As editor, I chose these amazing archaeology stories from the pages of American Archaeology magazine because each of them stood out for 2017 in some way—from the highly-disputed contention that humans occupied southern California 130,000 years ago, to the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s role in aerial archaeology, to the remarkably dissimilar way very ancient skeletons are treated. The stories are ranked in no particular order.
- Comity In The Caves (Summer Issue)
When Christopher Columbus visited the Isla de Mona, located halfway between Puerto Rico and Hispañola, in 1494, he found its indigenous residents fishing and farming, part of a thriving Taíno culture that spread across much of the Caribbean. At only twenty-two square miles, Mona is roughly the size of Manhattan. But beneath its surface is another world: an astonishing network of tunnels and caves that often made it easier to get around underground than through the dense vegetation above.
Mona, which is now part of Puerto Rico, is an uninhabited island that’s managed as a nature reserve. When Jago Cooper of the British Museum and his colleague, Alice Samson of the University of Leicester, arrived on Mona in 2013, they intended only to conduct an aboveground archaeological survey. “We kind of got sucked into the caves,” said Cooper. What they found quickly became the focus of their work: prehistoric people had left rock art in many of the caverns, usually by carving directly into the soft walls.
The team eventually explored seventy cave systems over several field seasons and found about thirty had some kind of rock art. Hundreds of yards underground, people had created geometric, humanoid, and anthrozoomorphic images by carving, rubbing, or otherwise removing the soft crust that naturally covers the walls and ceilings. See More Images
- Controversial Study Claims Ancient Humans Were In The New World 130,000 Years Ago (Summer Issue)
A group of scientists have proposed that ancient humans occupied an area near San Diego, California approximately 130,000 years ago. The research team, led by Steve Holen, research director of the Center for American Paleolithic Research, published their findings in the journal Nature, causing an uproar among archaeologists who generally consider the earliest date for humans in the Americas to be less than 25,000 years ago. The debate is by no means settled.
- The Fates Of Very Ancient Remains (Summer Issue)
To some Native Americans, the repatriation and reburial of very ancient human remains is simple justice. To many archaeologists and other scientists, it’s akin to reburying the Rosetta stone. “Every burial is a potential loss for science to learn about America’s past and for Native Americans to learn about their ancestors,” said Eske Willerslev, director of the Copenhagen-based Center of Excellence in GeoGenetics, where studies of ancient human DNA are reshaping what is known about the peopling of the Americas. “But science can no longer ignore the wishes of native communities. If we take a confrontational approach, science will lose. And so will they.”
Earlier this year 8,600-year-old Kennewick Man, whose remains were discovered more than twenty years ago in eastern Washington, was repatriated to the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes, who claimed him as their ancestor. The tribes then reburied the skeleton at a secret location in the Columbia River Basin. The tribes had waged a long, costly, and highly-publicized legal battle to take custody of Kennewick Man under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which they lost in 2004 when the court ruled they could not prove a connection to the skeleton.
But recent DNA analysis by Willerslev’s laboratory in Denmark showed that Kennewick Man genetically resembled today’s Native Americans more than any other living people. Consequently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kennewick Man’s custodians, concluded that he was in fact Native American, and the Corps began the process of repatriating the skeleton. See More Images
- Whistling Past The Historic Graveyard (Winter Issue)
On January 26, 2017, Kimberlee Moran, the director of forensic science at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey, and Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist with the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, visited a construction site in Philadelphia’s Old City Historic District. The site, a vacant lot at 218 Arch Street, is where the developer, PMC Property Group, plans to build an apartment complex.
In November of 2016, Moran and Dhody had read a Philly.com story that a construction crew with Fastrack Builders, which was hired by PMC, had uncovered human remains while excavating the lot with heavy equipment. So Moran and Dhody contacted PMC and asked permission to recover a small box of bones for analysis and to survey the site. “There were bones on the surface of the grounds,” said Moran, and they were clearly from humans. They collected some bones—“enough to fit in a shoebox,” Moran recalled—for analysis. Before departing, they offered to monitor the excavation on a voluntary basis in the likely event that more remains were uncovered, but PMC declined.
Approximately three weeks later, Moran and Dhody were contacted by the construction foreman: the workers had uncovered more bones and they didn’t know what to do with them. As the construction project continued, many more bones, and in some cases entire skeletons enclosed in their caskets, were uncovered. It turns out that a portion of the lot at 218 Arch Street covers the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia Cemetery, which was in service from 1707 to the mid 1800s, when the First Baptist Church moved to another location. See More Images
- A Tale Of Prehistoric Climate Change (Winter Issue)
Florida, with an average elevation of six feet above sea level, tops the list of states at risk of flooding due to climate change. Over three-quarters of the Sunshine State’s twenty million residents live on or near its 1,350-mile coastline, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that sea levels are already rising more than a third of an inch a year. Even modest projections show Florida’s sea levels up to seventeen inches higher by 2030. While politicians and urban planners debate how to deal with this, archaeologists are looking to the past to see how its earliest inhabitants adapted to changing sea levels long before high-rises filled the streets of Miami.
The Lower Suwannee Archaeological Survey (LSAS) was launched in 2009 to investigate prehistoric sites along Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, fifty miles north of Tampa. Its goal, said project leader Ken Sassaman, an archaeologist with the University of Florida, is more than just recording and interpreting data from sites that may well be underwater in the near future. It’s also to use this information to help contemporary policy makers respond to climate change and its consequences. “In our lifetime, we could see half of lower Florida under water,” Sassaman said. “We’re trying to understand how people who lived through this sort of change anticipated different futures.” See More Images
- Charles Lindbergh’s Little-Known Passion (Summer Issue)
In 1927 an obscure U.S. Air Mail pilot named Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris, thereby achieving word-wide fame. Virtually everyone knows about Lucky Lindy’s historic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. But few people know that Lindbergh was also a pioneer in the field of aerial archaeology. Vocational historian and writer Erik Berg has extensively researched Lindbergh’s life and aerial archaeological surveys, bringing to light his efforts to help locate and document ancient sites and landscapes.
“Lindbergh always had broad and varied interests and his fame from the 1927 Atlantic flight opened a lot of doors for him to indulge those interests,” said Berg. “His interest in archaeology stems from spotting Maya ruins in the jungle while flying over the Yucatán in the winter of 1928-29, scouting possible air routes for Pan-American Airways.”
Shortly after spying the stone ruins from his plane, Lindbergh visited the Smithsonian Institution to find out more about them. He was sent to John Merriam, the director of the nearby Carnegie Institution of Washington (now the Carnegie Institution of Science), who described their ongoing archaeological investigations in the Maya region of southern Mexico, and at Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings and settlements in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, and Chaco Canyon and the Pecos Valley in New Mexico. Lindbergh quickly volunteered to photograph these areas when flying nearby. See More Images
- Saving An Ancient Library (Winter Issue)
Having scrambling about the shallow, open-air rock shelter known as the Wiley site in southwest Texas, six archaeologists took inventory of the many iconographic figures painted on the shelter wall and prepare to make high-resolution photographs that document, and possibly reveal new details, about these ancient, often indecipherable images. The archaeologists work for the Shumla Archaeology Research & Education Center, a nonprofit organization based in the dusty town of Comstock.
Shumla has recently begun the Alexandria Project, an ambitious effort to catalog and digitize more than 350 rock art sites scattered throughout Val Verde County, a three-hour drive west of San Antonio, hard by the U.S.-Mexico border. The project’s name is a nod to the ancient Egyptian library that was destroyed in antiquity. The archaeologists are racing against time to build a library of high-resolution images of the murals, some of which are 4,000 years old and are painted in what’s known as the Lower Pecos River style. They have a busy schedule that calls for them to visit and record an average of ten sites per month. See More Images
- Study Concludes Canadian Site Is 24,000 Years Old (Spring Issue)
A recent re-analysis of cut marks on ancient bones discovered at Bluefish Caves near the Alaska/Yukon border confirms previous controversial claims that humans occupied the area about 24,000 years ago, according to a study published by PLOS ONE in January. If true, this would mean the Americas were occupied about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
- Life In The Great Dismal Swamp (Spring Issue)
“I sometimes ask myself why I didn’t do one of those projects where the dig is right next to the parking lot.” Archaeologist Becca Peixotto wasn’t complaining, but she sounded a bit wistful on a cool, cloudy day last December as she caught her breath, brushed some mud off her hip waders, and dropped a heavy pack at her excavation site deep within the Great Dismal Swamp, a vast wooded wetland that straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border near the Atlantic coast.
To get to the site, which was perched on a forested hummock barely higher than the surrounding water, we’d taken a jolting drive down a dirt road pitted with yawning potholes, and then lugged a pile of gear nearly half-a-mile under fallen trees and through thick reeds, sharp brambles, boot-sucking mires, and deep pools of icy water. Still, we’d had it pretty easy, Peixotto informed me and two volunteers. We hadn’t needed the machete she often used to slash a path through the tangle, nor the insect repellent or leg chaps she uses in summer to defend against the swamp’s voracious bugs and venomous snakes. And our forty-five-minute trek was nothing compared to the hardship endured by the people who journeyed here centuries ago to build new lives in a landscape that one Colonia-era writer considered so dangerous and inhospitable that “not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it.” Given such a reputation, “to live in the Dismal, you really had to want to be here,” said Peixotto, who is pursuing a doctorate at American University in Washington, D.C. See More Images
- Archaeology Under Attack (Spring Issue)
In the late 1980s, while working in Wisconsin, Lynne Goldstein, now archaeology professor and director of the Campus Archaeology Program at Michigan State University, served on a panel working to assess Wisconsin’s historic preservation laws. “A wide range of changes were proposed and passed—with bipartisan support—and Wisconsin had some of the best overall preservation laws and policies in the country,” recalled Goldstein. The state adopted a highly effective and innovative burial law.
Nearly thirty years later, when a politically-connected developer proposed building on land containing documented burials, the governor and others pushed to change the state burial law. “Fortunately, enough people—including Native American tribes—pushed back, and the changes were halted, at least temporarily,” Goldstein said, though a study committee continues to review the law.
Nationwide attempts to weaken historic preservation and burial laws have been accompanied by funding cuts for archaeology programs, museums, and historic sites, as well as state and federal archaeological positions. “We are already losing a huge amount of institutional knowledge about the archaeological record, and now we are losing the positions and any possible transfer of that knowledge,” said Lynne Sebastian, the former director of historic preservation programs with the non-profit SRI Foundation and the former New Mexico State Archaeologist.
“There have been budget cuts in most state offices across the Midwest, leaving staffing of preservation offices at a bare minimum,” said Goldstein. She noted a trend in the last five to ten years toward government officials and the public devaluing archaeology and historic preservation, and resisting state and federal mandates that protect cultural resources. See More Images
~ Michael Bawaya, 2017
Editor, American Archaeology
Browse Articles Excerpts from our latest issue, WINTER 2017-18.