Archaeology of Japanese Internment Camps

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order #9066, authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans. Between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese descent, 62% of whom were citizens, were displaced, mainly to 10 centers in the western interior of the US.

Locations of internment camps, here called “Relocation Centers”

After WWII, most of the structures of the camps were dismantled, leaving little left to see to the untrained eye. To the archaeologist, however, the seemingly barren site contains invaluable information waiting to be uncovered through the examination of foundations, artifacts, trash pits, and landscape features. Archaeological excavations at the sites revealed, among other things, foundations of buildings, remnants of guard towers and fences, latrines, ceramics, Japanese games such as Go, and Japanese- style gardens. These artifacts tell stories about the daily lives of internees that are often left out of official histories and give a glimpse into how the people survived, both physically and emotionally.

The archaeology reveals that the camps’ inhabitants resourcefully found ways to make their environments more familiar and habitable. Traces of Japanese-style rock alignments, walkways, gardens, and ponds remain. In Amache, a camp in Colorodo, there is evidence that the internees repurposed water pipes as planters, used copper wire to train Chinese elms, and made the desert soil more fertile by adding eggshells, enabling them to grow traditional foods. The innovative ways in which the Japanese modified the landscape to reflect their cultural values shows a resistance to a government and an institution that tried to strip them of their heritage.

Remains of a Japanese garden created by internees at Manzanar.

The large quantities of Japanese china and ceramics also show how the internees tried to maintain their cultural identities. Often, people were only allowed to bring what they could carry, so the presence of so many ceramics shows the importance of these items as a reminder of home, as tangible evidence linking them to who they used to be.

The evidence also helps to dispel pervasive myths and misconceptions about the camps. Some residents living near the camps, and others throughout the country, denied that there were guard towers or fences surrounding the camps and asserted that the inmates were “coddled” while other Americans suffered shortages and rations. The evidence once and for all proved these claims to be false.

In this case, archaeology can have a healing effect and provide a sense of closure and, perhaps most importantly, provide validation to those who were interned. It is important that this moment in history is remembered so that the same mistakes are not made in the future. Although the US has acknowledged that the internment camps were not based on military necessity but on prejudice and wartime hysteria, this dark moment of US history is not discussed as much as it should be. Hopefully the excavations can bring Japanese internment into the public conversation and illustrate that the issues that lead to it are still relevant and prevalent today, as racism, ethnocentrism, and balancing civil rights with national security continue to challenge the country.


Additional Reading

Diet of Australopithecus Afarensis

 Australopithecus afarensis, more commonly known as “Lucy’s species” after Lucy, the famous fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is an early human species that lived between 3.85 and 2.95 million years ago in Eastern Africa.

An artist’s rendition of Au. afraensis. Males had an average height of 4 ft 11 and an average weight of 92 lbs, while females had an average height of 3 ft 5 and an average weight of 64 lbs.

A crucial part of understanding Au. afarensis is understanding the specie’s diet and therefore environment, as the environment determines what food is available. To determine the eating habits of Au. afarensis, researchers turned to morphological features relating to diet, such as skull and mandible (jaw) structure and teeth. Based on their strong and robust skulls, large mandibles, and thick enamel, some concluded that Au. afarensis ate hard and brittle foods. However, later studies found that while Au. afarensis could eat these foods, their diet actually consisted of softer foods, mainly grass, leaves, and fruits.

Au. afarensis dentition

One group of researchers conducted a microwear texture analysis on the teeth of various Au. afarensis specimens. Different types of food interact differently with the teeth, leaving distinct textures and abrasions on the surface. Hard and abrasive foods like nuts and seeds create complex patterns, tough foods such as leaves leave long, narrow scratches, and fruits leave pits. From the patterns left on the teeth, researchers were able to determine what types of food the individuals ate. The results showed that Au. afarensis preferred softer foods such as leaves, grass, and fruit to that of hard and abrasive foods.

The molar microwear surface of Au. afarensis.

Another study came to similar conclusions using stable isotope analysis, a technique that involves analyzing the ratio of carbon in tooth enamel from two categories of plants: one of herbs, trees, and shrubs, and another of tropical grasses, sedges, and succulents. The results suggest that Au. afarensis ate more tropical grasses, sedges, and succulents, a consumption pattern that differs from that of earlier species who tended to avoid these foods.

Although researchers now have a fairly clear idea about the diet of Au. afarensis, the questions still remain as to why they ate softer foods when their morphology suggests that they were able to consume tough foods, and why they expanded their diets to include more grasses and sedges. One theory proposes that Au. afarensis used hard foods as a “fallback” in seasons when softer foods weren’t available. Others suggest that their expanding diets were a result of fluctuations in the environment, and that their ability to eat hard and soft foods allowed them to survive short and long-term climate fluctuations and corresponding changes in available resources. However, other researchers disagrees, claiming that the change in diet was instead due to the species exploiting a larger range of resources in a broader mosaic of habitats including grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands.

More studies are needed to determine which theory is most accurate. The case of Au. afarens’ diet is a prime example of how multiple methods of analysis are necessary to gain an understanding of the past. Additionally, it shows the changing nature of our historical understanding and how new methods and techniques can provide further insight and better knowledge than previously attainable.

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