Immigration reform: Obama’s new executive order and its impact on archaeology

In class this week we learned about how immigration policy in the United States has made life hell for many of those attempting to cross the border into our nation.  Most of the border is protected by security, while one stretch in the harsh and unforgiving Arizona desert is left unprotected as a “natural deterrent”.  Thousands of immigrants have

A group of immigrants attempting the trek across the US-Mexican border.  As you can see, they are carrying plastic jugs of water to stay hydrated, although the water likely is not enough.

A group of immigrants attempting the trek across the US-Mexican border. As you can see, they are carrying plastic jugs of water to stay hydrated, although the water likely is not enough.

died in that harsh environment just trying to make it across (lots due to lack of water), and many made it here just to get deported back to their home countries.  That might change soon, thanks to some recent activity at the White House.

Just this past Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order aimed at giving more protection to undocumented immigrants.  According to the order, undocumented migrants who have been in the

President Obama discussing the details of his executive order, prior to its release on Thursday.

President Obama discussing the details of his executive order, prior to its release on Thursday.

United States for at least five years will be able to apply for a government program that protects them from being deported and allows them to work legally in the US without facing potential criminal prosecution.  In addition, more migrants will be protected from deportation through reforms to the United States’ immigration enforcement system.

What does this mean for immigration into the United States, and how do we apply archaeology to this question?  Well, archaeological researchers have found that immigrants are perfectly willing to undergo the trek through the desert rather than immigrate through parts of the border a with less dangerous climate but more heavily guarded by the United States border patrol.  Moreover, these immigrants often depart without the supplies they need to keep a lower profile.  Examples of this are the imitation Nike sneakers worn instead of hiking boots (which are not as good at protecting the feet but make them look more like Americans) and the black plastic water jugs used by some (which heat up their water but are supposedly “less visible”).  An executive order making it easier for immigrants who make it across the border to stay in the country will undoubtedly make immigration to the United States more enticing for those living in Latin American nations.  In addition, since this order was not accompanied by a loosening of security on the parts of the border that do not lie along the Arizona desert, the increased number of immigrants trying to cross over will undoubtedly funnel through the Arizona/Mexico border and many will die.  So, Obama’s new policy will lead to not only more immigrants (who might not have before wanted to cross over into the US due to fear of deportation but now feel that they will be safe) but to more deaths in the desert.  A potential solution to this problem would be to set up water stations on the border.


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Shored Up: Dealing With the Realities of Climate Change


A view of Long Beach Island from the East.

Shored Up is a documentary that delves into the impact that climate change is having on sea levels and therefore beachfront property that is close to the shoreline.  Included in the documentary are interviews with scientists, activists, lobbyists, and others with opinions on beach erosion and its effect on homes.  The focus of the documentary is on Long Beach Island, an island off the coast of New Jersey that is 18 miles long and about 400 meters (around a quarter of a mile) wide.

One of the release posters for the Shored Up film.  The image of waves flooding a construction plow and coastal houses perfectly conveys the film's anti coastal development message.

One of the release posters for the Shored Up film. The image of waves flooding a construction plow and coastal houses perfectly conveys the film’s anti coastal development message.

On the island in question, beaches are being eroded by rising sea levels and by general ocean activity (the movement of waves and such).  Owners of expensive waterfront property are having the beaches in front of their property “replenished”, which means essentially that extra sand is being dumped in front of their houses to replace that lost to erosion.  This is all being done at the expense of taxpayers through the federal, state, and local governments (although most of the funds are being raised federally).  This “beach replenishment” has sparked a wide-ranging debate concerning whether it is a good idea or not.  Some feel that it is, some feel that federal funds are being squandered, and some feel that “beach replenishment” is not an effective long-term solution due to the fact that rising sea levels projected by scientists over the next century (over a meter) will flood over the houses that are being temporarily protected anyways.

I agreed with the overall argument of the movie that rising sea levels will eventually destroy any economic or residential development close to the shoreline and that we should therefore think more carefully about where we build.  However, I noticed that mentions of “global warming” were scarce and that talk of greenhouse gases generated by human activity was lacking altogether, although this would be a logical explanation to give for the rising sea levels.  I believe that this was done to avoid alienating those who deny the existence of “global warming” and still appeal to them.  Mention of recent temperature increase was given, but this was not attributed to “global warming”.  I personally believe that deniers of global warming would much more easily object to “global warming” itself than an abject statement of temperature change, meaning that the film would still be able to appeal to those non-believers.  I don’t believe in the use of these tactics and I think that the full scientific argument should have been presented, not parts of it.  After all, making one’s argument more “presentable” is not going to have a real impact on our nation’s anti-scientific political climate, which is at the heart of the problem.

The relation between the climate change described in the documentary to archaeology was implicit yet relatively simple.  As long as this erosion of the beaches due to sea level rise continues, archaeological sites that formerly existed under those beaches will be destroyed.  In addition, the “beach replenishment” itself may be destroying archaeological remains, as heavy plows which could damage those records are being used to spread the new sand.  In other words, the only way to save archaeological sites on the coast is to find a long-term solution to the erosion problem that would most likely involve combating rising sea levels and global warming.

Also, archaeological methods have been used to collect much of the data that proves climate change is occurring, as described in Colin Renfrew’s Archaeology Essentials.  Many ice cores have been extracted from ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.  These cores tell us that whenever the greenhouse gas level rises (as measured within the cores themselves), global temperatures increase.  And right now greenhouse gas levels measured in our atmosphere are higher than they have been for the last half a million years.  So, in this way, archaeology can be used to provide evidence that climate change will take place in the near future.


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.


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Homo Neanderthalensis: Caveman or Industrialist?

This week in class we talked about how early humans used tools to hunt, butcher meat,and perform other tasks, and how archaeologists have been unearthing these tools as artifacts.  I had previously read about the use of glue in early stone tools and was intrigued by it, so since we did not cover this thoroughly in class, I decided to do more research.


A reconstruction of a Neanderthal holding a spear bound using manufactured glue.

As it turns out, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) used glue in their tools and were one of the first species to do so.  The glue used by Neanderthals has been discovered in two different types.  The first was made by retrieving and heating asphalt deposits, yielding a sticky substance that could be used to bind a spear tip made out of stone to a wooden shaft.  This glue was used along with animal sinew or some other form of “string” used to tie the wood to the spear tip.  A second type of glue was manufactured using an even more complex process.  This glue was made by extracting pitch from birch bark.  Through experimental methods, researchers have discovered that manufacture of this pitch would entail heating the bark to a temperature of higher than 650 degrees fahrenheit in an oxygen-free environment.  The pitch has been discovered at archaeological sites in Königsaue, Germany; Inden-Altdorf, Germany; and Campitello, Italy.  The substance was found near Neanderthal-style tools, implicating Neanderthals in the manufacture of this complex material.  The sites date back from 40,000 to 200,000 years.


A juxtaposition of the skulls of Homo Sapiens Sapiens (left) and Homo Neanderthalensis (right).

The implications of these finds are astonishing.  Both of the types of “glue” yielded by Neanderthal manufacture qualify as “synthetic” materials, as heat was used to extract a substance that could not be harvested directly from the earth from another that did occur in nature.  Furthermore, the second process implicates that Neanderthals had some knowledge of chemical principles, as they had to not only create an environment with a very high temperature but one containing no oxygen, which would require a conscious effort to devise a method of excluding oxygen from said environment.  This use of critical thinking skills is one that we would typically attribute to our species alone – yet these finds suggest that Neanderthals were doing it before modern humans even existed, over 200,000 years ago.  This evidence is key in the debate on whether Neanderthals should be classified as a subspecies of Homo Sapiens (our species).  Interbreeding is known to have occurred between the two species, and usually it is only possible for members of the same species to mate.  However, there are still several key differences between the two.  Perhaps this discovery that Neanderthals used similar synthetic processes to those present in the modern human archaeological record proves that Homo Sapiens Sapiens are not so different from them after all.


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