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Sophie Reilly

PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology

Sophie Reilly

I hope to use archaeology to challenge how people think about the past and the ways the past has created the present in which we now live.”

Sophie Reilly is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She employs paleoethnobotanical techniques (the analysis of plant remains) to study ancient foodways. Her research investigates the impacts of Inka and Spanish colonialism on food availability and access among Chachapoya communities in the Northeastern Andes from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. 

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

My dissertation research seeks to understand the impacts of colonialism on food security and communities' strategies to maintain food security. I am an archaeologist, and I study a region called Chachapoyas in what is now Northern Peru. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Chachapoyas communities were colonized first by the Inka and then the Spanish. My research aims to understand if and how colonial impositions, such as taxation or labor reorganization, impacted food availability at the community level. Following this, I study the strategies that community members may have developed to mitigate the impacts of these impositions on food. I study archaeological plant remains to answer these questions, which allows me to identify stability or change in ingredients and cooking techniques over time. Overall, this will allow me to understand how levels of food security were co-constituted by both colonial structures and local strategies during periods of colonization.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

I think that archaeology can be a powerful tool to tell important stories about the past. In the region where I work, written accounts about Chachapoyas people in the 15th-16th centuries are from the perspective of Inka and Spanish colonists. This perspective means that the written record misses a lot of nuance of people’s lives at the time and tells a skewed story. As an archaeologist, I study material remains. These allow me to learn about histories that were not written down, and they help me tell the stories of people who are omitted or misrepresented in historical texts. I hope to use archaeology to challenge how people think about the past and the ways the past has created the present in which we now live.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?

The first name that comes to mind is my advisor, Dr. Amanda Logan. Amanda’s work also focuses on the deep histories of food security; she uses archaeology to push back against stereotypes of food insecurity in West Africa. I have always admired how her research and writing make it clear that understanding the history of food impacts our perceptions about the present. She is also a fantastic mentor who is supportive and challenges me in a productive way to do good work. Other scholars of food who I really admire are Dr. Monica White, a sociologist whose work focuses on community gardens lead by Black women in Detroit, and Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, an anthropologist who works on Indigenous food sovereignty. I admire Dr. White and Dr. Hoover’s work because it is community-centered and demonstrates the positive impacts of community-organized food initiatives and applied scholarship. Their work inspires me to bring a community-based approach into my work.

How do you unwind after a long day?

My answer has a really wide range from “productive” unwinding like biking the lakefront trail or rock climbing to very “unproductive” unwinding like completely turning off my brain to watch reality TV or anime with my friends. Sometimes I head out to a bar trivia night, though those can turn out to be more stressful than relaxing.

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?

I think that the three most important things are to pursue the research that excites you, collaborate with people you admire and enjoy working with, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s so important to have a project that you believe in and energizes you. But even if you love your work, there will be days or weeks when it doesn’t feel exciting, and that’s okay too. If you have a good support network of mentors and friends and you are willing to ask them for help, they can get you through the rougher days, and you’ll find your way back to enjoying your work.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.

In spring 2021, I participated in the GEO Community Practicum Program and I had the chance to do an internship at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs Center for Global Food and Agriculture. This work excited me because it was an opportunity to look at food security from a policy perspective rather than an archaeological or academic perspective. Through this experience, I understood better how my research can make an impact outside academia, and I learned skills that can help me bridge some of the gaps between academic and policy work on food. The internship allowed me to take a step back from the minutia of research and see how my work can fit into broader conversations, which helped me feel more excited about it.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

One of the aspects I enjoy most about graduate school is the opportunity to teach, and it always makes me feel proud to watch students grow. In an earlier question, I said that one of my goals as an archaeologist is to challenge the way people think about the past. When I teach, I actually get to see that process happening. There are few things more satisfying than helping students understand a concept or watching them start to see the world a little bit differently thanks to the things they are learning in an anthropology or archaeology class.

Published: October 19, 2021

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