Archaeology is how we come to understand who we are. The traces that remain of the distant past are being obliterated across the globe — submerged behind new dams, bulldozed to make way for freeways and high-rises — and that’s a horrifying tragedy. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Other sites that would have yielded up priceless knowledge were looted in the 19th century, before the rise of modern archaeology. The human race is heedless. Who was it who said, “What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”?
And of course the soft bits rot. With a pitifully few exceptions, we have not a shred of evidence about what people wore 10,000 years ago. We know what kinds of meat they ate, because they left the bones scattered around. But we don’t know what they may have carved from wood — toys for their children, perhaps? — because the wood is gone. We don’t have their dances, their songs, their stories. All we have, for the most part, are teeth, bones, sharp-edged stones, and truckloads of shattered pottery.
I have this vision of the valleys of France, 30,000 years ago. In my vision, every boulder and exposed cliff is painted just as lavishly as the caves we know of today. All that remains are the cave paintings, because everything else washed away.
The meagerness of the archaeological record makes it quite likely that, when we attempt to interpret the distant past, we’ll be projecting our own cultural biases onto it. A hundred years ago, reputable scientists assured us that white Europeans were “more highly evolved” than “the primitive races.” Today we understand that that was utter rubbish. But the kinds of utter rubbish the leading authorities may be promulgating today are, of course, impossible for us to detect.
All the same, we’ve arrived at a point in time when it’s possible to understand, in broad outline, where the human race came from and how we got to where we are today. A humble blog is not the place to tell the whole tale, even in outline form. You wouldn’t have the patience to read it, and I’d be up until four in the morning writing it.
Rocks are interesting, though. For a very long time our ancestors seem to have had very little in the way of culture, other than a tendency to carry around sharp-edged rocks and keep fires from going out. We don’t know why they tended fires, but sharp-edged rocks would have been quite useful for animals who couldn’t run fast and didn’t have big teeth or claws. We have to assume that long before the invention of the spear, our ancestors were protecting themselves and their loved ones by clobbering hyenas with specially sharpened chunks of rock.
Prior to that, there would of necessity have been a period of time — a million years or so — when rocks were being carried around in a systematic way, but weren’t being intentionally sharpened. Such weapons would be impossible to identify today, because they wouldn’t look any different from any other rocks. Having the sense to find a rock with a sharp edge would give you an edge (so to speak) in a nasty confrontation, either with a hyena or with a rival for the affections of a young lady. Figuring out how to make a rock with a sharp edge was surely one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
An abiding interest in carrying rocks might have contributed very materially to our ancestors’ development of an erect, bipedal gait. It’s known that the bipedal gait existed for millions of years before our nearer ancestors’ brains started to swell up.
We don’t know when or how language began to develop. Best estimates are that full language has existed for no more than 150,000 years, perhaps less. But it didn’t fall out of Apollo’s chariot, or spring from the forehead of Zeus, fully formed. There would have been a long, long period of proto-language, in which a repertoire of nouns (“banana”) and adjectives (“green,” “ripe,” “wormy,” “plenty,” and “all gone” surely among them) would very gradually have expanded. Those who were best able to understand and utilize these vocal signals would have passed on their genes with greater frequency, not only because they would have been better fed but because they would have been able to cement social relationships more reliably. That’s how evolution works.
Once you see how it all is (or was), it’s impossible not to feel both immensely grateful and overwhelmingly humbled. And the great tragedy is that we’ll never know more than a tiny fraction of how the whole thing unfolded.
Tonight I got a book called Archaeology, Third Edition, out of the library. The author is David Hurst Thomas. It looks pretty interesting, and I’m looking forward to digging into it. But I found myself irked by a paragraph set on a page by itself, just before page 1. The paragraph is headed, “A Note about Human Remains.” It reads as follows:
“This book discusses, in several places, important new frontiers of bioarchaeological research. But we also recognize the need to deal with human remains in a respectful and sensitive manner. Several Native American elders have requested that we refrain from publishing photographs or other depictions of American Indian human remains. In specific response to this request, no such images appear in this book. Should other groups express similar concerns, these requests will be addressed in [future] editions as appropriate.”
My message for the Native American elders is this: Get over it. Your ancestors are just as dead as mine, neither more nor less. To the extent that your prissy “sensitivity” on this issue gets in the way of scientific research and thereby impedes our ability to learn about the past, you’re an asshole.
If anybody wants to dig up my ancestors’ graves in the peat bogs of Scotland or the hills of Wales, I say, go for it! I’d love to know more about how they lived.
How better to show them reverence, for Pete’s sake?
Footnote: I stand by my comments about the need to set aside cultural prejudices in the interest of doing good science — but after delving into this particular book a bit, I’ve changed my mind about the inclusion of this particular front-note. Archaeology, it turns out, isn’t a book about prehistory. It’s a book about doing archaeology — who the leading practitioners are, what they study, how they study it, where they dig, how they interpret what they dig up, and so on. In addition, it’s overwhelmingly about archaeology in the Americas (though there’s a short side trip to discuss Schliemann’s excavation of Troy, a few bits about Egyptian mummies, and so on).
In that context, it’s not only appropriate but essential to remind budding archaeologists of the need to be both aware of and responsive to the concerns of the populations currently residing in the areas where they dig, whenever doing so doesn’t interfere with the science. In this particular book, there was no need to publish photos of the human remains of Native Americans, because the book is not primarily a study of the prehistory of the Americas (though you’ll learn a good bit about that if you read the book). It’s a book about how to be an archaeologist.
Since I’m not planning to become an archaeologist, that makes the book less interesting to me. But it does look like a fine book, if you’re on that path.