Channel-ing the Sustainability of Ancient Societies

How often do you think about archaeology being used to help modern societies use resources better? It’s not like Indiana Jones (sorry, for the clichéd example) went around searching for the mysterious, lost sustainable farming methods. However, archaeology can help us protect our environment and resources by showing us how our predecessors dealt with these issues in their time.

Northern Channel Islands (airial)

The Channel Islands

(Source: )

The Chumash people of the California Channel Islands are one such culture that can give us important insights to resource management. As early as 9500 B.C. Channel Islanders figured out how to regulate their hunting and fishing so as to not completely decimate their food sources. Historical ecology studies examine the dynamic between these people and their environment from 10,000 years ago onward. It appears that, although there were occasional declines in the populations of various animals, these populations also came back[1]. The Chumash clearly understood how to manage their resources.

Discoveries of shell middens have taught us a lot about the Chumash’s way of life[2]. Archaeologists have found many different types of projectile points, showing that the Chumash hunted many different types of animals[3]. By diversifying their prey, they had the ability to hunt certain populations while letting others grow.


Different tools and projectile points discovered on the Channel Islands

(Source: )

Interestingly, other evidence indicates that the Chumash and those who came before them did have more impact on the evolutionary diversity of the islands. They brought dogs to the islands! Dogs did a lot of good for the people on the islands, like security, friendship, and hunting assistance. As the numbers of dogs on the islands increased, though, their presence began to impact other animal populations[4]. They killed and drove away many birds and sea mammals. So, although the Chumash’s hunting and fishing techniques are a great example of resource management, their mistakes, like bringing in an invasive species, can also be instructive to today’s society.


Aww! How could a dog impact the environment? Well, transplant about a hundred into an island ecosystem…

(Source: my own photo)

Human impact of this environment has increased significantly in historic times, with oil spills, over-fishing, and other factors. Luckily, the Channel Islands are protected now, but what about the rest of the world? We can learn from the Chumash’s restrained fishing techniques because, although we do have some regulations today, in my opinion, they need to be stricter and focus more on cycling different fish populations. But there has to be more widespread awareness and understanding of this archaeology first.


[1] Torben C. Rick and Jon M. Erlandson, “Archaeology, Ancient Human Impacts on the Environment, and Cultural Resource Management on Channel Islands National Park, California”, CRM Journal Fall 2003: 86-89. Accessed November 14, 2013.

[2] IBD

[3] “New Archaeological Evidence Reveals California’s Channel Islands as North America’s Oldest Seafaring Economy”, Smithsonian Science, Last modified March 3, 2011.

[4] John Barrat, “Science Brief: Dog Bones Reveal Ecological History of California’s Channel Islands”, Smithsonian Science, last modified July 6, 2009.


Rituals of the Mysterious Penitente Brotherhood

This week, I got to attend a lecture by Professor Carlo Severi on Doña Sebastiana, a worshipped symbol of death in the Catholic cult called the Penitente Brotherhood. The Penitente Brotherhood, made up of Spanish-Americans, began in New Mexico. The presence of Doña Sebastiana is not the only interesting tradition that arose in this isolated community; the Brotherhood practiced self-flagellation in the belief that they should experience Christ’s suffering.

I was interested in looking farther into the ritualistic practices of the Penitente Brotherhood. Historical records have helped researchers today learn about the Brotherhood. The work of Charles Lummis proved invaluable in painting a picture of the Brotherhood’s rituals when he had the opportunity to watch and photograph a crucifixion in 1888[1].

The ritual involved recreating the Passion of Christ. According to Lummis, he waited for the Holy Week, when he knew the crucifixion and other ritualistic acts of self-flagellation would occur. Lummis had to be persistent to obtain permission to photograph and attend the ritual, since condemnation of their practices had led the Penitentes to be very secretive. What he saw, included a procession where men whipped themselves, and one man even wore a pack of cactus with thorns that dug into his back. Lummis’s description of the crucifixion itself demonstrated how fully the participants believed in their rituals. Thomson writes, “As they tightened the ropes, the man on the cross ‘sobbed like a child,’ Lummis reported, not because of the pain but because he was ashamed that they were not using nails instead”[2].


One of Lummis’s photographs.

The Penitente Brotherhood is still active today, although they don’t do self-flagellation anymore. However, they are still very secretive in their practices. One ritual that an outsider was allowed to attend involved extinguishing thirteen candles and then praying in the darkness, to symbolize Jesus dying[3]. The Penitentes have also permitted onlookers for their procession on Good Friday, the exact events of which vary in each Penitentes community. Other than these practices, it must also be noted that charity and sacrifice are important values for members of the Brotherhood[4].


Rituals of the Penitente brotherhood today.


Understanding the rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood today is valuable in understanding a current cultural group, and also in understanding their rituals and reasons behind those rituals in the past. In archaeology, this technique of using behavior of a culture today to understand a similar or ancestral people is called analogy. Talking to the descendants of a group are invaluable, especially when dealing with the ethics of studying a culture. As interesting as the rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood are, they also represent real people’s culture and have to be respected in the past and present.

[1] Mark Thomson, “Encounter with the Penitentes”, in American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001), Accessed 11/10/13

[2] IBID.

[3] Ruben E. Archuleta, “Los Penitentes del Valle”, Colorado Central Magazine, Accessed 11/10/13,

[4] IBID.

I Got a Rock…

When Charlie Brown said that on Halloween, he was less than excited. But that’s because he wasn’t doing archaeology, where finding rocks, especially those that are part of foundations or walls, is awesome! Getting a rock for trick or treating is less fun but I digress.

When you think of archaeology, you probably imagine giant excavations, where people are uncovering dinosaur bones or ancient cities. When I went out to do fieldwork for the first time, that wasn’t exactly what we did nor what we were looking for. Surveying is a technique to find archaeological data, which doesn’t include any digging but thoroughly scanning an area (on foot, in our case) looking for evidence on the surface. It often comes before excavation (well, you have to find sites before you can dig, right?).

So basically, we went exploring in the middle of the woods. No trails and lots of tree roots hidden under leaves waiting to trip you up (living dangerously). As we navigated the hilly terrain (a great work-out, by the way) we were keeping our eyes out for evidence of a town that used to exist in Richardsville, near Kent, New York.

Boyd's Corner Reservoir Kent Cliffs


A photograph of the Boyd’s Corner Reservoir

New York City took over the area to make and preserve reservoirs for the city in the late 19th – early 20th century, so the town was abandoned. Dr. Beisaw wants to examine how the uprooting affected the local people and culture. Conclusions drawn from the past can help determine how regulating people for environmental reasons will have an impact today and how to lessen said impact. That’s the point of archaeology, to use the past to help improve the present and future! For anyone interested in learning about the watershed conservation controversy, here is an interesting segment about it from WNYC radio.

The reality is that if you haven’t already explored the area you’re researching, there is no way of knowing if anything is there. My group’s trails didn’t seem to be yielding many results. However, when we reached the end of our assigned area, we did end up finding something! We came across a large, curved stonewall and a metal sheet (part of a roof, perhaps?) propped up on rocks on the inside of the curve. We speculated that there might have been construction in the area, especially given the concentration of large boulders and other rocks that most likely were not deposited by nature.



This is similar to the metal sheet we found. It doesn’t look like much, right? Well, when you come across this in the middle of the woods, after hours of looking for evidence of human habitation, this is one of the coolest things ever.

Overall, fieldwork has to be approached with an open-mind, open eyes, and the energy to hike! And we didn’t just end up with a rock, we got a whole wall of rocks!



Beisaw, April. “Field Survey Manual”. 2013. Web. Access October 6, 2013.