What can archaeology teach us about humanity?

Location of top 10 early hominid finds.

Modern humans -- Homo sapiens -- lived for thousands of years before they started writing about their adventures. The time before we started scribbling our thoughts on stone and paper (what historians call prehistory) can only be revealed through the search, discovery and interpretation of material stuff our ancestors left behind. Archaeology is the field of science dedicated to this pursuit and, until time travel becomes possible, it remains the best way to establish a human time line and build a history of our species.

Defining the absolute beginning of that time line has been one of archaeology's biggest challenges for decades. Today, most archaeologists and anthropologists agree that modern humans made their grand debut some 195,000 years ago. But where did those humans come from? Did a line of humanlike species, or hominids, precede H. sapiens?


In 1974, Donald Johanson provided an important clue when he discovered the bones of a 3.2-million-year-old hominid in Hadar, Ethiopia. He called the specimen Australopithecus afarensis, or Lucy for short. Lucy held the record as the earliest known human ancestor until 1994, when Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, found skeletal remains of a 4.4-million-year-old hominid known as Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi. Since then, more landmark discoveries have been made. In 1997, scientists found the bones of a new species, Ardipithecus kadabba, that lived between 5 and 6 million years ago. And in 2000, another team unearthed Orrorin tugenensis, a chimpanzee-sized hominid that lived 6 million years ago. Using this and similar evidence, archaeologists have pieced together a time line of humanity and prehumanity.

The oldest hominid fossils have been found in eastern Africa, along a line stretching from Olduvai Gorge in the south to the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia in the north. The concentration of finds has led most scientists to consider this region the birthplace of humanity. But how did humanlike species spread from this region to other parts of the world -- a process known as the African diaspora? Archaeology can answer that question. The prevailing theory goes like this: About 2 million years ago, prehuman ancestors left Africa to populate parts of Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Later, the first real humans followed in a second wave that eventually replaced the remnants of the first, prehuman diaspora. Over time, these early humans formed all of the races and civilizations we know today, including the Mayas, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans.

Understanding these great civilizations serves as another important function of archaeology. For example, historians have learned much about Roman society by scrutinizing the features and artifacts of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two ancient cities buried in A.D. 79 by ash ejected from Mount Vesuvius. They've pieced together similar stories at sites all over the world. It's how we've come to know about people and places, as well as behaviors and beliefs, of civilizations across time.


Archaeology: Informing the Past, Present and Future

The man who plumbed history to rewrite that of the United States

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.


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More Great Links

  • Archaeological Institute of America. "Archaeology 101." Archaeology Magazine. (Aug. 16, 2010)www.archaeological.org/pdfs/education/Arch101.2.pdf
  • Brown, Frank. "The oldest Homo sapiens." EurekAlert. Feb. 16, 2005. (Aug. 16, 2010)http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-02/uou-toh021105.php
  • Curry, Andrew. "Gobekli Tepe: The World's First Temple?" Smithsonian Magazine. November 2008. (Aug. 16, 2010)http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/gobekli-tepe.html
  • Gibbons, Ann. "The Human Family's Earliest Ancestors." Smithsonian Magazine. March 2010.
  • Lemonick, Michael D. and Andrea Dorfman. "One Giant Step for Mankind." Time.com. 2001 (June 15, 2010)http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101010723/cover.html#
  • Montpelier Foundation, The. "James Madison: Making the Constitution." Montpelier.org. (Aug. 16, 2010)http://www.montpelier.org/explore/james_madison/index.php#father
  • Symmes, Patrick. "History in the Remaking." Newsweek. Feb. 19, 2010. (Aug. 16, 2010)http://www.newsweek.com/2010/02/18/history-in-the-remaking.html
  • University of Leicester. "Everyday Life in Pompeii Revealed." YubaNet.com. April 24, 2007. (Aug. 16, 2010)http://www.yubanet.com/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/58/55469