much of the southeastern (and parts of the midwestern) United States from around a.d. 1200 until the early 1500s; also called the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.
spindle whorl  A cam or balance wheel on a shaft or spindle for spinning yarn or thread from wool, cotton, or other material; usually made of clay.
split inheritance  An Andean practice by which the successor to the throne inherited only the office of the dead ruler; his junior kinsmen received the lands, palace, and personal wealth of the dead ruler.
state  A form of government with an internally specialized and hierarchically organized decision-making apparatus. A state generally has three or more administrative levels.
status differentiation  Inequality in human society in which certain individuals or groups have access to more resources, power, and roles than others. Differentiation occurs through ranking of descent groups or the creation of classes of people.
steatite  Soapstone, a variety of talc with a soapy or greasy feel; often used to make containers or carved ornaments.
stela (Latin, pl. stelae)  An erect stone monument that is often carved.
stingray spine  Bony tail spines of stingrays that were used in the past to draw blood in human autosacrificial rites.
stirrup spout  A distinctive curving spout on pottery vessels that is shaped like the stirrup of a saddle; characteristic of Moche pottery.
stone boiling  The process of heating stones in a fire and then adding them to containers to boil water or cook other foods.
stratigraphic section  The excavation of trenches and squares across man-made layers to expose a cross section of the deposits and reveal the sequence and methods of construction.
stucco  A type of plaster, often made out of lime, used for decoration.
survey  A systematic search of the landscape for artifacts and sites on the ground through aerial photography, field walking, soil analysis, and geophysical prospecting.
sweat bath  Ahut or other space heated by steam that is created by pouring water over hot stones. Used by many peoples for ritual cleansing and therapeutic sweating.
talud tablero  talud-tablero (Spanish) An architectural style characteristic of Teotihuacan during the Classic period, in which recessed rectangular panels (the tablero) are separated by sloping aprons (the talud).
tampu  A roadside lodging and storage place (principally for food, fodder, firewood, and other commodities) along the Inca road system, placed roughly one day’s walk apart.
technology  The combination of knowledge and manufacturing techniques that enables people to convert raw materials into finished products.
tell  A mound composed of mud bricks and refuse, accumulated as a result of human activity. The mound of Jericho built up at a rate of roughly 26 cm (10 in) per 100 years, almost a foot a century.
temper  A nonplastic material (such as sand, shell, or fiber) that is added to clay to improve its workability and to reduce breakage during drying and firing.
temporal marker  A morphological type, such as a design motif on pottery or a particular type of stone tool, that has been shown to have a discrete and definable temporal range.
teosinte  (Aztec teocentli) A tall annual grass, native to Mexico and Central America, that is the closest relative of maize.
terracotta  A hard, brown-orange earthenware clay of fine quality, often used for architectural decorations, figurines, etc.
tholoi  Ancient Mesopotamian round structures that often were attached to a rectangular antechamber or annex, resulting in a keyhole shape. They may have been used as storage facilities or as religious features for the interment of important individuals.
tholos  A large, beehive-shaped tomb, constructed using the corbel arch technique, characteristic of the Mycenaean civilization of Greece.
tlachtli  The Aztec word for their ritual ballgame.
tool  Any equipment, weapon, or object made by humans to change their environment.
totem pole  A pole or post that has been carved and painted with totems or figures, such as animals, that serve as the emblems of clans or families. Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest often erected these poles in front of their houses.
transhumance  A pattern of seasonal movement usually associated with pastoralists who take their herds to the mountains in summer and to the valleys in winter; more generally, a regular pattern of seasonal movement by human groups.
trilithon  A massive stone lintel occurring in prehistoric structures, such as Stonehenge and the tholos tombs in Greece.
tuber  A fleshy, usually oblong or rounded outgrowth (such as the potato) of a subterranean stem or root of a plant.
tumpline  A strap that is passed over the forehead or the chest to facilitate the transportation of a heavy load carried on the back.
tzompantli  The Aztec word for skull rack. The Aztec and other Mesoamerican peoples often placed the skulls of sacrificial victims on a wooden pole or frame; in some cases, large blocks of stone were sculpted to look like skull racks.
unifacial  A term describing a flaked stone tool in which only one face or side is retouched to make a sharp edge.
vallum  ARoman wall-and-ditch fortification.
vault  An arched structure of masonry that forms a ceiling or roof. The construction of vaults with corbelled, or stepped, ceilings was a common building technique of the Maya.
wadi  Arabic- A dry streambed.
waranqa  A subdivision of the Inca empire that was used for administrative purposes, consisting of 1000 taxpayers.
wattle and daub  A building technique that uses a framework of poles, interspersed with smaller poles and twigs; the wooden frame is plastered with mud or a mud mixture.
were-jaguar  A representation of a supernatural figure that is half jaguar and half human, a common symbol in Preclassic Mesoamerica.
wet-site excavation  The technique of excavating waterlogged sites by pumping water through garden hoses to spray the dirt away and expose archaeological features and artifacts.
wheel-thrown pottery  Pottery that is made using the potter’s wheel.
woodhenge  A circular feature demarcated by large upright timbers; probably used by prehistoric groups as astronomical observatories.
ziggurat  A large pyramid in Mesopotamia consisting of many stepped levels.
zoomorphic  Having animal form or attributes.

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