• j.oliver@ucl.ac.uk
  • Direct: +44 (0)20 7679 1524
  • Internal: 21524
  • Room 104
  • UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY UK

José R. Oliver

Research Interests

  • Caribbean Pre-Columbian and early European contact period history (archaeology, ethnohistory and historical linguistics)
  • South American topical lowland Amerindian history (archaeology, ethnohistory, linguistics and ethnography)
  • Epistemology and Theories of Chiefdom or ‘Middle Range’ Polities (Americas & Pacific)
  • Development and evolution of subsistenceeconomies of South America and the Caribbean
  • The materiality and networks of political-religious power (Amazonia and the Circum-Caribbean)
  • Regional and Long-distance trade economy&exchange networks
  • Ethnogenesis

Current Research

The Cotúa Island Reflexive Archaeology Project
This four-year project focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island, a pre-Columbian trade centerlocated in the Middle Orinoco River. Available archaeological evidence suggests that traders from diverse and distant regions interacted at Cotúa Island over the course of two millennia before European colonization. However, the specific characteristics of this interaction and the role it played in regional pre-Columbian ethnogenesis are not yet well understood. The project thus aims to develop the requisite evidence and gain new insights about regional pre-Columbian history and ethnogenesis through an archaeological research process (reflexive archaeology) that involves interaction with and participation of the aborigines of this region.

Research Directory Records


  • Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (IVIC), República Bolivariana de Venezuela
    The Cotúa Island Reflexive Archaeology Project is conducted with the institutional collaboration of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC). Dr Lilliam Arvelo (PhD, University of Pittsburgh), a Research Associate in Archaeology at the Centre of Anthropology and Head of the Archaeology Laboratory-IVIC and archaeologist Dr Rafael Gassón (PhD, University of Pittsburgh), currently Dean of the Center for Advanced Studies (IVIC), will contribute their expertise in Venezuelan archaeology and Heritage and also assist in the supervision of MA-level students from Venezuela who will participate in the archaeology field-school to be conducted jointly by the project and the Center for Advanced Studies of the IVIC. Drs Arevlo and Gassón are also Honorary Research Associates at the Institute of Archaeology.
  • Other Collaborations
    Dr Jaime Pagán-Jiménez (INPC, Ecuador) contributes a study of starch residues to furnish direct evidence of plant food processing. Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres (IoA-UCL) collaborates in the compositional and provenience studies of colonial period metal artefacts. Professor Mark Maslin (Geography-UCL) collaborates in the study of palaeoecological evidence suggestive of the human impact on the local environment. Dr Patrick Quinn (IoA-UCL) will assist in the studies related to manufacturing technology of the archaeological pottery (ceramic petrography).


  • Distinguished Alumni (April, 2015); awarded by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

Educational Background

  • BA (1977) in Anthropology Miami University at Oxford, Ohio
  • MA (1981) & PhD (1989) in Anthropology, the University of Illinois at Urabana-Champaign
  • Ford Foundation Post-doctoral Fellow at Yale University, New Haven

Current Students

Complete PhD Students

  • Isabel Rivera-Collazo Between land and Sea: Mid - Holocene Maritime Hunter-Gatherers in the Caribbean (second supervisor Arlene Rosen)
  • Bruna Rocha Archaeology of the Upper Tapajos River, Para, Brazi (second supervisor Manuel Arroyo-Kalin

Statement to Prospective PhD Research Students

For prospective Masters and PhD research students, as a thesis supervisor or co-supervisor I can bring over 30 years of professional and academic expertise and over 35 years fieldwork experience not only in the Caribbean and South America, but also Midwestern and Southeastern United States. I have supervised PhD and MA dissertations covering the Caribbean, including Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Culebra Island, the Virgin Islands, Lesser Antilles, Trinidad, and Tobago; in Western Venezuela; the Central Andes of Peru, Colombia, and the Brazilian Amazon, in addition to Panamá and Belize (Maya) in Central America. I have also conducted research in all periods of human history in the Americas, from the late Pleistocene (ca. 13,000 to 10,000 BP) at El Jobo in Western Venezuela to the Spanish/European contact period in Hispaniola and Venezuela (late 15th to mid-16th centuries). I consider myself to be an anthropological archaeologist who exploits the best of what processual and postmodern theoretical approaches have to offer.

In the course of my career I have developed specialized skills in ceramic analysis, historical linguistics and lexicostatistics (to study diasporas, migrations), and in the critical analysis of ethnohistorical documents. However, rather than specializing in a given subfield of archaeology, such as GIS or archeometallurgy, I derive much more intellectual satisfaction in collaborating with such specialists to obtain from them results that are needed to address a range of research problems and questions at hand. In my own research, I prefer the role of the conductor of an orchestra to that of a master violinist or cellist; I know how to direct each of the musicians, and in concert (harmony), in order create a symphony. While I may not be a master violinist, I certainly must know what is required from each musician and know the technical and musical capabilities of each instrument. I certainly know how the first violin ought to sound in a given symphony. Given this predilection, any of my PhD students requiring specialized skills and knowledge are co-supervised by a member of our faculty who specializes in the required field. This is one of the key strengths for which the Institute of Archaeology is renowned world-wide. Here, the prospective PhD student will be able to integrate and exploit the best of both worlds to produce a substantive, innovative dissertation.

There is no archaeological research problem or topic in Latin America (South America and Isthmus of Panama-Colombia) and the Caribbean regions (which is not all ‘Latin’, but also Dutch, English, and Papiamento,) that I would be uninterested or unwilling to supervise. Among the broad research themes that I would welcome are:

  • the origins of agriculture, including the transition from hunter-gatherer to fully developed ‘state’ agricultural economies
  • changing human-natural environmental relations (historical ecology, landscape archaeology)
  • intercultural contacts and the processes of transculturation (including masking) and enthogenesis
  • the social, political and economic implications of mobility, trade and exchange (webs, networks)
  • the rise and consolidation of inequality, social rank and complex societies as inferred from the archaeological record
  • factors and causes promoting population spread, migrations diasporas and their impact
  • art, archaeology and anthropology in all its dimensions
  • ritual, ceremony and belief systems as expressed in material culture, often referred to as the ‘archaeology of religion’
  • Colonial encounters and ethnic transformations in the Caribbean and lowland South America (ethnohistory/archaeology/anthropology)

Below I highlight in more detail two research topics:

The Formative Period in the Tropical Lowlands of South America. Entails research exploring and assessing, from a multidisciplinary perspective, the factors and causes leading to patterns and processes that resulted in or promoted sedentary village life, agricultural production, and increasing social complexity in the vast lowlands South America. It explores fundamental questions about pre-colonial or pre-Columbian patterns of similarity and difference, and of divergence, convergence and parallelism, and of interaction among the emerging Formative period (ca. 4500-2500 BP) societies as inferred from their (archaeological) material cultural record, with particular attention to the the multifarious human and social and economic relationships have had with the evolving mosaic of natural environments. In order to tackle the questions of when, where, how, and why requires delving in one or more of the specialised or allied fields of environmental archaeology (i.e., palaeoclimatology, palaeobotany, archaeobtany, zooarchaeology, and geoarchaeology), landscape archaeology (phenomenological or historical ecological perspectives), and ethnohistory and linguistics (when examining diaspora and migration as well as inter-cultural contacts). Areas of special concern include (a) the phenomenon of anthropogenic dark earth (ADE) and their implications for demographic density and long term occupations in Amazonia and the Guyana coastal plains; (b) the nature of intensification of agricultural technologies, such as raised fields, in seasonal wetlands and floodplains and their socioeconomic implications, for regions such as Baurés in Bolivia, the coastal plains of the three Guyanas, Mompox-San Jorge in Colombia, the Llanos of the Orinoco; (c) documenting and explaining continuity, change and interactions in time and/or space as reflected by the ancient ceramic art styles and traditions, and (d) the theme of ancestors, death and afterlife as attested (and inferred) from burials practice in the archaeological record. My own research in South America focuses on the Orinoco River, where some of the earliest dated sites (ca. 2400 BC – 1000 BC) of the Formative Period in the lowlands are found and purported homeland of the Saladoid-Barrancoid, one of the most widespread ‘great’ ceramic traditions through the Amazonia and the Caribbean.

Art in Archaeology and Anthropology: It involves research topics engaging multidisciplinary theoretical approaches to, and the classification, analysis and interpretation (symbolism, meanings) of, the artistic material culture of pre-colonial and early colonial aboriginal societies of South America and the Circum-Caribbean regions. The focus is on issues and problems of human-object-context relations, their circulation and distribution (or lack of), raising questions of why and how these change through time and vary through space, and what these relationships inform about both the objects of art and past societies. A range of concepts can be deployed in the analysis of art: aesthetics (style, form), representation (imagery, iconography), identity, embodiment, personhood, and agency (animation, volition, potency; biographies of the objects (i.e., Appadurai); its mode of (re)production and authenticity (i.e, one of a kind original, or many copies or emulations of an original?). Subjects may include entire landscapes ‘as art’ to monumental buildings (immobilia), to all sorts of ‘portable’ crafts executed in all sorts of media. One area of research interest, where an art and archaeology approach is most illuminating, is in the analysis of highly charged objects, imbued with political-religious value (and power) that are maintained in circulation via inheritance, through reciprocal exchanges or, not infrequently, through theft or as war booty by competitors. What can be gifted (alienable) and not gifted (inalienable) to others, what is owed (notions of debt, sensu Graeber), and what remains in circulation in webs of exchange (or as inherited heirlooms) and is invisible and taken out of circulation (e.g., as burial offerings) provides fundamental insights into past and present modes of sociality. Any area or tradition from South America and the Caribbean is welcome, whether the data base is Moche or Chavin from the Central Andes, Tairona from Colombia, Barrancoid from the Orinoco, Guarita/Polychrome from Amazonia, or Taino from the Antilles.

  • Caguana: legado historico (ISBN: 978-0-86581-662-6) by Jose Oliver

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