Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The relevance of archaeology?

At the beginning of my Archaeological Methods class earlier this fall, I told my students that archaeology matters because it's "important." By that I meant that archaeology is the only discipline that can provide us with a relatively objective measure of how things were in the past, even following the advent of writing.

In that light, I was excited to read a short paper by Paul Minnis in the latest SAA Archaeological Record (unfortunately available only to dues-paying SAA members) in which he talks about the usefulness of recovering paleobotanical remains of extinct domesticated plant species from archaeological deposits, mainly in the context of ensuring that we have a record of past domesticated plant species. This, he cogently argues, can be beneficial for contemporary debates about world hunger and plant conservation biology:

It would be a logical question to ask what value these extinct crops have beyond simply understanding the past. There are several potential practical uses. First, it may be possible to redomesticate these plants—-we have the best evidence that they can be domesticated because they once were, if the need arises. Their value may well increase further with more sophisticated techniques to manipulate genes independent of breeding of whole plants. Valuable marshelder genes, as an example, could be useful without having to redomesticate the plant itself.

There is additional use of these data. The current distribution where specific crops are grown may not reflect the areas where they could be farmed. Given the accelerated replacement of traditional crops and cultivars, there is every reason to believe that their areas of cultivation have been greatly reduced. The archaeological data, therefore, can provide direct evidence for locations where specific crops might be grown but not longer are.

In a similar vein, it is likely that what appears to be marginal farming areas will need to be brought into cultivation to feed an expanding human population and deal with changes in the organization of food production. Often ancient people had already farmed such locations. Lithic mulching, chinampas farming, and sunken fields are but three examples of the human creativity in developing techniques to grow crops in difficult locations. The archaeological record can provide clues as to the types of crops that might be viable in these locations and may even provide examples of novel farming techniques used to grow them in the past.
(Minnis 2008:50)

I have to say, I'm really liking the kinds of papers that have been coming out in the Archaeological Record lately. Short, to the point, and often emphasizing the relevance of archaeological practice today, albeit from an insider's perspective. What's not to love?


Minnis, P. 2008. Valuing Archaeology. New futures for ancient crops. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(5): 41,50.

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