In my November column in the Columbus Dispatch I consider a couple of important, but seemingly perennial questions in Ohioarchaeology: When did people first come to Ohio? and When did Ohios early hunting and gathering cultures first take up farming? I conclude with the observation that it may well be impossible to find definitive answers to these questions for interesting reasons. If thats actually the case (and youll have to read the column to see if you agree), then, rather than trying to draw precise lines in the shifting sands of imperfect knowledge, we should be trying to come up with better questions questions that are aimed at shedding light on the evolutionary processes of discovery, colonization, domestication, and other important turning points in the human evolutionary story.

That’s as may be, but the search for the first or the oldest of just about anything is fascinating to most people including most archaeologists. As a result, archaeologists who can make the case that they have found evidence for the oldest human ancestor, the first Americans, the earliest pottery or the oldest mound not only get more media attention, they also are likely to get more funding for their work.

I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that this work isnt important.

Discoveries of the oldest [insert favorite cultural Rubicon here] irresistibly grab the medias attention and the stories that appear, even if theyre a bit sensationalistic, remind the general public of the value of archaeology which is good, because the general public, in one way or another, pays for much of the scientific research that gets done in the United States and it helps if they think what were doing is important.

And it is important. We may never find the oldest whatever, but every time we find an older one, we get that much closer to the oldest. Eventually, we get so close that it gets harder and harder to find anything older. At that point, were justified in using that provisional date as one of the parameters for our more process-oriented questions.

For example, we may not know precisely when the first Paleolithic Asian stepped onto American soil and became the first Paleoindian, but we do know, for a variety of reasons, including the genetics of modern Native Americans and the timing of the colonization of the Siberian arctic by modern humans, that the original discovery of the Americas couldnt have occurred before about 20,000 years ago.

We may never find the equivalent of a Paleoindian Plymouth Rock at which to build a monument commemorating one of the epic achievements of humanity, but we do have a reasonable framework from which to begin building better theories for explaining the rapid spread of humans throughout the hemisphere, the ecological effects of that expansion, the evolution of the diverse Native American cultures, and the timing of the shift from foraging to farming in the Americas versus the Old World.

And what if someone someday finds a site thats demonstrated to be 30,000 years old — or even older!?

After taking a moment to celebrate the awesomeness of the discovery, wed get down to the work of building even better theories.


Brad Lepper

Posted November 11, 2012
Topics: Archaeology

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