PREHISTORIC CULTURES OF NORTH AMERICA

S. Crouthamel, American Indian Studies/Anthropology, Palomar College

II. Culture Theory and Archaeological Method

 A.  American Indian Cultures

Native Americans include the Yupik, Inuit, and Aleut people of the Arctic in addition to all the American Indians from the Subarctic of North America to the Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. People in the Far North and Far West in North America; and in the Pampas and Tierra del Fuego in South America were seasonal hunters and gatherers. All of the American Indian people from the Plains, Southwest, and Eastern Woodlands in North America to the Andes, Gran Choco and Brazilian Highlands in South America practiced some kind of farming based on CBS (corn/maize, beans, squash). All of the American Indians in between,  including the Caribbean practiced CBS farming. These 'First Americans' suffered tremendous population losses, mostly due to European diseases. Europeans perpetrated many fallacies about Native American people and cultures. In turn archaeology has been able to reveal more accurate information about the cultures of the American continent. In many cases the archaeological findings are controversial, but as a science archaeology has grown and changed to correct errors. Native Americans have begun to work with archaeologists in their own quest to learn about and preserve traditional cultures. 

  B. Archaeological Survey, Excavation, & CRM

Archaeology is the study of ancient or past cultures. As a discipline it applies theoretical concepts from cultural anthropology and other sciences for an understanding of ancient cultures and their environments. Our anthropology department has a set of tutorials designed by Dr. O'Neill that may be of some help. Culture is basically the ideas and behaviors humans learn expressed in language, arts and material things humans produce. Thus, archaeologists are excavating for evidence of the impact on environment and  objects humans produce to provide clues to a particular culture. It is like detective work. Rather than focusing on one crime, archaeologists are trying to reconstruct a human groups collective activity in time and geographical space. It is even more difficult is to reconstruct activity at a place where humans are 10,000 years ago. The evidence is dramatically altered by both natural and human forces. A simple outline of  human culture may be useful. Remember these elements are integrated into very complex cultural systems of functional and structural elements.

Language  language phyla are used classify different groups
Settlement  geographical areas and places people live, including dwellings, land use, etc.
Economics  subsistence patterns, technology, trade, and markets
Social Organization social relations, society, institutions; organizational levels are sometimes listed as: family group-band-tribe-chiefdom-state
World View ideas about the cosmos, earth, life, power; in Western culture/religion, philosophy, scientific theory
Expressed Form  arts, technology, etc; sometimes these are viewed as products of any of the above categories

Archaeological data  provides more information about settlement, economics and expressed form. Language, social organization and world view are more subjective and difficult to elicit. However, certain patterns can be ascertained from archaeological data, especially with well designed strategies of excavation spatial control, careful handling and laboratory analysis.

Archaeological fieldwork is the primary method of gathering data. However, fieldwork must begin with a research design based upon needs of information about an area and adequate resources. Once this preliminary planning unfolds background research and a survey of an area or a known site must be conducted. This establishes the parameters of a site, maps and improved strategies for testing. Initial tests might be samples such as cores, shovel test pits or even 25x25 cm test pits. Trenching an entire site or section was typical in salvage work and earlier excavations for testing. However, this is considered far too intrusive and destructive today. Once the site is tested to confirm parameters a plan is devised to excavate 1x1 m or 1x2m units in a planned or random grid. These units are excavated until levels are reached that are sterile of human impact. Eventually the units are covered and any mitigation or preservation tasks (CRM- Cultural Resource Management) are carried out. Artifacts must be processed and taken to a lab, cataloged and stored for further research. Other data, such as soil samples, are also taken. The most difficult aspect of the entire process is getting time and resources to store and/or properly analyze the data. Once the data is organized and analyzed a report is generated; and further publications may be produced based upon the impact of the information in terms of anthropological theory and reconstruction of the appropriate cultural tradition. A number of sources are available dealing with archaeology method and theory. Also, the  ANTH 110: Introduction to Archaeology at Palomar College provides an introduction to archaeological method and theory.

A note on dates and dating that is used in the text, notes and in various reports might clarify the confusion. There are many different techniques of absolute and relative dating of a site artifacts and surrounding strata. The dates that you see are expressed in different forms. Earlier European convention was to give dates as years BC (Before Christ) or AD (Anno Domini) in the Gregorian calendar. However, in the 1960s archaeologists, geologists and other scientists shifted to using BP (Before Present) dates. Thus a 1000 BC date would be 3,000 BP. To add to the confusion, sometimes these are in lower case. Later, some historians adopted BCE (Before Current Era) and CE (Current Era) in an attempt to be more universal. Carbon-14 (Radiocarbon dating) was discovered in 1949 by W. Libby and can date organic material up to 50,000 years BP. The date for before present was also set at 1950, but it was necessary to recalibrate Carbon-14 dates, since radiocarbon are not exactly the same as calendar years. In technical reports these are listed as RCYBP (Radio Carbon Years Before Present) vs. CYBP (Calibrated Years Before Present). Most general texts and writings will use the simpler BP system with the exception of the Southwest. In the Southwest dendrochronology (tree ring dating) was developed with BC / AD charts and dates. This was developed by A.E. Douglass in the 1920s at the University of Arizona and can use beams in archaeological sites that have been preserved in a desert environment. Dates can be arrived at a little over 11,000 years BP. This technique is being used in other parts of the US and world.

Next Lecture: III. Paleo-Indian Traditions

Updated  8/2009

Copyright by S. J. Crouthamel 2013