The word ‘archaeology’ conjures one of the greatest opening scenes in film history: a whip-toting Westerner sprinting through an abandoned temple in the South American jungle, leaping across bottomless pits, sliding under closing doors, evading a massive boulder – all in the line of archaeological duty to retrieve a golden idol.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this picture of archaeology is now out of date. According to Australian archaeologist Dr Alison Crowther, the discipline of the past has transformed over the last century and is now gearing up to tackle the problems of the future.
“We’re no longer treasure hunters looking for lost cities and gold masks and Tutankhamun’s riches,” says Crowther, who works at the University of Queensland.
“At what point in time do we say that a system has been modified by humans and is today a relic of centuries of human impact?“
Instead, archaeology’s long-term view of human history can provide a degree of historical perspective and help us understand how we arrived at the present. It may even equip us with the knowledge to move into the Anthropocene: the era in which humans have become shaping forces of nature, dominating the Earth’s systems on unprecedented scales.
This is the argument that Crowther and one of her colleagues, Nicole Boivin from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, put forward in a recent article published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
A long history of human impact
Archaeology, the authors say, can place our current problems into a deep time perspective. Although the rate, scale and nature of changes is vastly accelerated today, humans have been transforming ecosystems for tens of thousands of years – recent research shows, for example, that forests in Malawi, Africa, have been modified by humans for at least 85,000 years.
A deeper, more profound understanding of human history may shed light on how our current problems came about – and inform how to manage them. Crowther – who specialises in archaeobotany – gives the example of the complicated choices we face around conserving ecosystems.
“What is the pristine environment that should be conserved today?” she asks. “At what point in time do we say that a system has been modified by humans and is today a relic of centuries of human impact, versus something that is purely natural and pristine?
“A lot of environments…have been managed for so long that it would be almost counterproductive to try and revert them back to their pre-human ‘natural’ state.”
Getting it right
Archaeology also offers us a range of potential solutions to other modern challenges. Currently, we are faced with an enormous array of choices about how to move forward in a way that will enable our species to survive.
It’s hard to know what decisions to make – or even to know what options we have. Archaeologists work to uncover a record of the myriad ways humans have lived over millennia, as well as understand their resilience and problem-solving skills in the face of formidable – and now familiar – challenges such as overpopulation, resource scarcity and climate change.
Even sustainability in cities could benefit from some retrospection.
“Humans have been urbanising for millennia,” Crowther says. “If we look into the past, there are some beautiful examples of how people have urbanised in a way that is sustainable and more resilient to shocks to the system.”
Examples include the low-density, agrarian-based cities of Mesoamerica, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon, where intensive agriculture was practiced within urban areas – with domesticated gardens and agricultural fields between households.
“These early dispersed agrarian cities offer more sustainable, food-secure models of urbanism that are less dependent on fossil fuel and more resilient to food supply shocks resulting from, for example, pandemics, conflict or climate change,” write Boivin and Crowther in their paper.
“Kenya in recent years has been particularly troubled by drought, and a lot of farmers have actually been reverting back to growing sorghum and canola – they’ve abandoned maize.”
Transferring this to a modern context, Crowther points to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 in the past year: “Ridiculous quantities of our food today come from outside of Australia, or even long-distance within Australia, whereas if we were able to take some cues from these ancient cities and create more localised agricultural environments, we’d be a bit more resilient.”
Better understanding past crops themselves could also be extremely useful. Currently, around 90% of humans’ plant-based calorie intake is supplied by just 20 domesticated species, many of which are grown in regions they’re not well-adapted to. In the past this wasn’t the case. Archaeology has discovered an array of ‘lost crops’, such as millets, which are naturally drought- and heat-tolerant cereals that were cultivated across sub-Saharan Africa before Westerners brought in maize. Goosefoot, or erect knotweed, is another example, domesticated by Indigenous North Americans.
This knowledge isn’t just something we can take on board in the future – changes are being made right now.
“There have been some wonderful stories in eastern Africa where I work,” Crowther says. “Kenya in recent years has been particularly troubled by drought, and a lot of farmers have actually been reverting back to growing sorghum and canola – they’ve abandoned maize, and they found that it’s had a huge impact on their food security.”
The archaeological record can also inform us about how past peoples have responded to problems like environmental pollution, water management in arid environments and global climatic changes, to name a few.
“Humans have already conducted the long-term experiments for many of these problems and solutions, to see what does and doesn’t work in a particular time in a particular place,” Crowther says.
“If we ignore all of that evidence and all of that information and just restrict ourselves to our contemporary technological capacities, then we are missing out on a lot of opportunities to innovate and find better solutions to today’s problems.”
Archaeology’s technological transformation
While Crowther admits that there’s still an element of truth to the clichéd image that archaeologists go off to “exotic countries to dig up human remains and lost cities” – in fact, her own fieldwork in Africa recently contributed to uncovering the oldest human burial on the continent – that’s not the reality for most archaeologists on a day-to-day basis.
“The real nitty-gritty archaeology mostly takes place in the lab these days,” she explains.
Instead of spending months doing fieldwork, most archaeologists now spend short bursts on digs followed by months in the lab analysing their findings.
“We are quite privileged in the sense that we do have this very active living indigenous culture that has carried that ecological knowledge down through the generations.”
The rapid development of technology has played a big role in this shift, transforming the ‘old’ humanities subject of archaeology into something that comfortably works across several scientific disciplines. Science has shaped not just archaeology’s theoretical frameworks but also its methodologies. Unlike ‘Indy’, archaeologists today are interested in systematically recovering and recording details about the past – and technological tools are increasingly enabling them to do so.
Over the past few decades, the discipline has gained access to techniques such as stable isotope analysis, which can look at bones or teeth to give insight into an individual’s diet or environment. Another game-changer is ancient DNA, which can recover genetic information from remains that are thousands of years old. This has recently helped discover a new human species, the Denisovans, from DNA extracted from a few sparse remains, including a 50,000-year-old finger bone found in Siberia.
“But the big breakthrough, of course, was radiocarbon dating,” Crowther says – because it bestowed the ability to put an accurate timeframe on archaeologists’ findings. “That really marked a big shift… Without chronology, archaeology is just a palimpsest of bones and pot sherds and other remnants of past peoples.”
An even bigger change in archaeology is its acknowledgement of its colonial roots – and recognition of its limitations. Researchers today are consciously moving away from a traditionally Eurocentric view, instead often working to involve indigenous peoples in producing and managing data.
This array of cultural perspectives can open up conversations about different ways of interacting with the environment.
“Fire, for example, is an incredibly important way of not only promoting biodiversity within different ecosystems, but also reducing biomass that leads to the kinds of disruptive bushfires that we saw in recent years in Australia,” Crowther says.
Incorporating indigenous perspectives into environmental management systems – as Australia has begun to do – can be hugely beneficial.
“We are quite privileged in the sense that we do have this very active living indigenous culture that has carried that ecological knowledge down through the generations. In other regions of the world where that knowledge has been lost, archaeology is definitely filling the gap,” Crowther says.
The future of the field
Making change is going to involve more than just scientists.
“Archaeologists can provide a lot of these evidence-based solutions, the long-term perspective, the baseline data sets – but as a society we all need to come together to try and use this information to build a better future for ourselves,” Crowther says.
The potential solutions – and warning signs – from the past could help everyone from farmers to policymakers to urban planners, but the challenge is getting the information out there.
“We are really advocating for grassroots-level initiatives engaging people at the local level who are making the day-to-day decisions that will affect our environment,” Crowther says.
As a discipline that straddles the academic divide between the sciences and humanities, archaeology can offer not only technological solutions but also a recognition of the corresponding social, political and cultural problems we need to work through in order to make change. These are arguably more critical to consider now – in the face of the Anthropocene – than at any other point in history.
“We’re not saying we need to go back in time and become like people living thousands of years ago,” Crowther says. “We’re just saying that there are ways of living that are different to how we live today that we can use as models for the future.”