Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What can archaeology teach us about humanity?


Archaeology: Informing the Past, Present and Future
The man who plumbed history to rewrite that of the United States
The man who plumbed history to rewrite that of the United States
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

As archaeologists discover new sites and remains, they must constantly revise human history. Consider the revelations of German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who believes he has found humankind's first temple. Since 1994, Schmidt has been digging in a region known as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. There, at the top of rolling hills, he's found several circles made from massive T-shaped pillars carved from stone. The circles are reminiscent of Stonehenge, except they predate the famous English site by 6,000 years. In fact, the structures at Gobekli Tepe were built 11,500 years ago -- 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid!

According to Schmidt, humans first gathered at this temple in the hills to worship. This coming together encouraged cooperation and collaboration and led to the development of cities. If his theories are correct, we may need to rewrite our history books, which currently state that organized villages preceded organized religion.

The biggest lessons of archaeology, however, go beyond dates and places. The most important things we can learn from the past are what mistakes to avoid and what useful, beneficial activities to copy. By studying ancient battle strategy, modern military leaders can be better prepared to meet their enemies. By examining ancient technologies, modern engineers can build stronger and longer-lasting structures. And by analyzing various forms of government, the leaders of our cities, states and nations can establish systems that more effectively serve their citizens.

That's what James Madison did. In 1787, with the governmental effectiveness of the Articles of Confederation failing, the young United States brought delegates together at a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Madison came to the convention and pitched the Virginia Plan, which called for a stronger central government. He developed the plan after researching government structures in world history and outlining reasons why earlier attempts at democracy either succeeded or failed. All of this research strengthened Madison's ideas and formed the basis of the U.S. Constitution.

Ultimately, this is why archaeology is important: Because it shows us where we've been and where we're headed. The French poet Alphonse de Lamartine summed it up best when he said, "History teaches everything including the future."

Keep reading for more archaeology links we dug up.


More to Explore