Ardipithecus, the 4-million-year-old hominin; the 160,000-year-old Huerto skulls from Ethiopia, the earliest known modern humans; Stone Age cave paintings from Chauvet cave; Egypt's Bahariya mummies, a spectacular cemetery of burials from the sixth century B.C. and the first and second centuries A.D.; and the Moche lords of Sipán in Peru: We are in the midst of a remarkable period of archaeological discovery. This is particularly true of Maya civilization, where a combination of decipherment and large-scale field research is yielding new perceptions of lord and commoner alike. The spectacular wall paintings from San Bartolo, Guatemala, hint that remarkable finds still lie ahead. They depict the Maya maize god and date to as early as 300 B.C., the earliest known Preclassic Maya art. The glyphs with the frieze are still undeciphered, but push back the beginnings of Maya writing more than three centuries. The same potential for stunning finds exists in the Andes, where the discovery of ceremonial centers at Caral and Buena Vista are revising long-held theories about the rise of complex societies along Peru's north coast. Even heavily researched areas such as the Southwest United States are yielding hitherto unknown pueblos.
This torrent of new discoveries raises a fascinating question. What major archaeological discoveries can we expect during the next half-century or so? Where will the truly sensational finds be made? What kinds of discoveries will radically transform our knowledge of the past? I believe we can make some intelligent forecasts.
Some of the greatest future revelations will revolve around self-sustainability. There is much talk about oil shortages and our dependence on fossil fuels, but all too few people talk about water. Archaeologist Vernon Scarborough has shown how Maya lords were expert hydrographers, who made sophisticated use of high water tables and aquifers to provide water to their cities. Many futurologists believe tomorrow's wars will revolve around water as much as they will territorial claims or weapons of mass destruction. Thanks to the new paleoclimatology, we can look for the first time at the intricate relationships between sudden, major climatic events such as El Niño or droughts and the continued viability of human societies of every kind. The short-term effects of a drought or hurricane may be catastrophic, but the subtler results such as major and minor social changes, shifting of capitals, or new agricultual methods, may surface years, or even generations, later, as a society adjusts to changed circumstances, the toppling of established leaders, or the undermining of royal credibility. Such was the case in Old Kingdom Egypt in about 2180 B.C., when a severe drought that almost dried up the Nile undermined the ancient doctrine of pharaonic infallibility and the state fell apart. Earthquakes and El Niño devastated the Moche state of coastal Peru during the mid-sixth century A.D. At the time, powerful warrior-priests with a rigid ideology ruled the state. Within a generation, I suspect that we'll have methods to decipher the ways in which Moche's rulers coped with the disaster. For instance, at Huaca de la Luna, the Moche's most sacred shrine, Steve Bourget has recently unearthed a plaza filled with sacrificial victims and evidence of an ideology adopted by the warrior-priests to reinforce their authority when El Niño struck. With luck, the lessons that come from such research will be listened to today.
A century of increasing involvement with science has produced a much finer-grained understanding of how archaeological sites were formed, how people exploited their surrounding landscapes, and even how they thought about the cosmos and the world around them. Many future discoveries will come from minute detective work far from the field, contributing to the ever-more detailed portait of the past. But the impact on the larger picture of our history will be immense, especially as the cumulative results of this work come into focus, perhaps a generation or more later. We will never, for example, acquire an instant portait of the first Americans, much as some of us would like to paint one. Our understanding of this, and so many other "big picture" problems will come from hundreds of seemingly trivial, yet cumulatively extremely important, finds that will make up the archaeology of the future. And as part of this process, I believe that the most exciting discoveries will come not necessarily from the material remains of the past, but from the ancient intangibles, from the unwritten forces that have governed human behavior for nearly 200,000 years. In the next half-century, we'll come much closer to the ultimate goal of archaeology--understanding human diversity and ourselves in the context of more than 200 millennia. And that, in and of itself, is reason enough to study archaeology--to understand the world of the past and why human beings are so similar and yet so different.
Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of many general books on archaeology.
© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America