The Biggest Treasure I Found After Five Decades in Archaeology

indus valley

Flush with my newly minted university degree, I sat down for breakfast with my entrepreneurial grandfather who met me with the question, “So you want to study to be an archaeologist, go to graduate school, how do you plan to make a living, dig for treasure?” My indignant response was “no” as that was never the plan, and clearly against my educational training and ethical principles. And yet, despite the familial doubts, “why not business?” I elected to follow the path that I had chosen; a life spent teaching, conducting research, and writing about past times and the many lives that occupied them.

An analytical lens across the depth of time is archaeology’s greatest attribute. Since the mid-20th century, tens of thousands of archaeologists and their collaborators have examined the material remnants of human activities going back to the earliest arrival of our forebearers across six continents. Our record of the human career is so much deeper in time, wider in space, and more variable than what was imagined 50 to 75 years ago. Beyond its time depth and global scope, archaeology, in contrast to written texts, is not inherently skewed toward “the winners,” those with political power and/or economic clout. Archaeology’s dirt-derived data can neither fib nor exaggerate.

As an archaeologist, my vantage on humanity’s past has been enriched and broadened by the privilege to implement decades of fieldwork in civilizational centers—Mesoamerica and China; 25 years working at a major museum; the co-authoring of nine editions of a general textbook on global archaeology; and more than 30 years of editing synthetic archaeology papers for a major professional journal. I learned how meaningful the past can be to people and how the investigation of humanity’s career must be done with integrity. At the same time, as researchers in archaeology and history have gathered information across the world, we see how the paths of human history were not uniform. Nor were our pasts static. The interpersonal affiliations, institutions, and agglomerations that we have formed over millennia, including cities and states, have not arced linearly through time toward a single uniform destination or outcome. They did not move progressively or at the same tempo through a stepladder of sequential stages. Gone is the era when it seemed legitimate to presume that most of what was relevant in history happened in or can be gleaned exclusively from the midlatitudes of Eurasia. The grand narratives that offered universal explanations based on race, geography, environment, inherent human nature, and even demographic growth can no longer be sustained in the face of evidence.

Recognizing the alternative pathways of humanity’s pasts is not a reason to ignore, selectively straitjacket, or whitewash our collective histories. Just as it is now inappropriate to presume that the classical Mediterranean world or medieval Europe are suitable proxies for a homogeneous human past, it is shortsighted to argue that the pasts of non-Western peoples were unchanging or Utopian.

Past or present, humans are humans, forever selfish yet the best cooperators with non-kin on the planet. And, our cooperative arrangements need not always be instituted from the top-down. Rather, we cooperate by creating rules and institutions that establish norms of practice, which are contingent and situational, but may also be enduring.

We now must come to grips with the empirical reality that our collective past was more heterogeneous and complex than once thought. This is not a moment to despair, but rather a key opportunity. We now have the rare chance to compare and contrast systematically and concertedly the different ways that people rose to meet past challenges. Archaeology and history provide us with the information and tools to examine and explain how people addressed problems in the past. These studies position us to see and evaluate patterns that might otherwise be obscured in the present—yielding a crucial vantage to unpack and understand alternative outcomes.

Archaeology’s comparative global lens provides an empirical foundation to see what worked and what didn’t, and what was sustainable and what was not. Serious, holistic, and empirically grounded perspectives on humankind’s past afford a record that if cool-handedly cumulated and scientifically scrutinized yields insights to avoid daydreams and dark visions too often attached to the past as well as the potential nightmares at the cusp of our futures. We have learned that neither our genes, our origins, nor our environmental geographic settings entirely determine the paths ahead. To a degree, we, as people, and the institutions we belong to, help shape what is to come; the compendium of knowledge rendered through archaeology and history provide us with an ample archive of alternative road maps, practices, and consequences that are instrumental to frame and define the decisions that we must make collectively ahead.

After five decades in archaeology, I have come to realize that my grandfather was, in a sense, right. I did find treasure—information, perspective, and insight germane to unraveling humanity’s past and its pertinence for the present and its shared future.

Gary M. Feinman is a MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.

This article was produced by Human Bridges.

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