The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Does Archaeology Matter?

After I read the paper discussed in the last blog post, I was on a bit of a high. It's not every day that you get to see something that cool come out of your field of study, and I was excited. As I explained the paper to Kaylia, she asked, as usual, some very good questions about the nature of the research issue, and what other data backed it up, and then she asked a very basic question: "so, why does this matter?"

I explained that it mattered because it improved our picture of how the Americas were first colonized, to which she replied "yes, I understand that, but why does that matter? Why is it an important question?"

I was stumped for a few minutes. Her question is a very, very good one, but one that most archaeologists, in fact most people who are involved in research, rarely, if ever, stop to ponder. Why is a particular research question important? Why is a particular field of study important?

So, Kaylia, this blog entry is for you.

The broad question, the question of why my field of study is important, is simultaeneously easy and difficult to answer. In the late 60s and early 70s, many archaeologists developed answers to this question based on archaeology's ability to answer questions regarding long-term human behavior, and therefore help us to develop practical answers to pressing questions of the day. During the later 70s and the 80s, these answers fell away as archaeology consistently failed to provide such answers. Today, as the global climate changes, there is good reason to think that archaeology can provide good information about how humans dealt (both succesfully and unseccesfully) with climate change in the past, and perhaps use that information to assist us from here on out. Of course, the problem here is that, in my own personal experience, the same people who are likely to press you for an explanation of why archaeology matters are generally the same people who don't believe in global warming, so while it's a valid and correct answer, it's not likely to get you anywhere.

As a graduate student, I discovered that only a few of my fellow grad students ever gave this any real thought. It was obviously important because they were interested in it, and they wouldn't be interested in something that wasn't important. I often heard that "archaeology is inherently interesting" or "archaeology is inherently important", which really just seemed to be begging the question. Most of those who gave that answer also tended to have a rather inflated notion of how the world outside of the university viewed archaeology, which I did not share as I was one of the few who, at that point, had spent extensive time as a professional away from the university*.

For myself, I will give this basic answer: archaeology does have some potential to address practical issues, not as much as some of the 60s/70s researchers claimed, but there is some potential nonetheless. However, the principle reason why archaeology matters is the same as the reason why the related field of history matters - we can more readily make sense of where we are if we have a firm grasp on where we came from, and it does our minds and our culture well to have the perspective that we are the latest in a long line of people, and our ancestors had lives every bit as intricate and interesting as our own. And, hey, maybe we can learn from their successes and from their failures. And, of course, there's my final reason for thinking that there is value in archaeology - it's a field that generates knowledge, and I happen to believe that knowledge, even if for the sake of knowledge, is a good thing.

And, really, either you're going to buy that, or you're not, and I don't think that I can justify the existence of archaeology any farther than that. If you don't, well, then nothing that I write below will matter to you.

So, assuming that you buy that there is value in studying archaeology, you then have the more direct question: why is this site important? Why is it important to confirm that there were pre-Clovis people wandering the Americas? Well, there's a few reasons:

On the most basic level, this helps to set the historical record straight regarding when and how the Americas were colonized. As far as we can tell, the broad variations in culture that were present at the time of European contact all derived, ultimately, from a relatively small number of migrants from Asia**, so having an idea of where and when the spread of humans into the Americas began will help us to better understand what happened from there and how these small, mobile bands became the variety of peoples present when Columbus arrived.

Also, one of the many goals of archaeology is to provide information for figuring out how humans behave on a very basic level. The advantage that archaeologists have in this is that we can look at human behavior over a fairly long span of time and, provided that we are able to make sense out of the material record. This being the case, we are able, at least in concept, to tease out some rather more fundamental information regarding how humans function. While the movement of people into an environment which is currently devoid of humans doesn't seem to be directly applicable to our lives in the modern world, it is somethign that occured during much of our species' history. Understanding how later, anatomically modern humans behaved in such a situation may shed some light into why we behave the way that we do in many other situations, some of which are present in the modern world.

So, there you go, my argument for why the recent discovery matters, and why archaeology matters.

*I always liked the company of both the older graduate students who were re-entering school after time away, and the graduate students who had needed to hold jobs outside of the university, as they seemed to have the best grasp on our place in the world.

**There are some, most notably Bruce Bradley from the University of Exeter, who claimt hat there was also ice-age migration from Europe into the Americas. Tod ate, their evidence has been weak-to-nonexistent, but a new book on the matter will be coming out later this year, so we'll be able to see if they've improved their case at all at that point.


Joe said...

Actually, "the movement of people into an environment which is currently devoid of humans" is something we have been slowly starting to do over the past half century, through the exploration and utilization of space.

Anthroslug said...

Hadn't thought of that, but it's a very good point.