Think Tank

Great scientists discuss the breakthroughs of the last quarter century—and the next

Thursday, March 31, 2005
RELATED TAGS: HUMAN EVOLUTION

Alas, the most important development to hit archaeology in the last 25 years is one we archaeologists can be credited only with shamelessly (and sometimes naively) exploiting. That's the advent of archaeology at the molecular level. Thanks to our brethren in genetics, chemistry, and physics, we can now track population lineages in ancient DNA, reconstruct diet and local environment from a suite of stable isotopes, and use particle accelerators to determine the age of specks of organic material with astonishing precision.

Where molecular research might take archaelogy in the next 25 years will depend in part on buffeting winds that have followed a global upsurge in native rights. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, and legislation like it in other countries with large indigenous populations, is changing the relationship between archaeologists and the people whose ancestors we study. In some high-profile cases this has prevented the application of techniques like the analysis of ancient DNA, which stands poised to finally answer questions we’ve been asking for a very long time, like: Who are we? And how do we relate to one another? Some argue that native rights will be the death of archaeology. I’m not that pessimistic. Our kind will be around 25 years hence. But I would soothsay that the business of doing archaeology will be very different.

David J. Meltzer, professor of prehistory,
Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University


In the last 25 years ...
... the discovery of Homo floresiensis, the miniature-size humans from the remote Indonesian island of Flores, is genuinely unique. Never before has a fundamentally different kind of human being been found who lived at the same time as our own species, Homo sapiens. That raises an intriguing question: Is there truth after all in the many stories from many lands of other humans, extralarge or extrasmall, living in the mountains or the forests, which have been dismissed as myths and fantasies? One can hazard guesses from past experience about future discoveries, but those that change everything—like Flores—are unexpected. Of predictable discoveries, one can forecast several: another great Ice Age painted cave like Lascaux or Chauvet; a rich Egyptian burial, perhaps as fine as Tutankhamen’s; an ancient city buried under sediment in the valley of one of the great west Asian rivers; and a rich cache under the heart of a great Mesoamerican city.

 

Christopher Chippindale,
curator, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The most important trend of the last 25 years ...
... has been the growing appreciation among scholars and the general public alike of the relevance of archaeology to the modern world. In my own area of interest, archaeologists now understand that the collapse of classic Mayan civilization around A.D. 800 was caused by a combination of factors, including population growth, intercity competition, warfare, economic disruption, and drought.

The classic Mayan rulers were apparently aware of the great problems facing them but made decisions that exacerbated rather than ameliorated these problems and thus accelerated the collapse.

There are helpful lessons for today’s leaders from the Mayan case and comparable others. Moreover, the long-term success of the Maya in exploiting their tropical rain forest environment prior to the collapse, with populations far exceeding those today, can provide useful clues to economic development in the region today. Likewise, a key trend in the coming 25 years will be the realization that the destruction of the remains of the past has reached crisis proportions and that archaeologists will have to significantly increase their efforts to persuade governments and people to conserve the world’s archaeological heritage. In the Mayan area of Mexico and Central America, the rate of archaeological site destruction is accelerating rapidly, both as a result of modern development and through the looting of sites for treasures.

Unless such losses are stemmed, the kinds of data needed to better understand the growth of Mayan civilization and to provide stronger lessons from the past will be irrevocably lost.

Only a huge concerted effort, far beyond the considerable work of individuals and groups already under way, will save this precious heritage and allow scholars to make it relevant to our world today.

Jeremy A. Sabloff,
professor of social sciences, University of Pennsylvania


The discovery in southeast ...
France of the Chauvet cave made instant world news 10 years ago because of the aesthetic quality and the variety of its art. Another shock came when accelerator mass spectrometry results dated the art to more than 30,000 years ago. The consequences are far ranging. Chauvet confirms the existence of a religion that lasted for more than 20,000 years all over Europe. The expertise obvious in the drawings shows that people with artistic gifts were chosen to draw in the caves and also that they must have undergone a specific training. More important still: The age-old paradigm of art having crude beginnings and evolving in Europe to more and more sophisticated forms is now a thing of the past. Art did not evolve in an ascending line. In the next 25 years, we shall know far more about human migrations and how they developed, thanks to DNA. Taking into account the fact that Africa, Asia, and Australia were peopled by modern humans long before Europe, we can expect the discovery of very ancient rock art on those continents.

France of the Chauvet cave made instant world news 10 years ago because of the aesthetic quality and the variety of its art. Another shock came when accelerator mass spectrometry results dated the art to more than 30,000 years ago. The consequences are far ranging. Chauvet confirms the existence of a religion that lasted for more than 20,000 years all over Europe. The expertise obvious in the drawings shows that people with artistic gifts were chosen to draw in the caves and also that they must have undergone a specific training. More important still: The age-old paradigm of art having crude beginnings and evolving in Europe to more and more sophisticated forms is now a thing of the past. Art did not evolve in an ascending line. In the next 25 years, we shall know far more about human migrations and how they developed, thanks to DNA. Taking into account the fact that Africa, Asia, and Australia were peopled by modern humans long before Europe, we can expect the discovery of very ancient rock art on those continents.

Jean Clottes,
former general inspector of archaeology and scientific
adviser for prehistoricrock art at the French Ministry of Culture

The discovery in Eastern...
Central Asia of large numbers of human remains, including skeletal materials and many extremely well-preserved mummies, must rank high among the most important events in the archaeology of the last quarter century. Research on these Bronze Age and Early Iron Age inhabitants who lived in oasis settlements around the edges of the Taklimakan Desert in the Tarim Basin in China has already done much to plug the gap between the development of civilization in the eastern and western parts of Eurasia. Specialists in textile technology, metallurgy, linguistics, physical anthropology, and other fields have added much to our understanding of the dynamics of cultural exchange in this period of early history and prehistory.

During the next 25 years, it will be genetics that reveals the most about the crucial role of the peoples of eastern Central Asia in the human drama of the past four millennia. Studies of the haplotype distribution of both mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes will become increasingly extensive and finely detailed, enabling us to plot the movements of ancient groups with greater precision. The final result, I believe, will be a ringing affirmation of the interrelatedness of all human communities, with the earliest denizens of eastern Central Asia being the linchpin that ties them tightly together.

Victor H. Mair,
professor of Chinese language and literature, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania


The most significant discover of the past ...
25 years is the shipwreck at Uluburun, discovered by sponge divers off the southern Turkish coast in 1984. It sank in 90 feet of water in about 1318 B.C. In brilliant excavations, Cemal Pulak and George Bass recovered tin for making bronze weapons and enough copper ingots to equip a regiment, as well as amphorae, ivory, and exotic wood—a cargo so rich that it may have been a royal consignment. The ship is a capsule of Bronze Age trade in the eastern Mediterranean 3,300 years ago that demonstrates how underwater archaeology is not just about shipwrecks but also about life on land.

The most significant trend in the next 25 years will be sensational discoveries in the laboratory rather than in the field. In the next quarter century, archaeologists will face the reality that artifacts and sites are vanishing before our eyes. Once disturbed or excavated, they are lost forever. I suspect that the frenetic pace of discovery will give way to an overriding concern for conservation, for preservation of the resource for future generations. Otherwise, archaeology as we know it may no longer exist in 2030.

Brian Fagan,
emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California at Santa Barbara


MY PICK FOR THE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY OF THE LAST QUARTER CENTURY IS THE MONTE VERDE site in Chile, which established a new time line for peopling the New World. For decades that date was fixed at about 11,000 years ago from the so-called Clovis complex. The Monte Verde research directed by Tom Dillehay, now at Vanderbilt University, shows that people were busy down in South America at least 1,000 years before Clovis and disproves Clovis-first dogma. It’s a new ball game.

My hope for the future is the renewed study of long-distance contacts. Archaeology has completely marginalized the study of cultural interactions across continents and oceans, so most of the work along those lines—big surprise!—has been pretty marginal. Archaeologists know long-distance contacts probably happened, but we get twitchy thinking about it. I expect that the next 25 years will see legitimate scientific studies of long-distance cross-cultural contacts, with impacts such as technology and disease that explain much that is currently murky in prehistory.

Stephen H. Lekson,
associate professor and curator of anthropology, Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado at Boulder

The most signifcant discover in archaeology ...
in the last 25 years are new discoveries, new technologies, and new ways in which people approach the past. Ground-penetrating radar, satellite images, and magnetometry help identify sites and give outlines of buildings and the layout of towns without disturbing the soil, while CT scanning and other imaging technologies help to study mummies nondestructively. New scientific techniques have helped identify different materials used in mummification and have helped identify the components of paints, glues, and other materials. The increased exploitation of ethnoarchaeology and experimental archaeology helps clarify not only the nitty-gritty of daily life and technology but also social structures and nuances in human relationships.

The next 25 years will see more scientific techniques developed: Work on ancient DNA will advance sufficiently to trace diseases and family relationships in mummies, and increasingly sensitive ground-penetrating devices might lead to undisturbed or undiscovered tombs (Alexander the Great’s?) and towns or aid exploration in remote areas, such as Egypt’s Western Desert, which might link the archaeology of the African continent together more coherently from the Paleolithic to the pharaonic past.

Salima Ikram,
associate professor, Department of Egyptology, American University in Cairo

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