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Jan Eisner Professor of Archaeology, Comenius University in Bratislava; Author, The Artificial Ape

Where once I would have striven to see Incan child sacrifice 'in their terms', I am increasingly committed to seeing it in ours. Where once I would have directed attention to understanding a past cosmology of equal validity to my own, I now feel the urgency to go beyond a culturally-attuned explanation and reveal cold sadism, deployed as a means of social control by a burgeoning imperial power.

In Cambridge at the end of the 70s, I began to be inculcated with the idea that understanding the internal logic and value system of a past culture was the best way to do archaeology and anthropology. The challenge was to achieve this through sensitivity to context, classification and symbolism. A pot was no longer just a pot, but a polyvalent signifier, with a range of case-sensitive meanings. A rubbish pit was no longer an unproblematic heap of trash, but a semiotic entity embodying concepts of contagion and purity, sacred and profane. A ritual killing was not to be judged bad, but as having validity within a different worldview.

Using such 'contextual' thinking, a lump of slag found in a 5000 BC female grave in Serbia was no longer seen as chance contaminant — bi-product garbage from making copper jewelry. Rather it was a kind of poetic statement bearing on the relationship between biological and cultural reproduction. Just as births in the Vin?a culture were attended by midwives who also delivered the warm but useless slab of afterbirth, so Vinca culture ore was heated in a clay furnace that gave birth to metal. From the furnace — known from many ethnographies to have projecting clay breasts and a graphically vulvic stoking opening — the smelters delivered technology's baby. With it came a warm but useless lump of slag. Thus the slag in a Vinca woman's grave, far from being accidental trash, hinted at a complex symbolism of gender, death and rebirth.

So far, so good: relativism worked as a way towards understanding that our industrial waste was not theirs, and their idea of how a woman should be appropriately buried not ours. But what happens when relativism says that our concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, are inherently inapplicable? Relativism self-consciously divests itself of a series of anthropocentric and anachronistic skins — modern, white, western, male-focused, individualist, scientific (or 'scientistic') — to say that the recognition of such value-concepts is radically unstable, the 'objective' outsider opinion a worthless myth.

My colleague Andy Wilson and our team have recently examined the hair of sacrificed children found on some of the high peaks of the Andes. Contrary to historic chronicles that claim that being ritually killed to join the mountain gods was an honour that the Incan rulers accorded only to their own privileged offspring, diachronic isotopic analyses along the scalp hairs of victims indicate that it was peasant children, who, twelve months before death, were given the outward trappings of high status and a much improved diet to make them acceptable offerings. Thus we see past the self-serving accounts of those of the indigenous elite who survived on into Spanish rule. We now understand that the central command in Cuzco engineered the high-visibility sacrifice of children drawn from newly subject populations. And we can guess that this was a means to social control during the massive, 'shock & awe' style imperial expansion southwards into what became Argentina.

But the relativists demur from this understanding, and have painted us as culturally insensitive, ignorant scientists (the last label a clear pejorative). For them, our isotope work is informative only as it reveals 'the inner fantasy life of, mostly, Euro-American archaeologists, who can't possibly access the inner cognitive/cultural life of those Others.' The capital 'O' is significant. Here we have what the journalist Julie Burchill mordantly unpacked as 'the ever-estimable Other' — the albatross that post-Enlightenment and, more importantly, post-colonial scholarship must wear round its neck as a sign of penance.

We need relativism as an aid to understanding past cultural logic, but it does not free us from a duty to discriminate morally and to understand that there are regularities in the negatives of human behaviour as well as in its positives. In this case, it seeks to ignore what Victor Nell has described as 'the historical and cross-cultural stability of the uses of cruelty for punishment, amusement, and social control.' By denying the basis for a consistent underlying algebra of positive and negative, yet consistently claiming the necessary rightness of the internal cultural conduct of 'the Other', relativism steps away from logic into incoherence.