Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 1

January, 1941


By Erik K. Reed,
Regional Archaeologist.

The major conclusions or hypotheses of American archaeology as it stands today will be only briefly sketched, without detailed presentation of the evidence. Few conclusions are really conclusions rather than hypotheses; most of the important questions are still wide open. For a general background, human history in the other hemisphere might be broadly outlined. Man's ancestors developed out of an ancient generalized giant primate stock, probably in the Pliocene period, several millions of years ago, not from any contemporary anthropoid apes or even from apes similar to the latter, but on a separate line of specialized development out of a very generalized sort of giant primate which also gave rise to the modern apes. Fossil mon of great antiquity, "ape-men" or "missing links", have been found in many parts of the Old World. Whether our species of man is actually descended from any of these is questionable; they are probably cousins rather than grandfathers.

A million or so years ago man commenced using stones and sticks and then actually shaping them to be more useful for his purposes. That was the first beginning of culture and civilization. Our own species seems to have already been in existence at this time. About forty or fifty thousand years ago the last competitor, or other type of man also using tools, the Neanderthal species, died out. By that time the basic rudiments of society and religion had undoubtedly already developed in a very primitive way: art begins soon after, with statuettes and cave-paintings.

Later, perhaps 10,000 years age or thereabouts, came the most important steps in human progress since the first use of stone - the domestication of plants and animals, and the invention of pottery. Housebuilding, the fourth major element of neolithic civilization, goes back earlier, into paleolithic times. The civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, northwest India, and north China began to take form. The next great step was taken - the utilization of metals - copper, then bronze, soon after. The use of bronze begins in the Mediterranean world early in the fourth millennium B.C.: of iron, not until the late second. Bronze seems to have reached China only in the middle or early second millennium B.C. Later developments in the Old World do not concern us in connection with the prehistory of the New World. It might be mentioned, however, that by the time bronze appears in China, certain other traits which were never known in America, notably the wheel, were in use.

The New World was occupied late in human history, from the Old World. The ancestors of the American Indians crossed into Alaska from Siberia, by way of Bering Straits. The first that came, many thousands of years ago, were not typical Indians as we know them. They were less mongoloid than modern Indians, and were probably brown-skinned people with wavy hair. Only much later the mongoloid racial type, people resembling Chinese and Tibetans, enter the New World and overrun and submerge these early peoples.

The date of the first immigrations into America is unknown, but it was much earlier than was formerly believed. An antiquity of 50,000 years for man in America has been suggested, and is not impossible. The earliest cultural remains known in America are the Folsom complex, generally considered to be about 10,000 or 15,000 years old, and the Abilene and Cochise complexes, believed by some to be still older. Thus the occupation by man of the New World took place during late paleolithic times, before the development of pottery, and metallurgy, and before the domestication of plants and animals. Presumably immigration from Asia continued, sporadically, into later times.

The cultural equipment brought by the first immigrants, that of the Folsom group and other early peoples, was of necessity very simple, as neolithic civilization had not yet developed in the Old World. It included very little material culture beyond chipped stone instruments, presumably some wooden implements, and probably basketry. None has been found.

Much later, civilization develops in many portions of America, with permanent houses, agriculture, and pottery; apparently an independent development parallel with that of neolithic civilization in the Old World, lagging far behind the latter in time but arising out of the same paleolithic hunter basis. It has been recently sugested, however, that all the major elements of American civilzation were brought in by late immigrants from Asia. This is not impossible, but there are many difficulties in such a theory.

Most of America remained neolithic, but metalurgy was learned in southern Mexico, Central America, and northwestern South America. In Peru especially, manufacture and use of bronze was highly developed. Goldwork was very advanced in Panama and Ecuador and Peru particularly, and platinum was used in Ecuador. Native copper was used in North America, in the Southeast and the Great Lakes region. The highest development of American aboriginal civilization occurred in two major areas particularly; in Peru, and in southern Mexico and northern Central America. In the latter area two great civilizations arose, separate though related - the Mayan in Guatemala and Yucatan, and the Mexican or Toltec-Aztec, in the Valley of Mexico.

Bandelier cliff dwellings

In the territory of the present United States, advanced cultures arose in two areas - in the arid Southwest, largely due perhaps to ultimate connections with Mexican civilization; and in the Mississippi Valley region and the Southeast, possibly owing something to Mayan, or Mexican influence. The first comprises the Anasazi or Pueblos, of the Colorado Plateau, and the Hohokam of southern Arizona; the second, the various peoples labeled "Mound Builders." Both have agriculture, pottery, and houses. The Southwest is distinguished by the development of painted pottery and, in the case of the Pueblos, by use of masonry and the construction of large buildings. The development of Hohokam civilization appears to have begun about 2,000 years ago; of Pueblo civilization about 1,500 years ago. The antiquity of the Mississippi Valley cultures is not known, but is not considered to be very great.

Of course, hunting cultures continued; agricultural pottery-making civilization was not adopted by all tribes. The Comanche, Karankawa, Kiowa, Navaho, Apache, and Ute are outstanding examples in the Southwestern region of hunting cultures extending into historic times. Certain of these nomad tribes arrived only relatively recently in the Southwest, and may have been late-comers to the New World from Asia.

This story of American prehistory, and its vast array of details not gone into above, has been gradually worked out by archaeologists and other scientists, over a long period, perhaps beginning with Thomas Jefferson's study of Indian mounds in Virginia. American archaeology began to receive more attention about 70 years ago, and more and more work has been done ever since. The work of the past 20 or 30 years particularly has added to knowledge of American prehistory. Many institutions that are devoted largely or partially to archaeological research have entered the field. Certain branches of the Smithsonian Institution have been the agencies of the federal government in this field: the Division of Anthropology of the National Museum, and the Bureau of American Ethnology. Another government agency, the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior, has, since its establishment in 1916, been concerned among other things with preservation of the sites themselves, as well as of artifacts from those sites.

The majority of the archaeological areas administered by the National Park Service are remains of the Anasazi, or Pueblo, group: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado; and the following national monuments: Hovenweep, in Colorado and Utah; Yucca House, Colorado; Aztec Ruins, Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, Gila Cliff-Dwellings, and Gran Quivira, New Mexico; Canyon de Chelly, Navajo, Wupatki, Walnut Canyon, Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, and Tonto, in Arizona. Certain of those are not strictly Anasazi, probably being connected ultimately with a distinct cultural root known as "Mogollon", but they are of the general Pueblo type. Pueblo remains occur also in several National Park Service areas not primarily archaeological, such as Grand Canyon National Park and Petrified Forest National Monument, Arizona; Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah; and El Morro National Monument, New Mexico. The Hohokam culture of southern Arizona, very different from the Anasazi or Pueblo group, is represented only at Casa Grande National Monument. The major structures there, however, are not Hohokam but are remains of a Puebloan invasion of southern Arizona in the 14th century or thereabouts.

Casa Grande ruins

The two archaeological areas administered by the National Park Service outside the Southwest are Mound City National Monument in Ohio, a "mound-builder" site; and Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, one of the most important southeastern archaeological sites.

The National Park Service has been carrying on, over a number of years, an Archaeological Site Survey, covering gradually all the more important known sites in the United States, from the ancient sites of the Folsom complex and other early cultures, to sites of the historic period (i.e., the 18th and later centuries) in the Southeast and Southwest especially. It is planned to extend protection to the most outstanding of these sites at some future time. At present the Archaeological Site Survey is still in the inventory and investigation stage, as it presents a tremendous problem.

The main lines of activity of the National Park Service in the field of archaeology are, first the protection and preservation of ruins, by regulation of travel and prevention of vandalism, and by stabilization and repair; and, second, interpretation to visitors of the ruins and their significance. The Service is unable to carry on any great amount of research, largely because of limitations on funds, but has carried out several research projects incidental to stabilization work, notably at Bandelier and Tonto National Monuents. Many institutions have done research in National Park Service areas in cooperation with the Service.

<<< Previous
> Contents <
Next >>>
Date: 17-Nov-2005