Archaeology Of North America Research Paper

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1. Description Of The Field

North American archaeology is defined as the study of the archaeological record of North America’s past peoples. The field involves the investigation of prehistoric and historic Native American societies, the non-Indian explorers and colonists they encountered, and the development of the modern, pluralistic nations of Canada, USA, and Mexico. The region is unrivaled for the investigation of past hunter–gatherer societies whose subsistence practices involved the harvesting of wild plants and animals.

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A sample of this diversity includes the hunting and fishing peoples of the far north who developed sophisticated toolkits of bone, antler, ivory, and stone for subsisting in the tundra and boreal forest (Norton, Dorset, Thule peoples); the maritime-adapted peoples of southern California and the Northwest Coast who resided in coastal villages, had access to ocean-going canoes, and harvested a bounty of shellfish, fish, and sea mammals from the ocean; the specialized hunters of the Plains who pursued bison and other game over thousands of years using an ever-changing assortment of stone projectile points and hunting techniques; and the foragers of the arid Great Basin who left behind a detailed record of their technology and life ways over many generations in rock shelters and caves (See Ames and Maschner 1999, Frison 1991, Glassow 1996, Madsen and O’Connell 1982, McGhee 1996).

North America is also noted for the study of native peoples who practiced horticulture and lived in settled communities. They include the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands who constructed an impressive range of burial mounds, temple mounds, and geometric ‘effigy’ mounds, participated in extensive trade networks, and cultivated both indigenous and foreign crops (Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian peoples); the ancestors of the contemporary Iroquois who constructed palisaded, long-house settlements in the Northeast; the farming peoples of the Plains who settled the Missouri River in villages comprised of large, earth lodge houses, often protected by ditches and palisade walls; the Pueblo dwellers of the plateau and highlands Southwest who lived in masonry and adobe apartment complexes and practiced elaborate religious observances in underground ceremonial chambers; and the Hohokam peoples of the desert Southwest who lived in large towns with ball courts and platform mounds supported by an irrigation system with hundreds of miles of canals (see Fagan 1995, Knight and Steponaitis 1998, Plog 1998, Trigger 1986).

North American archaeology also involves the study of Spanish, Russian, English, and French colonial sites, as well as later mining communities, plantations, ranches, and towns. An increasing number of studies are focusing on the history of the modern State using the combination of archaeological remains and texts (Deetz 1996, Milanich and Milbrath 1989).

The immense region of North America is often subdivided into smaller geographic areas for study. The authoritative Handbook of North American Indians published by the Smithsonian Institution in 20 volumes subdivides North America into 10 geographic areas: Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, Plains, Northeast, Southeast, Great Basin, California, and Southwest (see Fig. 1). Each area is characterized by its own history of research, archaeological societies, avocational groups, scientific journals and meetings, and regional textbooks. The archaeology of each area is often divided into three broad periods (prehistoric, protohistoric, historic). The prehistoric period encompasses many thousands of years of native cultures prior to evidence of early European contact. The protohistoric period refers to the temporal interval when the effects of European contact were first being felt on native populations (Euro Asian diseases, trade), but prior to permanent European settlements. The historic period begins when European colonies first became established in an area, and regularized interactions between natives and Europeans took place.

Archaeology Of North America Research Paper

2. History Of North American Archaeology

North American archaeology did not develop into a true scholarly enterprise until about 1850. The primary catalyst was the creation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, as well as the founding of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in 1866. Both institutions sponsored pioneering fieldwork and publication programs. But it was the establishment of two arms of the Smithsonian Institution (the National Museum and Bureau of Ethnology) in 1879 that made a lasting legacy to the field. A concerted effort was made to study the traditional practices of Native American peoples before they were inundated by Western technology. A four-field anthropological approach was initiated that involved fieldworkers in the study of native languages (linguistic anthropology), the investigation of contemporary native communities (ethnography), the examination of Native American biological diversity (biological anthropology), and the documentation of past native peoples through the study of prehistoric and historic artifacts (archaeology). Classic examples of this holistic anthropological approach include the debunking of the ‘mound builders’ myth by Cyrus Thomas, who demonstrated that the prehistoric mounds of the Eastern Woodlands were constructed by Native Americans and not by lost ‘civilized’ peoples, and the innovative research of F. H. Cushing and J. W. Fewkes among the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest. Smithsonian scholars were also notable in setting the standards of rigorous scientific research that continue today, such as those developed by William Henry Holmes and Ales Hrdlicka to evaluate the age of early human remains.

The growth of the field really began during the first part of the twentieth century when other institutions began sponsoring archaeological programs. Many of the field and laboratory methods that distinguish North American archaeology today were first developed or refined at this time by such scholars as Max Uhle in California, Nels Nelson and A. V. Kidder in the American Southwest, James Ford in the Southeast, and H. B. Collins in the Arctic Sub/Arctic. Excavations were undertaken using either arbitrary levels or natural/cultural strata, and regional chronologies were generated based on the stratigraphic relationship of time-sensitive artifacts, such as projectile points and decorated ceramics. Seriation was also employed to time-order artifacts from the earliest to the latest, thus providing a relative chronology for sites and areas.

The holistic anthropological perspective distinguished the North American field from archaeological practices in Europe. Most notable was the use of direct historic analogy and the direct historical approach by North American scholars. The former employs ethnographic observations of native communities to generate interpretations of nearby archaeological remains left behind by their ancestors. The direct historical approach, originally advocated by Duncan Strong and Waldo Wedel in the Plains and Robert Heizer in California, is a more sophisticated program that examines the dynamics of culture change and persistence among native societies over many generations. Multiple lines of evidence (archaeological, historical, ethnographic, linguistic, biological data) are employed to study native cultural developments over the prehistoric, protohistoric, and historic periods.

Since 1950, North American archaeology has witnessed three theoretical perspectives that have each contributed greatly to the current state of the field. The first, culture history, developed hand-in-hand with the construction of regional chronologies in the early decades of the twentieth century. It involved cultural classifications of archaeological remains into time– space units. Temporal units outlined the normative or typical settlement layouts, house shapes, artifact types, and subsistence practices for a local region over time. With the advent of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology (tree ring dating), calendar dates could be assigned to each cultural period. Local regions with similar cultural traits were then grouped together into broader geographic areas or culture areas. The current division of North American archaeology into 10 geographic areas is a direct consequence of cultural historical reconstructions.

The second perspective, ‘processual’ or ‘new’ archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s, continues to be a major influence in North American archaeological method and theory. Identified with Lewis Binford and his followers, this program stressed cultural evolutionary models, formal hypothesis testing, explanation of cultural processes, and the ecological adaptations of humans to the environment. Processual archaeology provided a new impetus for re-examining hunter–gatherer societies, and for examining the evolution of ‘complex’ political and religious organizations in many areas of North America.

The third perspective, ‘postprocessual’ archaeology, was inspired by British and American scholars in the 1980s and 1990s whose field research was largely outside North America. Unlike culture history and processual archaeology that were nurtured and developed in North America, the impact of postprocessual archaeology has been somewhat muted. The major contributions to date include the growing importance of historical analyses, the employment of multiscalar approaches, and the broadening of topics to include studies of gender, ideology, identity formation, and so on. (For more detailed treatments on the history of North American archaeology see Trigger 1990, Willey and Sabloff 1995.)

3. Current State Of North American Archaeology

The field is currently in transition. The number of archaeologists has grown substantially since 1950, and employment opportunities have changed dramatically. While most archaeologists were once associated with universities or museums, the vast majority are now employed by the private sector. This was primarily the result of federal and state legislation enacted since 1966 that provides protection, management, and oversight to archaeological remains on public lands. Academic (museum and university) archaeologists now comprise the smallest group of practicing professionals. The largest group are those working for cultural resource management (CRM) firms undertaking ‘contract’ research in accordance to federal, state, and local laws, followed by archaeologists employed by federal and state agencies to oversee the management of public lands and cultural resources. The passage of NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) in 1990 has given a legal voice to Native Americans about the disposition of human skeletal remains and associated funerary artifacts in museums and the conduct of archaeological research on federal lands.

North American archaeology is becoming increasingly specialized, in large part because of the rapid growth of the field, the geometric increase of information resulting from CRM research, and the greater difficulties of obtaining field permits. Long gone are the days when one individual or institution could control or synthesize all the pertinent information for the entire field. Most archaeologists now focus their research in one of the ten geographic areas, and many confine their field work to considerably smaller areas of specialization.

What integrates North America archaeology as a field today are its shared historical roots, common research problems and methods, and political concerns about future funding, the protection of archaeological sites, and continued access to the archaeological record. The major research problems that crosscut the field include: (a) the study of early human antiquity, (b) documenting and understanding the diversity of hunter–gatherer societies, (c) considering the processes and implications of horticulture, (d) examining the organization of ‘complex societies’ characterized by powerful chiefs and religious specialists, and (e) understanding how native peoples responded to different kinds of colonial institutions (mercantile, military, religious), and how the outcomes of these encounters directed cultural developments in postcolonial contexts.

Perspectives on the early peopling of North America are rapidly changing as new discoveries are made (especially in South America). The model of Clovis ‘big game’ hunters crossing the Bering Land Bridge and entering North America approximately 11,500 years ago is giving way to new scenarios. Current thinking suggests that multiple migrations by land and possibly even sea may have taken place many generations earlier by peoples from diverse homelands (e.g., see Meltzer 1993).

Theoretical perspectives of evolutionary ecology and optimal foraging models are now employed in the study of hunter–gatherers, especially in the Great Basin and California, where human adaptations to different cultural and natural landscapes are considered (Madsen and O’Connell 1982). Great strides have been made in understanding the kinds of indigenous plants (e.g., sunflowers, sumpweed) domesticated in the Eastern Woodlands, as well as the spread and local adaptations of corn agriculture in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Plains (Smith 1992). Innovative models are being tested on the sociopolitical organizations, religious practices, ideological structures, and gender relationships in prehistoric Mississippian, Hohokam, Iroquoian, and Pueblo societies (Knight and Steponaitis 1998, Plog 1998). Considerable work is now being devoted to the study of Spanish, French, English, Russian, and American settlements, and the development of the modern capitalistic state (Deetz 1996, Milanich and Milbrath 1989, Trigger 1986).

4. Future Directions

The field will continue to change rapidly in the next few years. Women will make up the majority of archaeologists, and an increasing number of underrepresented minorities will be recruited to join its ranks. One impact of NAGPRA is that more concerted efforts will be made to train Native Americans as professional archaeologists. Public education and outreach programs in archaeology will multiply, and competition for archaeological funding from government and private sources will no doubt increase. As more stringent efforts are made to protect and manage archaeological sites on public lands, noninvasive field methods will be refined and greater emphasis will be placed on the study of existing archaeological collections in museums and other repositories. Undoubtedly, new research problems will be addressed. One issue stimulated by NAGPRA is how to define legitimately cultural affiliations between archaeological remains and contemporary tribal groups (see Fagan 1995 for an excellent synthesis of North American Archaeology, Thomas 1994 also provides an excellent discussion of the field along with museums and sites that can be visited).


  1. Ames K M, Maschner H D 1999 Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and Prehistory. Thames and Hudson, New York
  2. Deetz J 1996 In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York
  3. Fagan B M 1995 Ancient North America, 2nd edn. Thames and Hudson, New York
  4. Frison G C 1991 Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains, 2nd edn. Academic Press, New York
  5. Glassow M A 1996 Purisimeno of Chumash Prehistory: Maritime Adaptations Along the Southern California Coast. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, Fort Worth, TX
  6. Knight V J, Steponaitis V P 1998 Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
  7. Madsen D B, O’Connell J 1982 Man and Environment in the Great Basin. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, DC
  8. McGhee R 1996 Ancient People of the Arctic. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA
  9. Meltzer D J 1993 Search for the First Americans. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
  10. Milanich J T, Milbrath S 1989 First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the United States, 1492–1570. University of Florida Press, Gainesville, Florida
  11. Plog S 1998 Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest. Thames and Hudson, New York
  12. Smith B D 1992 Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
  13. Thomas D H 1994 Exploring Ancient North America: An Archaeological Guide. Macmillan, New York
  14. Trigger B G 1986 Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered. McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, Canada
  15. Trigger B G 1990 A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  16. Washburn W E 1988 American Indians Vol. 4: History of Indian–White Relations. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, District of Columbia
  17. Willey G R, Sabloff J A 1995 A History of American Archaeology, 3rd edn. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, CA


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