Space, the Ocean, and Our Trash

Imagine the following scenario. You are taking a walk down the street and see an empty beer can on the side of the road. Your first thought is likely that it’s a piece of trash and should be disposed of. Maybe you even take the time to put it in a trash bin. Now imagine the same scenario, but the beer bottle has a label indicating it’s from the Revolutionary War era. Now the bottle probably has significantly more value as a historical artifact. The question is, when do we consider something trash, and when do we consider something as having enough archaeological significance to preserve its existence? 

A perfect example of this is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (See Figure 1), discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, who used drones to find the massive expanse of plastics and other non-biodegradables (National Geographic 2022). As Alice Gorman says in her book, Dr. Space Junk vs. The Universe, “what is junk to most is what archaeologists find most valuable” (Gorman 2019, 118).  This is not only applicable to the context of extraterrestrial debris, but also to debris on earth. Even though it was only discovered in 1997, the patch had to have existed for years before then for Moore to have discovered it at the size that it was. While many marine biologists have pointed to the fact that the enormous garbage dump, growing by “an estimated 2.41 million tons of bottles, bags, and other polymer materials” (Deer 2021) each year, has caused serious damages to the surrounding oceanic wildlife, (see Figure 2), some of the trash discarded could provide valuable insights into life in the past. 

Also in her book, Gorman suggests the creation of a heritage list to determine which space debris should remain in orbit and which should be removed (Gorman 2019), something that could also be useful for future cleanup efforts in the garbage patch. Similar to how the Voyager Golden Records might someday provide insight into humanity for alien life, the presence of a mass garbage dump without the threat of being buried under layers of dirt and soil could provide future humans invaluable information regarding how we lived years before. Indiscriminate removal of all trash in the patch could potentially destroy years worth of artifacts. Currently, a number of different organizations are working to limit the spread of the garbage patch (National Geographic 2022) just as many spacefaring organizations are working to remove space junk from orbit. Alice Gorman has already established the importance of archaeology in extraterrestrial contexts, and by the same principles, archaeology should play an equal role in the cleanup of trash in a place that could hold objects of great cultural significance to certain groups and individuals. 

Just as leaving culturally significant objects in space increases the chance of collisions, leaving trash in the ocean causes undeniable environmental issues. However, it is the role of the archaeologist to determine what from humanity’s past should be removed, and what should remain as a reminder of our past. 

Figure 1:

The different garbage patches that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (National Geographic, 2022, Map courtesy of NOAA)

Figure 2:

Seal ensnared in a discarded net as a result of the damages of garbage in the ocean (USA Today, 2018, NOAA)

Other Readings

Information on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:

Information on Garbology:


Gorman, Alice. Apr. 2019. Dr Space Junk vs the Universe : Archaeology and the Future. Sydney NSW, NewSouth Publishing.

National Geographic. 2022. “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic. June 2, 2022.

Deer, Ryan. 2021. “The History and Future of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Roadrunner Recycling INC. June 3, 2021.

NOAA. 2022. Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Article Image. National Geographic.

NOAA. 2018. Hawaiian Monk Seal Entangled in Discarded Fishing Nets. Article Image. USA Today.

What Can the North Sentinelese Tell Us About the Past?

         Over the course of the last few millennia, mankind has undergone rapid development that has spawned many things that we consider to be vital to society, whether it be agriculture or iPhones. However, amidst the rush for improved technologies, some groups have managed to remain rooted in the past and continue to live life similar to how humanity did many thousands of years ago, namely the people of the North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. These people have remained in isolation for 60,000 years of history, save for a few encounters with anthropologists and colonial-era ships, but are incredibly hostile towards any intruders on their island (McDougall, 2006). Regardless, these people have proven interesting to anthropologists for many reasons, including their genetic relation to “their pre-Neolithic ancestors” and the clues they could hold to deciphering more about ancient humanity (McDougall, 2006). The only known visit to their island reported that there were “a group of huts […] with a carefully-tended fire outside each one,” which could provide an accurate picture of ancient human settlements and allow us to better understand other archeological finds around the world and provide more context to the use of bioarchaeological techniques to understand the cultures of ancient peoples (Smith, 2018). By using a current and intact example of a pre-Neolithic village and lifestyle, we can compare, and contrast knowledge gained from the North Sentinelese to the bodies and archaeological sites found from other civilizations to gain better insight into their traditions and practices. However, we know a few things about this group that can aid research, particularly the existence of burial practices within their society. These practices have been observed a few times, but most notably with intruders they have killed and gifts they have buried. After killing two Indian fishermen in 2006, they were buried in “shallow graves” in the sand of the island’s beach (McDougall, 2006). A similar treatment was also given to the pigs and toy doll that were given as a gift to the Sentinelese in the 1970s (Survival International). This indicates that this group displays at least some modicum of reverence for some objects and the dead, some of which aren’t even their own people or species, and could point to the existence of possible religious practices and ceremonies. These practices could be used to contextualize similar practices of other island peoples and allow us to gain a better understanding of their processes and spiritual reasons regarding burial rites. Research on these peoples would open a window to humanity’s past that could unlock many secrets about our development, however many question whether that is worth the disruption and likely decimation of an entire indigenous peoples. Ultimately, many have decided that the price is not worth this and elected to cease sending anthropologists to the island in 1996 (Survival International). 

North Sentinel Island as seen from above (Wikipedia, 2023, photo courtesy of Jesse Allen)
A structure known as the Jangli hut on Rutland Island, similar to housing on North Sentinel Island (Khan, 2018, photo courtesy of Maurice Vidal Portman)

Other Readings

History of North Sentinel Island:

Anthropological Visits to the Island:

Works Cited

International, Survival. “Sentinelese.” Survival International. Accessed October 1, 2023.,have%20been%20in%20the%20Andamans. 

McDougall, Dan. “Survival Comes First for Sentinel Islanders – the World’s Last ‘stone-Age’ Tribe.” The Guardian, February 12, 2006. 

Smith, Kiona N. “Everything We Know about the Isolated Sentinelese People of North Sentinel Island.” Forbes, September 12, 2023. 

Khan, Tanveer. “North Sentinel Island: Home to an Uncontacted, Hostile and Primitive Tribe.” STSTW Media – Unusual stories and intriguing news., November 20, 2019. 

“North Sentinel Island.” Wikipedia, September 20, 2023.