Piping Hot Archaeology

The Dakota Access pipeline has become an increasingly contentious issue in the past few years, largely due to its infringement on lands in North and South Dakota where Native Americans used to live. At the surface, running an oil pipeline through currently uninhabited land seems innocuous, but Native Americans still hold that this territory is very important to their culture and spirituality. Brought in to sort out the difficult questions, archaeologists have dug deeper to find evidence of previous Native American religious sites and graves of the ancestors of living Native Americans.

Vicinity map of project area, with the proposed path shown in red

Native Americans and archaeologists have relied on several pieces of legislation designed to protect the rights of Native Americans and their culturally significant historical sites and artifacts. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) are the two key legal documents in this battle between Native Americans in the area and the companies who own the pipeline. In particular, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe believe that the legislation has not been followed to the fullest extent, leading to many of their identified sites being overlooked during the surveying and environmental risk assessment process.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) states in its environmental assessment that “based on data compiled from previously executed archaeological investigations, it is recognized that much of the region [around the pipeline] has been inhabited by human populations for approximately 12,000 years” (Source 1, page 87). Despite these findings, the USACE states that “the Proposed Action is not anticipated to impact cultural resources” for the areas in question around the pipeline (Source 1, page 116).

A Dakota Access pipeline protester defies law enforcement officers who are trying to force them from a camp on private land in the path of pipeline construction


The Native Americans have focused their efforts on highlighting the negative environmental impacts that the pipeline will have on its surrounding areas, including contaminating drinking water and disturbing nearby archaeological sites through the process of constructing the pipeline. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in the United States Department of Transportation, there have been 2,057 pipeline incidents in the past three years, validating the concerns of the Native American tribes. However, the USACE has allowed the pipeline to progress because the owners of the Dakota pipeline have plans for minimizing the damage and environmental impact on the nearby cultural resources in case of an oil leak, and the owners have also claimed that ground disturbances are minimal during the actual construction of the pipeline.

In spite of this, archaeologists have continued to survey the areas and have determined that “the current Project Area has a moderate to high probability for archaeological deposits” (Source 1, page 87). Using these facts to empower the Native Americans fighting for their ancestors’ culture and spirituality, archaeologists have provided a new hope for the native people to reclaim their land rights. Yet the battle for cultural rights is not over, and the Native Americans need more archaeological assistance to further their case to disallow the Dakota Access pipeline to degrade their ancestors’ land.




  1. http://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Planning/Project-Reports/Article/633496/dakota-access-pipeline-environmental-assessment/ (United States Army Corps of Engineers – Final Draft of the Environmental Assessment Dakota Access Pipeline Project)
  2. https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/DAPL%20EA.pdf (Dakota Access Pipeline Project, US Fish and Wildlife Service – Environmental Assessment Grassland and Wetland Crossings)
  3. http://opsweb.phmsa.dot.gov/primis_pdm/all_reported_inc_trend.asp (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, US Dept of Transportation *note can only be opened in Microsoft Internet Explorer 11- not 12- and Mozilla Firefox*)
  4. http://acra-crm.org/resources/Pictures/ACRADAPLStatement_9_28_2016.pdf (American Cultural Resources Association Statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline)



  1. Map of the Dakota Access pipeline (From the Source 2 PDF)
  2. Native American man protesting


Further Reading:

  1. How the archaeological review behind the Dakota Access Pipeline went wrong
  2. Archaeologists denounce Dakota Access pipeline for destroying artifacts

A Case Study of Ourselves and Our Waste

Bill Rathje was an archaeologist who pioneered the field of garbology, studying modern trash to learn more about what society discards. Garbologists excavate and analyze the contents of city landfills to determine the societal patterns of wastefulness. In his book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Edward Humes reports that “17 percent of the garbage by weight… consisted of food waste,” and “nearly equal portions were completely edible” as compared to legitimate trash (Humes 159). This pinnacle of extremely high resource use and waste has been dubbed the Classical Period in a civilization’s chronological arc. In previous civilizations, this period of resource abuse has been quickly followed by a sharp decline in amount of available resources, and consequently the decline of the entire civilization.

Twin Moai statues in the quarry Rano Raraku

One such civilization that parallels our current global situation is a 63-square mile island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Rapa Nui. By the 1700s, transmission of diseases from South America decimated the island’s population, and that toll was only worsened by the rampant slave trade in that area. There was little evidence of a once complex society with the ability to coordinate infrastructure capable of feeding tens of thousands of people and constructing massive stone Moai statues.

However, archaeologists have discovered plenty of evidence for logical explanations regarding this isolated civilization and its gigantic Moai by performing a wide variety of tests, including radiocarbon dating and palynology. Through this evidence, scientists are able to track the use of resources on the island throughout the rise and fall of this civilization. As the islanders increased their resource exploitation, primarily by felling large palm trees, their production, output, and sophistication greatly increased.

The complete deforestation of Rapa Nui is evidenced by the lack of a single tree

However, overhunting and vast deforestation led to immediate consequences such as losses of raw materials, wild-caught foods, and crop yields (Diamond 116). The long-term consequences of the islanders’ irresponsibility with their resources “start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (Diamond 119). Clearly, this ancient people went through the predictable rise and fall of all great civilizations to date.

It may seem drastic, but this is directly analogous to our current global situation, as we are presumably isolated in space with many environmental issues pressuring our large-scale decisions. However, it is not only the major decisions about removing forests that cause all of the harm to our environment, and in turn our civilization. Rather, the small decisions we make every day about relatively simple things can make the big difference. Through his “groundbreaking” research, Rathje has provided us with invaluable insight into how we are readily approaching the end of our Classical Period. Once we use up all of these resources, our civilization will begin to collapse and continue to spiral downward. But if we each make conscious effort to make the little decisions better for our future environment, we can extend our Classical Period far into the future.



Diamond, Jared M. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.

Humes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. New York: Avery, 2012. Print.



Twin Moais

Massive Deforestation on Rapa Nui


Further Reading:

Jared Diamond TED Talk: Why do societies collapse?

University of Washington Garbology Project