Welcome to CLECV Plus 3’s first entry!
I don’t know how attracted -if ever- you were to archaeology, but as I was growing up in those days when no one would ever dream of things such as electronic devices, personal computers, let alone the Internet, reading about the origins of mankind, past civilizations, and ancient cultures was something I was very interested in. Just consider how the Inca civilization was built and how it expanded so much in what later became the Tahuantinsuyo, to later be defeated by the Spanish conquerors.
In regard to the topic, here I found some interesting information about archaeology and how our present can be understood by studying the past.
JOE WATKINS / 28 JAN 2016
Who were the first people to arrive in North America more than 12,000 years ago? Did these intrepid explorers originate in Siberia and cross the frozen straits of Beringia? Or were they mariners who bravely struck out into the Pacific, heading east into the blue unknown? Who were the people to first call North America home?
For more than a century, archaeologists have tried to solve this mystery using mainly one kind of evidence: the material objects the first settlers left behind, buried in the dirt. In recent years, however, an important new line of evidence has emerged: the genetic lineages of humans, which allow us to track the migratory histories of people as they’ve moved around the globe. It’s important to consider, however, what exactly each of these kinds of data—material and genetic—can and cannot tell us about our ancestors and ourselves.
As archaeologists, we are both blessed and cursed with the material culture that humans create. I say “blessed” because it is the material aspects of culture that allow us to interpret human behaviors and actions in the past; I say “cursed” because historical objects do not easily reveal the real cultures behind them. What this means, then, is that archaeologists reconstruct cultures using limited evidence. You might have heard about the “Ancestral Pueblo,” “Hopewell,” or “Mississippian” peoples. But these cultures did not really exist. The “Ancestral Puebloans”—a diverse range of people who lived in pueblo villages in the U.S. Southwest between 600 and 1,200 years ago—never called themselves that or considered themselves a unified culture. Rather, archaeologists invented the concept of “Ancestral Pueblo” to describe a certain cultural moment in Southwestern history, based almost exclusively on the materials these people left behind. It’s very hard to deeply understand past people based on material objects alone.
On the other hand, these objects can tell us an awful lot. Typically, material culture found in archaeological sites is comprised of durable objects such as stone and pottery, because these materials tend to be better preserved over time than bones, wood, fibers, and other organic materials. In special circumstances, such as in extremely dry or moist conditions, we get intriguing glimpses of what is missing in the vast majority of archaeological sites. Dry caves in the American Southwest show us the rich variety of materials used by early people. These include animal skins that were made into robes, clothing, and children’s toys; wooden objects crafted into arrow shafts, digging sticks, and split-twig figurines; feathers attached to arrows; plant fibers turned into baskets and sandals; and much more.
As we study people who lived in the past, we use these sorts of materials to help us better understand how ideas and goods were shared between different groups of people. Artifacts can also reveal certain things about how people behaved and what they believed. Such materials are part of an imperfect approach to understanding past cultures, to be sure, but material remains bring us valuable insights into the early cultures of North America that other lines of evidence, such as genetics, simply cannot. What I mean by this is that genetics can help us determine ancestral relationships between individuals who contributed to the cultures of North America, but they do not tell us anything about the actual cultures of those early people.
Genetics can offer scientific answers to questions about biological relationships, but it cannot provide deep insight into people’s cultural lives. For that we need archaeology.
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