Tattoos Across Cultures

Although tattoos were originally thought to have dated back to around 2,000 B.C to ancient Egyptian times, recent archaeological discoveries have carbon-dated tattoos to be approximately 5,200 years old. Due to such discoveries, the certainty of when tattoos first originated has become rather unclear. In Egyptian times, “the distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on the lower spine and right knee and ankle joints correspond to areas of strain-induced degeneration, with the suggestion that they may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic” (Lineberry). Archeological studies have shown that ancient Egyptian tattooing was primarily a practice reserved for women. Tattooing was used “during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth. This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts” (Lineberry). It is believed that older Egyptian women would pass this tradition of tattooing down to the younger counterparts. The symbolic value of the tattoo in ancient Egypt differs drastically from Samoan culture and more parallely resembles ancient Japanese culture.  

While tattoos do not date back quite as far in Samoan culture as they do in Egyptian culture, tattooing was a long standing tradition that represented an individual’s rank within the tribe. Tattoos in Samoan culture were most often associated with men; however, “women too endured tattooing, but their patterns were typically smaller” (PBS). The men’s tattoos would, “forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions.”(PBS). Typically, Samoan tattoos started at a man’s mid-torso and extended downwards towards their feet. The process of receiving these tattoos was both an extremely painful and dangerous one. Besides the excessively high risk of infection, the men would experience massive amounts of pain, as the tattoos would typically take up to a year to heal completely. The entire tribe would come together to help support the man who received the tattoo. The tattoos needed to be cleaned daily and the men oftentimes needed help with daily tasks, for even just sitting and walking was rather painful.

While different cultures throughout the world have used tattooing as a way to symbolize their beliefs, it is important to note that although these cultures have tattooing in common, the symbolism behind the practice of tattooing differs from culture to culture. This does that mean that there are no similarities in tattooing practices across cultures. For example, Japan and Egypt both used some tattoos as protective symbols, while Samoa and Japan used certain tattoos to denote an individual’s rank (Kearns). Japan’s tattoo practice incorporates elements of both the Samoan and the Egyptian cultures, but still maintains its own uniqueness (Kearns).

Image result for traditional samoan tattoo

Above is a picture of a traditional Samoan tattoo. One that begins mid-torso and continues downward.

The tattooed right hand of a Chiribaya mummy

Above is a corpse that has been mummified and the tattoos that are showing have been preserved over thousands of years.

Reference List

Kearns, Angel. “Inked and Exiled: A History of Tattooing in Japan.” Bodylore: Gender, Sex, Culture, Folklore, and the Body. February 28 2018. Web. <>.

Lineberry, Cate. “Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History.” January 1 2007. Web. <>.

PBS. “Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo.” PBS Thirteen. 2003. Web. <>.


Additional Content

Exhibiting the Colonized: Modern America’s Erasure of Contemporary Native American Art

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Native American art? If you’re anything like the majority of non-Native Americans, a vague jumble of pottery, baskets, and blankets probably sums up all you know about Native art. But what about prints, photographs, paintings, and all the other forms contemporary art can take? Native artists have been creating incredible, inventive contemporary art for decades, but most Americans have no clue.

Here’s a piece of contemporary art you’ve probably never seen before: “Animals out of Darkness,” a 1961 print made by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak and displayed in “Decolonizing the Exhibition,” a show of modern Inuit art hosted by the Frances Lehman Loeb Gallery at Vassar College.

The reasons for this knowledge gap, said the artists, collectors, and curators on the panel Decolonizing the Exhibition: Four Perspectives on Indigenous Visual Culture in the Museum Space, are numerous. First off, very few museums exhibit contemporary Native art. Some own contemporary pieces but never let them out of storage, while others display only decades-old examples of “traditional crafts” that are often viewed from an ethnographic perspective—that is, not as works of art, but rather artifacts that provide information about the life ways of Native peoples.

For example, a look through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website revealed a single gallery containing the “art of Native North America,” part of a larger collection entitled “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” The most recent pieces in that gallery are “1970s-era tobacco bags.” By contrast, the American Wing has 73 galleries, while the Modern and Contemporary Art collection hosts over 12,000 works by a wide range of international artists dating from 1900 to the present. Although it would have been impossible to look through the combined 29,000 pieces in these two collections, the fact that the gallery of Native art is separate from both the American and the modern collections suggests that few to none of the works in the two latter collections are by Native artists.

The gallery of Native North American “artifacts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to this museum conundrum, the panelists pointed out that Native Art is rarely studied or discussed in academia. Sarah Sense, a Native artist with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, said that she had never taken a course in Native art and had rarely seen any examples of it during her time in art school. Similarly, Pilar Jefferson, an art history major at Vassar, said that she had never discussed Native art in the classroom.

This erasure of contemporary Native artists has a range of negative consequences. By only exhibiting works that are generally over a century old, museums reinforce the Eurocentric narrative that Native Americans all died off or simply vanished after the arrival of European settlers. And by displaying Native art as ethnographic artifacts or traditional handicrafts, museums negate Native artists’ creativity and ability to respond to the modern world.

“Red Raven, Red Raven,” a screen print made by Tom Greyeyes, a contemporary Navajo artist, in response to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the recent film adaptation of “The Lone Ranger.” This is one of many examples of Native artists critiquing the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media.

From both the panel and the exhibition of contemporary Inuit art in the Loeb Gallery, it quickly became clear that contemporary Native art is not only real but thriving, addressing everything from the incorporation of modern technology into traditional life ways to the portrayal of Native Americans in the media. Contemporary Native American pieces are not crafts or artifacts; they’re works of art.


To see more contemporary Native American art, check out the following links:

Tom Greyeyes’ blog

Sarah Sense’s website

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts



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The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection

Sarah Sense Weaving Water

Pitaloosie Saila Strange Ladies, 2006

Vassar College’s Art History program has been known for its progressive contemporary art programs, but for this experiment interdisciplinary efforts were called for. In fact, the Art department was not the one to call for this experiment – the Native American Studies department did the majority of the preparatory work under Professor McGlennen. It took two years, but the class, Decolonizing the Exhibition, was a huge success; pulling from the Art History department many of its students. In its novelty the exhibition held a panel for students inside and outside the class to hear from the forces that put the exhibition together. One panelist was McGlennen herself; another, Edward Guarino, a collector of Indigenous art and friend of Vassar; third, a student: Pilar Jefferson; and lastly, Sarah Sense, a Native American artist.

All four panelists explained the goals of the course as related to the art/museum world, as well as the education world. The panelists expressed their concerns that they had never learned about the contemporary Native American art movement in their Art History educations and when they came into contact with Indigenous art in the museum it tended to focus on older generations in an anthropological manner.

The way this exhibition was executed – through the Native American Studies department instead of the Art department – allowed for a new approach to contemporary Indigenous art installation. Jefferson and McGlennen both explained the limitations and challenges of such an exhibition, especially in a museum, where traditionally Indigenous art is displayed in an anthropological manner, stopping right around the 20th century – as if Indigenous art died out, as if Indigenous people died out. This tradition of displaying only older generations of Indigenous art and artifacts in art museums reinforces the colonialist view that Indigenous people died out when the Europeans came.

McGlennen and her students stressed this problem in their working on the exhibition, in hopes that they could destroy this traditional view of Indigenous art. They picked contemporary art because it was so rare in the art museum and it exemplifies the struggles that Indigenous people encounter, sometimes the same problems as older generations, often compounded with new problems. They also expressed interest in being as true to the artists in their wall labels as possible because none of the students were Indigenous themselves. They began each label with a quote from an Indigenous person, always conscious of their job as allies.

The most important theme in this exhibition was the idea of “the story.” It seemed to all four panelists that Indigenous art sought to tell, express, or continue a story. Sense and McGlennen, both Native American, agreed with this idea; Sense many times told a story herself in hopes to explain her art to the students. McGlennen stressed, though, that the exhibition’s purpose was not to simply display the art in a non-anthropological way, but to help display the art without adding America into the story. Even if America affected the story, the story was never about America.

Peace in Sustainability

War is not a sustainable part of any society. War has been a leading factor in the downfall of many civilizations. It’s a plague on humanity that seems inevitable in any modern society, and for the most part it is. Why? Agriculture is the culprit.

Behold, the bane of human existence

Behold! The bane of human existence

That’s a grossly oversimplified explanation, but one that does not need to be stretched very much to be justified. Agriculture brought with it sedentary lifestyle. Once the dispute for land and water began, the motives for warfare became unavoidable. The problem is that agriculture is just unsustainable. The most sustainable strategy for a peaceful civilization is that of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The practice of hunting and gathering left very little impact on the environment it took place in. Because of this, the environment in which it took place was able to provide sufficiently enough sustenance for the groups in that area, and when it was no longer a reliable food source the people would pick up and move to another location. The soil was left with little change and animals were hunted in reasonable numbers.

Most people nowadays would consider this to be the lifestyle of a lesser type of civilization with little value, due to contemporary American society revolving around a sedentary style of living. However, it was these very types of societies that were able to outlive Mesopotamia by hundreds of years. Mesopotamia has been nicknamed the Cradle of Civilization and is often times praised for its innovative and intelligent system for irrigation that it developed. This system had fatal flaws though, in that it caused salt to accumulate in the soil and continuously slowed the quality and quantity of crops that could be harvested each season. It goes to show that even one of the most prominent of previous civilizations was not immune to the unsustainable nature of sedentary life.

The Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Cresent

The Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Cresent

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact time which warfare became more of a norm among societies, but it seems to have become common practice about 5,000 years ago when states began to emerge. States emerge with the development of political units, which are in turn developed as sedentary life and agriculture is established. With the creation of agriculture, there has to be someone in charge, in order to oversee the cultivation and this leads to the village caring for this figure and providing tribute. This trend continues as more political figures are created.

Warfare is not a common practice for hunter-gatherers. They are able to live a peaceful existence because there is little rivalry or even interaction among foreign groups. Without a sedentary life or a political hierarchy caused by agriculture the motivation of “status” for citizens disappears, lessening internal conflicts. Territorial  disputes also disappear, for nomadic groups acknowledge that they hold no claim to land. It seems that the more that the past gatherer lifestyle is compared alongside contemporary modern societies, the more the former feels like the most rational option. Reverting back to more more sustainable style would involve changing the lives that we’re accustomed to, and for many that’s a process near impossible.

– Bernardo

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The Lessons of War

Since the very advent of agriculture, there has been warfare. Before agriculture, humans generally travelled in small, hunter-gatherer groups. Land ownership was not an important concept to these early hunter-gatherers as they were nomadic and did not need land for building or growing crops. Once agriculture emerged, land and resources suddenly became quite valuable. Fertile land was necessary for efficiently growing crops and so conflict arose over who had rights to certain areas. Furthermore, agriculture is more unreliable than hunting and gathering. Crops would often fail and groups with no food would raid those who did have food. Thus, war was born.

An example of an early settlement created in response to the advent of agriculture.

An example of an early settlement created in response to the advent of agriculture.

Understanding the causes of conflict can greatly help to mitigate the effects of war on today’s societies. Therefore, many archeologists are interested in creating an accurate model of what prehistoric warfare was like. One of the primary ways to do this is by trying to ascertain how many people died in specific prehistoric conflicts to see how large of an impact they had on the communities involved. To piece together a story, archeologists rely primarily on projectile points and other weapons that have not decomposed as well as skeletons with evidence of injury from these weapons. Unhealed fractures, shallow cuts around the skull indicating scalping, and projectile points imbedded in bone are a few of the more common indicators that war took place in a specific area. However, interpreting this evidence is a difficult and complicated endeavor.

The skull of a Native American woman with a projectile point embedded in it.

The skull of a Native American woman with a projectile point embedded in it.

Many factors must be taken into account when attempting to understand the effects of a war. For example, one must determine the lethality of the weapons used (what percentage of people survived being wounded) as well as the gender and age ratio and total population of the groups involved. Through statistics like these, archeologists can see how war affects entire communities and even surrounding communities that were not directly involved. To find the lethality of a weapon, archeologists will often recreate the weapon to test its accuracy and power. The medical knowledge of the prehistoric communities must also be taken into account. For instance, knowledge on how to treat arrow wounds was limited during the French-Indian war, so one can look at reports of the percentage of soldiers who died from arrow wounds then and extrapolate that a similar percentage would have died in a prehistoric war. Of course, with only skeletons to work with this provides only a loose estimate. Not all arrows struck bone and thus many who died from arrow wounds have no discernable marks on their skeletons to suggest that they were hit. Determining the effect on the overall community is equally difficult. The percentage of the total population killed must be estimated, as well as less tangible variables such as malnourishment or disease caused by war. Finally, and most importantly, archeologists observe how warfare has changed or destroyed cultures over time. By understanding this entire picture, we can predict the consequences of wars today and make informed decisions to minimize loss and tragedy.


Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World.

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Archaeology of Warfare Today

War leaves scars; not only to humans, but to the physical landscape as well. Weapons, bullets, bodies, and destroyed buildings are just some of the remains that signify war. These remains are noticeable many years after their deposition, allowing archaeologists to study warfare of past civilizations. Such warfare archaeology “can provide a… context for… the inevitability of war and its role in modern civilization” [4, pg. 60]. Hamoukar is one such archaeological site that cannot only tell us a great deal about past warfare but can also teach important lessons for today.

Above is an aerial photograph of Hamoukar which provides archaeologists a better view and interpretation of the site [1].

Above is an aerial photograph of Hamoukar which provides archaeologists a better view and interpretation of the site [1].

        Hamoukar in northeastern Syria provides evidence for one of the earliest major battles in history, dating to 3,500 B.C. Archaeologists uncovered destroyed walls and buildings with approximately 1,200 sling missiles strewn throughout the site. Furthermore, Uruk pottery was found that arrived shortly after the war meaning that the Uruk civilization was likely the conqueror. This shows that Hamoukar actually developed independently of the Uruk, shining light on a new theory about the beginnings of civilization. [5]

The above image shows various sling-fired missiles found at Hamoukar. The deformed ones resulted from impact after hitting a building or wall. [2]

The above image shows various sling-fired missiles found at Hamoukar. The deformed ones resulted from impact after hitting a building or wall. [2]

        Warfare archaeology in Hamoukar not only reveals direct information, such as who fought the battle and what remains of it, but can also detail the effects of warfare on culture and landscape. At approximately the same time of the military battles in 3,500 B.C., Hamoukar civilization already started to urbanize from high agricultural production.  Archaeological evidence shows remains of canals and dams used to irrigate fields. Once war struck these areas, such technologies were not lost but continued to grow. By 2,500 B.C. this area reached a level of urbanism “never again achieved in this area” [3, pg. 67]. Archaeology can unlock these techniques for efficient agricultural production in harsh conditions and provide a means for people today to make better use of land possibly leading to less crowded cities and a richer population. [3]

These uses of archaeology can also be applied to warfare today. The current Syrian conflict gives archaeologists a new way to look at Hamoukar. Ironically, archaeologists are currently unable to excavate the warfare aspect of Hamoukar due to today’s Syrian conflict. Unanswered questions that can help today’s conflict include how warfare in Hamoukar affected the Syrian landscape. How did the Hamoukar war affect agriculture? How did that conflict change people’s professions and how did it change people’s relationships with the land? Warfare archaeology uniquely studies an aspect of culture that has occurred for thousands of years. In both settings, two groups of people fought, buildings were destroyed, and remains of struggle were left behind. The only difference between these wars is a 5,500 year gap; people then and now still live on the same land and the archaeology of warfare can look at past people’s struggles to provide solutions to living harmoniously today.



[1] Reichel, Clemens D. Figure 1. Digital image. Annual Reports 2005-2006. The                            Hamoukar Expedition, 2006. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <                  06_Hamoukar.pdf>.

[2] Reichel, Clemens D. Figure 17. Digital image. Annual Reports 2005-2006. The                         Hamoukar Expedition, 2006. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <                 06_Hamoukar.pdf>.

[3] Reichel, Clemens D. “Hamoukar.” Annual Reports 2005-2006. The Hamoukar                           Expedition, 2006. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <                                   06_Hamoukar.pdf>.

[4] Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World.                  Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. Print.

[5] Wilford, John Noble. “Archaeologists Unearth a War Zone 5,500 Years Old.” The New           York Times. The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2005. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.                                 <>.

Archaeology in Warfare

It is so interesting how the study of the past can be so relatable to today’s current issues, including sustainability, warfare, and more. By studying the different ways that past cultures and societies have been set up, we can see what worked for them and what mistakes they may have made. That way, we can try to correct those mistakes and improve upon our own societies in the modern world. One aspect of our studies and readings this week that I thought was particularly interesting was looking at warfare through archaeology. By understanding conflict and war in the past, we can better understand what happened (what started the conflict) so that we can have an improved knowledge of how to deal with conflict today. It is very fascinating that almost all warfare and conflict is based off of disputes over territory in one way or another. This is not a new concept, people have been involved in wars for hundreds of years, it is only the nature of wars that has changed.

An example of this idea of archaeology in warfare is seen in a conflict between Muslims and Hindus over the ownership of the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. This mosque was said by some Hindu groups to have been built (in 1528) by Muslims on a place where a Hindu temple used to have stood that marked the birthplace of the mythical king, Rama. The temple was closed for a while after it was rededicated as a place of Hindu worship, right after Indian independence from Britain. Then in 1986, a judge ordered that it be open, as a place of Hindu worship.

Babri Mosque

This was greeted with resentment and anger by Muslims, who believed that this building truly belonged to them. Soon, protests and conflicts occurred. In 1990, the national government tried to have negotiations that would try to determine whether or not this building belonged to Hindus or Muslims. These negotiations, however, were not successful. In 1992, Hindu militants destroyed the mosque.

The destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu militants

The destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu militants

Archaeology was used in this case to try to analyze the stratigraphy in order to see whether or not it was inherently a Hindu temple or not. Interpretations of this archaeological data, however, have varied widely. It is difficult to try and analyze stratigraphy of a site because of the fact that it usually does not consist of a distinct transition from one time period to another. Everything seems to mesh together and it becomes difficult to interpret. It is also, in general, dangerous to be an archaeologist who has something to prove. That could create a certain dishonesty of the true results. The archaeologist must always be open to all results and must not have a bias.


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On the Brink of War

Everything has scopes and limitations – archaeology is no exception. Archaeologists solve some of the most nagging questions through excavations and laboratory analysis, uncovering new information about cultures and people. Certain sites can be packed with data, just waiting to be discovered; yet there are often extensive procedures needed before excavation, or in the worst case, social/political unrest in that area.

The Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, India, is an example of this. Hindu mythology claims that Ayodhya was the birthplace of Rama, a famous warrior and protagonist in the Ramayana. Supposedly, on the very spot that Rama was born, a temple was erected in his honor. In 1527, Mughal emperor Babar constructed a magnificent mosque over the temple, thus destroying the original edifice.

Babri Masjid Mosque, Uttar Pradesh, India

For centuries, the Babri mosque stood undisturbed – until 1992, when a massive riot of over 150,000 Hindus resulted in mass vandalism and ruining of the mosque. In no time, the building was reduced to mere piles of rubble and dust. Muslims across the country were enraged; over 2,000 people died in communal riots and India was in turmoil.

In order to figure out what to do with the land to appease the Hindus and Muslims, the Government of India called upon the Archaeological Survey of India to run preliminary surveys of the Ayodhya site. Results proved to be inconclusive as there was a fair amount of ambiguity around whether or not there originally was a Hindu site, considering the unreliability of Hindu scriptures and oral tradition. It took many years for approval to pass, but in 2003, the ASI was given the green light to perform in-depth excavations of the site. Yet again, anger and tensions stirred between the Hindus and Muslims, with both parties claiming that the ASI was committing sacrilege on holy ground.

Scores of protesters vandalize the mosque

The results of the excavation were stirring. In the five month period of excavation, various teams had made around 1360 discoveries. The 574 page report stated that there was “a massive structure just below the disputed structure and evidence of continuity in structural activities from the 10th century onwards”, thus confirming the existence of an establishment prior to the mosque. In addition, a small seal with connections to the Asokan Brahmi was found, further supporting evidence towards a Hindu structure.

Numerous Muslim groups and organizations disregarded these discoveries and refuted the ASI’s findings. This, again, caused a rift within the volatile social framework of the country, spurring more tensions among the people.

Finally, in 2010, a decision to divide the land between the Hindus and the Muslims was made. Not everyone was happy, but it was the most practical decision and after decades, anger and disputes in Ayodhya had ceased.

Archaeology helped solve this case. By filling in the pre-Mughal void in time that was unknown, archaeology managed to settle any arguments by using scientific methods. At the same time, archaeology nearly sent the country into a massive civil war – it really is a miracle that the ASI managed to emerge out of such a touch situation unscathed.





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Action Archaeology: Agriculture, Population and Sustainability

“The possible futures of the global system are illuminated by careful study of its past and comparisons with power processes in previous eras.”[1] The thought-provoking statement from  archaeologists Jonathan Friedman and Christopher Chase-Dunn clearly demonstrates the importance of the past to the future. In other words, to look into how past people dealt with contemporary problems can give us an insight into how we deal with them at the present and in the future. This is exactly what we call “Action Archaeology.” More specifically, through analyzing the success and failure in agriculture of past civilizations, we are able to adjust and improve our agricultural strategies, to produce more crops for the growing population, and ultimately to develop a sustainable society.

The ancient Maya succeeded in maintaining their race by agricultural innovations. Between about 100BC and AD450, unlike “today’s relatively sparse population,” the northern Maya lowland in the Yucatan peninsula was heavily populated.[2]


A wetland of the Yalahau region.

In order to support themselves, first, the Maya mixed “a colony algae, fungus, bacteria, detritus and other living organisms” to make “periphyton,” which proves to be “a natural, renewable, and manageable source of agricultural fertilizer.”[3] Second, they piled “chich mounds” under economically important trees “to conserve moisture and to provide support for trees cultivated in the shallow soils.”[4]


A modern chich mound at the base of a tree.

As a result, such agricultural innovations “[led] to sustainable development in this region.”[5] If we could apply their ways of cultivation together with modern technology, we would be more likely to handle today’s population issues and to sustain our race.

The Sumerians, on the opposite, destroyed themselves by damaging the environment. Their “heavy irrigation in a hot, dry climate leads to a gradual accumulation of salt in the soil.”[6]


Salinization of soil.

At last, the salinization transformed the used-to-be fertile land to the extent that even barley could not grow.[7] “The very soil lost its virtue,” and Sumerian Civilization collapsed.[8] The negative effect on environment lasted even for thousands of years, for in the 19th century the population of Iraq was less than tenth of that in the age of Gilgamesh.[9] Thoroughly analyzing how the Sumerians destroyed their agriculture, we could avoid the same tragedy happening in the future and learn to develop sustainably.


Sumerian civilization in the middle of the desert.

Besides agriculture and sustainability, in action archaeology, the past can also help us reduce warfare, alleviate poverty  and strengthen identiy. In short, the achievements and mistakes of past civilization are ladders, leading to a happier life for every single person in the world.


1 Jonathan Friedman and Christopher Chase-Dunn, Hegemonic Decline: Past and Present (Paradigm Publishers, 2005), Introduction, as quoted in Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World (Walnut Creek, CA.: Left Coast Press, 2008), 45.

2 Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World, 49.

3 Scott L. Fedick and Bethany A. Morrison, “Ancient use and manipulation of landscape in the Yalahau region of the northern Maya lowlands,” in Agriculture and Human Values (21: 207–219, 2004).

4 Ibid.

5 Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World, 49.

6 Paul Krugman, “Salt Of The Earth,” in New York Times (August, 08, 2003).

7 Ibid.

8 Leonard Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees, as quoted in Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.

9 Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.


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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

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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

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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.