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date: 21 October 2021

Questioning the Past in North America

Abstract and Keywords

The biggest problems of North American archaeology involve historical relationships that played out simultaneously on large and small scales. Such relationships undergird how we might partition the continent. The effects of particular places, practices, encounters, events, and people on local history always matter, but the extent to which they affect large-scale networks, change global climate, or reach a mass audience clearly makes them even more significant historically, if not also relevant to understanding historical changes in other parts of the world. With this in mind, this article identifies several overlapping research foci that will define North American archaeology into the future.

Keywords: North American archaeology, local history, global climate, historical changes, archaeological research, population

Questioning the Past in North America

Figure 1.1 Select archaeological sites and cultural landmarks mentioned in text.

Questioning the Past in North America

Figure 1.2 Chart of the Historical Periods of Indigenous North America to 1600 AD.

All but the last five centuries of some 15 millennia of American history are entirely indigenous. This book focuses on that indigenous history, beginning with the initial Paleolithic settlement of the continent and ending with the beginnings of the European invasion. In the process, we will travel from the Arctic in the north to northern Mexico in the south, and from the west coast to the east, ending at about AD 1600 (Figures 1.1 and 1.2).1 In the process, the authors will review the broad developmental trends of human society on the continent and, from time to time, focus on the specific people, places, and things that defined those trends.

Tacking between patterns and details in this manner should help reveal the relevance of North American archaeology, which can help us answer questions about why things happen the way they do. That is, this book is also a study of contemporary relevance of North America’s deep, pre-Columbian, and early-colonial-era history. That relevance hinges on recognizing indigenous history as a lived and not a written history. It also hinges, of course, on one’s perspective. There are multiple points of view in North American archaeology that inform how one tells the stories of the continent.

Most of these varied perspectives may be grouped into two sorts of approaches to understanding the past. These (what I will call the just-the-facts and big-picture approaches) were on display recently during my visit to two archaeological excavations. One was being run by a middle-aged, just-the-facts researcher, and the other was overseen by an older, big-picture thinker. The first site, exemplifying my just-the-facts approach, was a village hidden away on a hill in the woods and had little public-relations potential. The second site, my big-picture example, was a major ceremonial center and, today, a state park. I walked away from the day thinking about the reasons North American archaeology should matter to the contemporary world today.

(p. 4) Those reasons should become apparent in these opening pages through an interrogation of precisely what archaeology in North America is, who has the right to do it, and how it should be done in the future. Here, I first introduce such questions and then outline some of the theories and important historical developments that make North American archaeology distinct. The Native past here, on one of the earth’s eight continents, was unique in many ways. Yet in its specificities, we may gain insight into the general relationships among people, places, and things—or the embodied, spatial, temporal, and material dimensions—of history that are critical in understanding all of human experience on earth.

Opening Questions

Excavating in the debris of the first site, the just-the-facts researcher avoided answering my questions about the big picture.

QWho were these people?

AUnable to say.

QWhat became of them?

AWe can’t know that yet.

QDid you find any arrowheads?

AWe won’t know if what we suspect may be arrowheads are arrowheads until we’ve done a full microscopic edge-wear analysis.

Asked to fit his known facts into a larger regional interpretation, he demurred. I still do not understand what motivated this archaeologist, save some pride in doing science in a way that, he presumably believed, would eventually provide answers to some questions, whatever those might be.

By contrast, the older big-picture archaeologist in charge of the second site was all narrative. She had honed her speech repeatedly during many public lectures and site tours. We learned not only who the residents of her site were but what they had been eating, where they had come from, where they went later, and how and why they did it. A couple of the graduate students who were with me were uneasy with her pat story. They appealed to me: surely we can’t know all of that. Were there alternative stories? I didn’t answer.

The first archaeologist had no overarching story. His research bordered on the pointless and uninteresting. He was seeking truths but didn’t know or wasn’t willing (p. 6) to tell us exactly which ones. The second archaeologist, on the other hand, was all narrative and really interesting, if unable to demonstrate the validity of (and hence change) her story. Each approach has its problems, but together the two approaches reveal a fundamental truth.

Questions of Truths

Let us begin with a fundamental truth: scientific theories and models—especially large-scale models—are themselves narratives or stories that inform our smaller-scale explanations and practices (Hodder 1999). Unfortunately, many North American archaeologists, like our just-the-facts character, overlook this truth from the get-go. They associate science not with theorizing or storytelling (which a few might identify as “interpretive” or “humanistic” approaches) but only with testing hypotheses. These people mistakenly believe that they are thus less biased and more able to see truths (at some future point in their careers). As it turns out, their hypotheses are also rooted in bigger stories, but they tend not to expose or critically reexamine such stories. They should, because narratives, theories, and scientific models are always constructed in the present to serve the explanatory needs of the present.

One might even argue that the purpose of all archaeologies (and histories more generally) is to understand ourselves in our present relative to our past, the presents and pasts of others, and the wider world wherein the presents and pasts are constructed. This does not mean that archaeologists should always talk about the present-day implications or relevance of doing archaeology. Nor does it mean that every obscure fact from some excavation has immediate relevance to the present. The archaeologist’s primary job is to tell the stories of the past in a scientific manner. But we cannot afford to forget that explanations of the past have great relevance in the present.

This is because, without the sort of historical hindsight afforded by archaeology (among other disciplines), it is surely impossible for anyone anywhere at any time to place himself or herself in context. What we are, do, or become can only be understood historically, with reference to a past. Well over 95 percent of past human experience on earth is unwritten. Indeed, most of the living that happens today—the everyday experience of the masses of the world’s burgeoning population—is also unwritten. But all people have and will continue to routinely draw on history to live their lives. For to live life is to constantly—if largely unconsciously—make reference to, or analogies with, what is past (your own or that of others). Because of this human quality, we are all in some way archaeologists, all of the time (albeit not in the sense of an established professional practice).

Thus, although most professional archaeologists might agree on the value of figuring out how and why things happened in the past, it would be a mistake to assume that there is only one way to know the past, or that there was only one past to discover (see Gibbon, this volume). My own approach would be to recognize (p. 7) that, broadly speaking, all efforts at knowledge production that use logic and evidence are to a variable degree scientific, including many non-Western, indigenous understandings of the past. Certainly, there were ancient indigenous scientists: astronomers, architects, healers, and learned men and women who produced cosmic, geometric, pharmacological, and even archaeological knowledge of their pasts based on observations, experimentation, logic, and reason (e.g., Pauketat 2008; Romain 2000).

Questions of Rights

This is where North American archaeology begins today, with people assuming positions about who has the authority to interpret the past and all that such an interpretive authority entails (Watkins, this volume). Of course, the decision should always be open, and subject to negotiation. This is because negotiation ensures that multiple voices will be heard, thereby precluding rogue or idiosyncratic claims and inhibiting overly political moves in the interests of one stakeholder over another. Negotiation does not undercut scientific principles since it does not entail that all positions and points of view are equally valid. They are not. Some of what passes as cultural advocacy might be religious zealotry in disguise. Religious freedom and cultural pluralism should not be construed such that one position might silence another position—whether of creationists seeking to eliminate the teaching of biological evolution in public schools or of an activist attempting to control the funerary remains of someone else’s ancestors.

We all have an equal right to put the past into perspective even if, in the past, Anglo, masculine, and elite points of view took precedence over indigenous, feminine, and working- or lower-class ones. In the practice of North American archaeology, the struggle over native versus nonnative rights has taken center stage, with focus placed squarely on the reclamation of ancestral remains. The struggle exists to a large extent owing to divergent cultural predispositions. Many nonnative archaeologists see the issue as one of control of the physical remains of people; many indigenous people see the issue as one of ensuring the spiritual integrity of themselves and their ancestors. In theory, there should be no controversy here (but see Thomas 2000). Nevertheless, controversies do play out, and usually in local venues.

As it turns out, resolving questions of indigenous rights vis-à-vis archaeology has seldom turned on nonmortuary sites, and yet this is one area where professional archaeological practice and indigenous interests should perfectly overlap. So much of the North American landscape is being radically altered by developers and corporations whose concerns are antithetical to any and all heritage interests: natural gas drillers, mining operations, and subdivision builders whose seas of housing subdivisions and strip malls are often preceded by the bulldozing of the material traces of ancient Native Americans. We need concerted political action to save what is left simply to allow the archaeologists of the future, native and nonnative alike, to interrogate the past. The big-picture researcher at the second, public site knows this (p. 8) all too well. Allowing archaeological landscapes to be erased inhibits our ability to understand ourselves and chart our collective futures. It is a global concern (

Questions of History

To some extent, appreciating the concern for saving the archaeological heritage of North America is contingent on understanding what and where the continent’s history is in the first place. For many years, professional archaeologists have distinguished historic from prehistoric archaeology. Ostensibly, the former describes the postcontact era from which written records exist, and the latter pertains to the precontact (pre-Columbian, pre-Hispanic, precolonial) era where there are no written records. Such a distinction is still made, for instance, by the Society for American Archaeology as a means of organizing presentations at its annual meeting (

Although not all in this volume would agree, maintaining a distinction between history and prehistory has several unfortunate side effects. According to Kent Lightfoot (1995:200), “the current separation of prehistoric and historical archaeology detracts greatly from the study of long-term culture change, especially in multi-ethnic contexts.” Having worked in both precontact and historic eras, Lightfoot (1995:208) concluded that “the present trend to divide prehistoric and historical archaeology into distinct sub-fields is not conducive to comparative analyses of archaeological materials from different aged contexts.” Worse, the separation of history from prehistory often inadvertently privileges the arrival of European literacy as if it were a sea change in Native American society. The diverse multiethnic peoples of the historic era—Europeans or Europeanized—are allowed, in effect, to have history. They are understood to have shaped the contours of their presents in ways that the indigenous people of a more distant past supposedly did not.

The processes of change in the historic era, that is, were presumed to be historic, complete with individuals and events that changed the course of human development. The processes of change in the prehistoric era were said to be evolutionary; human beings and events were not the cause of history but were merely pulled along by it (but see Thomas, this volume). Certainly, major tears in the social fabric of Native America attended the European invasion. But did the precontact Americans become active players in their own history only after the Spanish, French, English and Russians arrived?

Questions of Approach

From the point of view of the narrative-rich, historicized understandings that I advocate here, all people of the past created histories that we need to understand in their own terms. They also wrote this history into the landscapes in which they lived, just as we live and write our history into the landscape today (or erase that history, as developers and corporations know full well). It makes little sense to rigidly separate such (p. 9) landscapes from narratives, or to separate oral histories from material ones (Basso 1996). Navajo basket maker Mary Holiday Black recounted her views as follows: “Each ceremonial basket has a story. There are many basket stories. If we stop making the baskets, we lose the stories” (exhibit at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, 2008: see and

So it was also with medicine bundles of the traditional peoples of the American Midwest and Plains. Even today, when a medicine bundle, or a packet of sacred or historical objects, is ceremonially unwrapped, the bundle keeper or priest recounts in turn the history attached to each thing in the bundle (see also Zedeño 2008). This is said to be oral history, but note that it is also a material history. Bundled history, like all human history, is inscribed with and through things in the bundles and then in the sacred spaces wherein they are opened.

Of course, history can vary, in its tempo and kind or dimensionality, between historical epochs and world areas (Robb and Pauketat n.d.). That is, human experience might have involved moving through, for example, diffuse social or relational fields of open, wild landscapes and clear night skies as opposed to, say, dense cityscapes thick with layers of past human experiences. The obvious difference between such experiential fields would have held divergent implications for the sorts and scales of narratives that people constructed through things, practices, performances, and experiences. The course of human history turns on such differences.

In this volume, Kenneth Sassaman and Asa Randall (Chapter 2) call such approaches “alternative” to those that typified North American archaeology at the end of the 20th century. These approaches stress human experience as a process involving the living of stories that have a distinctive materiality, spatiality, and the like. These also contrast greatly with traditional materialist and idealist approaches that begin by asserting the preexistence of some organization (household, community, or polity) or cultural/behavioral structure (belief system, key metaphor, strategy), which in turn caused subsequent social, political, and economic developments. As opposed to these, archaeological explanations in newer alternative modes make fewer assumptions and thus demand greater empirical content, often entailing precise measures of what happened where, when, how, and to and by what or whom (Pauketat and Meskell 2010). They also increasingly involve recognizing that the agents of change in the complicated historical webs of experience can be human and nonhuman, the latter including the forces of the earth, sky, and plant and animal worlds (e.g., Ingold 2007).

Big Problems of North American Archaeology

Questioning the Past in North America

Figure 1.3 Examples of Embodied Historical Relationships: top left, handwritten note left in a wall of El tiradito (the Wishing Shrine), Tucson, Arizona in 2008; top right, Ramey Incised jar from Cahokia instantiates the cosmos; lower, Hopewell-period earthen mound surrounded by vulviform earthen embankment that demarcated sacred interior space (from Squier and Davis 1848).

Questioning the Past in North America

Figure 1.4 Map of Traditional Culture Areas of North America.

The biggest problems of North American archaeology involve historical relationships that played out simultaneously on large and small scales (Figure 1.3). Such relationships undergird how we might partition the continent (Figure 1.4). The effects (p. 10) of particular places, practices, encounters, events, and people on local history always matter, but the extent to which they affect large-scale networks, change global climate, or reach a mass audience clearly makes them even more significant historically, if not also relevant to understanding historical changes in other parts of the world. With this in mind, I identify several overlapping research foci emphasized more or less by authors in this volume that will define North American archaeology into the future.

Climate Change, Demography, Landscape

In decades past, Native American cultures were assumed to have mapped onto geographic regions and climatic regimes, causing populations to grow and adapt to fit their environment. Of course, today fewer archaeologists think in such (p. 11) deterministic terms. Indigenous Americans were no more conformist—living in static, homogeneous cultures adapted to their natural environments—than anybody else in the world. But climate and demography are related importantly to historical development. Both are aspects of fields of human experience that afford certain relationships and happenings, making some things possible and others unlikely. Obviously, that is, life is lived out in the open, on the land, with people’s practices and narratives constrained by the physicality of experience (in the spirit of Ingold 2007).

Conversely, the specificities of that experience also defined landscapes in a recursive manner, minimally at the scale of one’s immediate environs and sometimes, these days, at global scales. Big questions remain concerning the extent to which people and their cultural relationships were involved with or responded to climatic shifts (Anderson et al. 2007). Considerable work remains to be done. In pursuing that work, leads are being taken from landscape theories, which recognize spaces and places to be part and parcel of meaningful relational fields that in turn preconditioned history to unfold in locally and regionally distinctive ways (Bowser and Zedeño 2009).

(p. 12) Emplacement

Given those theoretical moves, it may seem especially odd that an older generation of North American archaeologists, in pursuing archaeology as just-the-facts researchers, underdeveloped the big narratives that guide research and thus thoughtlessly lived out a role as the “handmaiden” of history and ethnology (see Thomas, this volume). Such archaeologists have routinely overlooked the historical significance of places and place making (Bowser and Zedeño 2009; Cobb 2005). Too many archaeologists still characterize American Indian cultures as if they were placeless shared traditions, inert expressions of some cultural principles or abstract processes that happened regardless of how they lived their lives on the ground.

Places, especially great centers, caused—not resulted from—cultural developments and social organizations. And cultures were not free-floating abstract knowledges that mysteriously continued on their own for centuries. They would have been made real by, among other practices, emplacing them in the landscape. Large-scale performances and theatrical spectacles at such places as Poverty Point, Chaco, Cahokia, Moundville, Hopewell, Werowocomoco, Paquimé, and other great centers in North America educated people’s bodies and channeled their memories, but in a continuous recursive manner (e.g., Sassaman 2005; Van Dyke 2007). Even cosmologies, religious ideologies, and the like were grounded experiences tethered to the real, experiential beings and forces of the earth and sky. Aligned ritual spaces, for instance, were a means whereby people’s bodies might move in harmony with the cosmos, thereby establishing cosmic order on earth (e.g., Romain 2000).

A more traditional 20th-century archaeology has called those orders-on-earth “complex societies” (chiefdoms, states, nations, etc.). But seen as lived histories rather than political structures, these are continuously reconfigured orders of moving human and nonhuman bodies on the landscape. Explanations of complexity must become explanations of emplacement (see Alt 2010).

Extended Identities

Archaeologists who look to agency theories are increasingly incorporating this notion of moving human and nonhuman bodies, including cultural objects, the elements, landscape features, and weather conditions in their explanations of local histories. Likewise, an emerging “indigenous archaeology” begins with an understanding that ancient Native American realities were underwritten by more fluid, animistic life forces that extended agency if not personhood to some people, places, and things seen and unseen (Hall 1997; Watkins 2001; Zedeño 2008). Old notions of social status, roles, and prestige goods used by archaeologists to pigeonhole agents, genders, wealth items, etc., are not always well suited to explanations in such veins. Likewise, kinship systems, residence patterns, or political structures imagined by an older generation of anthropologists to derive from such categories may not be (p. 13) useful. Rather, people and things are seen as malleable, moveable, and divisible. Many American Indians recognized multiple genders, souls, and beings, and the implications of this recognition played out over the long run as collective senses of personhood, hybrid communities, and incorporative polities where, say, captives and others might be adopted and integrated into composite personal, political, or ethnic identities (Alt 2008).

Migrations and Encounters

As described above, archaeologists are increasingly shifting their focus from specific individuals, organizations, or cultural structures to the relationships that defined those things. Relationships in turn are facilitated by movements, engagements, or encounters that repeatedly bring people, places, and things into juxtaposition. The identities of mobile hunters and gatherers, for instance, are not based in a kind of kinship system or hunting strategy but are instantiated through the lifelong experiences and commemorations of regional space (Oetelaar, this volume). Similarly, the identities of migrants are formed through the migration process, one where unfamiliar landmarks, peoples, practices, and arrays of things of a new homeland are rearticulated to self, community, place, etc. (Alt, this volume).

Of course, these are the same processes involved in the culture contacts and creolizations that characterized the European colonization of North America (Noble, Silliman, this volume). The point is that such encounters with “others” and their associated ethnogenetic implications, of variable scales and kinds, are common to all people in all times (e.g., Sassaman 2010). Some might have been diffuse, affected through repeated small-scale contacts along border zones. Others might have been large in scale or effect, for example through a great religious revival or establishment of a distant outpost that converted multitudes of people to new or syncretized ways of being.

Movements and Violence

Social and religious movements, missions, and colonial outposts were commonplace during the historic era (ca. AD 1500–present), but they also were found among indigenous peoples centuries if not millennia ago (e.g., Glowacki and Van Keuren 2011; Mooney 1973). Such movements might help to explain the development of political territories in California, the Southwest, or the Eastern Woodlands. Similar movements at a larger transregional scale may account for the development of the great cultural horizons that aligned and oriented the histories of people for centuries thereafter, for instance Poverty Point culture, pax Chaco, pax Hopewell, and pax Cahokiana (see Alt, Charles, Kidder, Lekson, this volume).

Great movements probably were ushered in as periods of peace and thus need to be considered relative to studies of warfare. Of course, such movements may (p. 14) have mitigated warfare, but they did not necessarily eliminate violence, which can take other forms seldom analyzed by archaeologists (Cameron 2008). Likewise, warfare has seldom been analyzed historically. Not only should our explanations address the causes of warfare, they should account for the consequences of warring. The causes and consequences of organized aggression and other forms of violence remain central problems of North American archaeology (Snead, Wilson, this volume). But researchers are increasingly realizing that warfare is not simply a condition of a certain chronological period or societal type (e.g., Mississippian period chiefdoms). Warring and violence generally are discontinuous and unevenly distributed, and they may need to be understood as a fundamental dimension or potentiality of lived experience in some places at some times. As such, they reconstituted relationships and changed history, whatever their proximate and ultimate causes.

Food Production, Technologies, and Traditions

Food production and storage are also fundamental aspects of what it means to be human that, not incidentally, would have been affected by landscapes of violence or peace and by the scale and character of social and religious movements (among other things). Certain plant or animal food productions, for instance, might have been intensified to the detriment of others contingent on the dangers or freedoms of movement to and from gardens, fields, forests, and bodies of water. Explaining the relationships between cause and effect remains especially critical in cases of rapid, transregional, or pan-continental diffusions of these (if not all) knowledge sets and technologies.

Crops or domesticated animals might have been adopted to fill an open social or culinary niche. That they did so in rapid, large-scale fashion—corn in the ancient world, watermelons and horses in the historic era—says something profound about cultural traditions. To wit, these were not sets of norms, customs, and worldviews passively reproduced and shared uniformly by people, although the materiality of certain practices might make them durable mediators of future relationships (Robb 2007). Some American Indian traditions, for instance, might be characterized as future-oriented and made up of fields of objects, places, and peoples that were anything but conservative.

This is an important starting position that might help explain any number of cultural breakouts, bottlenecks, and pan-continental developments along with their effects. These would include the rapid spread of the bow across great portions of the continent after AD 500, the transregional spread of team sports (the ballgame among the Hohokam, or chunkey among the Mississippians), the pioneer Thule movement eastward across the Arctic, the mimicking of architectural forms between regions, or the adoption and intensification of maize. And all of these—the bow, the ballgame, Thule culture, architecture, and maize—did not simply diffuse across the continent (see Hall, Park, Pearsall, and Peregrine and Lekson, this volume). Local cultural rhythms and practices—how human bodies moved through days, seasons, (p. 15) years, and lives—were fundamentally altered in process. There were big, long-term effects that need to be explained.

Closing Questions

The big problems of North American archaeology are being defined by those who seek to understand the contingent and causal relationships among natural forces, cultural constructions, identities, places, technologies, and movements and encounters of all kinds. Increasingly, they recognize that people, places, and things (material and immaterial entities) are all generative of culture (a dynamic, ever-changing set of relationships) and history. In other words, these historical processes are not external to people, causing us to exist in certain social configurations (e.g., Pauketat and Meskell 2010; Sassaman 2010; Snead 2008). Rather, they are relational and are located in what we do and how we do it relative to all of the other forces of life that might be experienced.

Those who are defining and redefining the big problems of North American archaeology are part big-picture and part just-the-facts archaeologists. The former’s narratives are obviously an essential aspect of engaging the public, but they might also stifle research if they are too pat (see Erlandson and Braje, this volume). Alternative or hybrid approaches in archaeology, particularly indigenous and subaltern archaeologies, acknowledge the relevance of the questions researchers ask but also require a good deal more empirical content. On the one hand, without such an awareness of relevance, we find ourselves reduced to a naïve, just-the-facts approach that, intentionally or inadvertently, assumes that the problems of archaeology are self-evident and that theorizing or storytelling is not scientific. On the other hand, too much narrative at the expense of historical detail can lead to ossified storylines that inhibit younger generations of archaeologists from seeking better explanations.

The best North American archaeology begins with explicit narratives, some covering the continent (see Section 2). Such stories and theories allow us to envision the scales and complexities of relationships and agencies that define history. Big narratives permit us all to grapple with specific historical processes in regions or at specific sites (see Section 3). Why did people think what they thought or do what they did in the past? How did people accommodate the disparate, if not divergent, political interests of others? Why did they support or resist social movements, adopt or reject new technologies, move to an unfamiliar area, or convert to a new religion? What happened as a consequence of such thought, doing, accommodation, movement, adoption, or conversion? A North American archaeology that asks such questions on the one hand and considers their basis in truths, rights, history, and approach on the other is more than a handmaiden to history and ethnology. It is an essential part of a human understanding of the world and of our humanity that can help us meet the novel challenges and persistent problems of the 21st century.


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(1) . In this volume, years are sometimes reported as BP (before present) or RCYBP (radiocarbon years before present). AD (anno domini) and BC (before Christ) are designations used as well, which are the equivalent of CE (common era) and BCE (before common era), respectively. Some authors prefer to work with dates that have been calibrated or adjusted relative to actual tree rings; these are reported herein as cal AD, cal BC, cal BP, or cal RCYBP.