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North America's Vast Legacy Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by David J. Meltzer

[image] (Lynda D'Amico) [LARGER IMAGE]

During the last 50 years, we have learned a great deal about North American prehistory. That knowledge has come partly from spectacular discoveries like the eighteenth-century village of Ozette, our own mud-encased Pompeii on Washington's Pacific coast, preserving thousands of artifacts made of wood and other perishable material, and Olsen-Chubbuck on the eastern Colorado Plains, where 10,000 years ago Paleoindian hunters stampeded nearly 200 Bison antiquus (the larger but now extinct ancestor of the modern buffalo) into a cramped arroyo and slaughtered them. Olsen-Chubbuck's investigator dissected the bone bed with such meticulous care that he was able to reconstruct the events leading up to and following the kill down to the smallest detail, even to the point of inferring that the wind blew from the south.

In the summer of 1966, a paleontologist collecting fossils from along the Old Crow River in arctic Canada found amidst a jumble of bones from now-extinct Pleistocene animals a caribou tibia, its end carved into a toothed spatula. The mammoth remains found with the flesher appeared to have been flaked and fractured, like artifacts. The specimens were more than 25,000 years old, far older than anything then known from the western hemisphere. But other researchers soon proved nature could create fractures just like those at Old Crow with embarrassing ease, and redated in the 1980s the caribou tibia flesher proved to be only 1,350 years old.

Excavations in the late 1940s at Bat Cave, New Mexico, produced rich deposits of small, primitive-looking corn cobs. A piece of associated charcoal gave a date of before 6000 B.P. (years before present), far earlier than anyone expected. Bat Cave became a gateway in the northward spread of corn, beans, and squash. New excavations at Bat Cave in the 1980s, however, proved that its corn was no older than 3120 B.P. Eastern squash turned out not to be Mesoamerican at all, but an indigenous gourd, and it got older, not younger. Along with sumpweed, chenopod, and sunflower, squash found in samples throughout the east proved older than the Bat Cave corn. The traditional chronology was suddenly turned upside down. Eastern North America was not merely the benefactor of an evolutionary process that began elsewhere but a precocious, independent center of domestication.

Understanding the regional system to which sites belong has fundamentally changed our understanding of North American prehistory. Take Chaco, the venerable complex of 14 multistory, many-hundred-room Great Houses, and a series of linked smaller villages, all clustered along a short stretch of desert valley in New Mexico. In the 1970s archaeologists surveyed the surrounding San Juan Basin. What emerged from this research was a new vision of a brief but far-flung and intricate sociopolitical web. The Great Houses were connected (this showed up on aerial photographs) to distant outlier sites and other Great Houses by a network of carefully engineered roads stretching across hundreds of miles (see "Spirit Paths of the Anasazi," January/February 1994).

Around A.D. 1000, Thule hunters moving east encountered seafaring Norse moving west. The Norse sagas tell of that meeting, and their attempted Vinland settlement, but it was only with the discovery of a village at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, that the sagas and the archaeological record intersected (see "In the Footsteps of the Norse," January/February 1993). That site vividly attests the Viking presence in America.

This early North Atlantic contact loomed large in the lives and deaths of the players, but the vast majority of Native Americans were quite unaware that worlds were colliding. All that would change with the next round of contact, beginning in 1492. Archaeology attests a world come apart. There was extensive demographic collapse in native North American populations, partly from competition and warfare but mostly from infectious diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza introduced by Europeans. No one site captures the full picture, but Tathum Mound, in Florida, visited by the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, gives a glimpse. There 70 natives had been laid out (some in parallel rows) in a mass grave, a devastating epidemic the cause of death. De Soto traveled throughout the Southeast between 1539 and 1542, and his expedition's chroniclers record a land densely populated with people and towns (see "Death March of Hernando De Soto," May/June 1989). A century later, when the French returned to the region, it was virtually empty.

Throughout the history of American archaeology there has been an uneasy relationship between archaeologists and the people they study. Native American sites were excavated by the thousands and human skeletons and accompanying artifacts put on public display across the nation. It was genteel grave robbing. In the late 1980s, a powerful alliance of Native American groups successfully lobbied Congress to regain some control over the archaeological past, which they conceived as their own. The result was the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It calls for museums and institutions that receive federal funds (that's most of them) to inventory Native American skeletal remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in their possession and, if requested by descendants or affiliated tribes, return them. There has been fierce rhetoric on both sides and, inevitably, NAGPRA is now being challenged in the courts.

David J. Meltzer is a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University.

* See also, Forces That Shaped the Past: Origins of the New Archaeology, by Lewis R. Binford. The father of the most important theoretical movement in twentieth-century archaeology muses over a few seminal events of his long career.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America