Saturday, January 3, 2004

Re/Constructing the past

The archaeology geek in me got all excited when I read about a new Siberian site dated to 30,000 BP. This is twice as old as any other site found on the Asian side of the Bering Strait, and stands to reignite the mother of all American archaeological dramas, the breaking of the Clovis Barrier - the idea that the earliest settlers of the Americas arrived around 13,000 years ago.

Clovis sites - named after hunting artefacts first found at Clovis, New Mexico - have long been considered to yield the earliest evidence for the peopling of the Americas. However, there is increasing evidence for earlier settlement, especially in South America, as well as alternative migration and cultural theories. (Monte Verde in Chile is now considered to have broken the Clovis Barrier, but not without a 20-year fight!)

In my mind, the most interesting part of this debate is how archaeological knowledge is created - or how archaeologists decide what constitutes a "site" or an "artefact" in the first place. (I used to work on what is called "non-site" archaeology - or isolated artefacts - and it is probably still considered to be "unscientific".)

Archaeology has always been political - from nationalist archaeology to questions of who owns the past - and the Clovis paradigm continues to raise issues of what constitutes "viable" archaeological evidence and interpretation, as well as what may be found beyond the Clovis Barrier.

The best professor I have ever had was Ruth Gruhn. Now retired, she still conducts excavations in Baja California and has argued brilliantly for a much earlier settlement of the Americas. She told me once that South American archaeologists are not accorded the same academic or professional status as North American archaeologists - and I thought she was exaggerating - but I will never forget the old Peruvian archaeologist who told me that during his career he had more often been treated as an informant than as a colleague by North American and European archaeologists.

Ruth also taught me that the "man the hunter" hypothesis has dominated for so long that archaeologists often don't even consider alternate lifeways, such as gathering or fishing, and subsequently are only looking in areas that could have supported big-game hunting. "For decades, North American archaeologists have discounted the South American evidence because it hasn't met their expectations or fit their models."

CBC's Quirks & Quarks ran an interesting programme on New Ideas About the New World and you can listen to Ruth (and others) there.

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