Trying to find out when man first came to America, and how he lived during the hundreds of centuries before the Europeans arrived, the archaeologist is like a child trying to solve a picture puzzle when he has in his possession only one percent of t he pieces. As a result he must look to other fields of science to fit together a series of clues to give a generalized impression and explanation of prehistoric culture and society.
The artifact is the most fundamental element of archaeological investigation. It is commonly defined as anything which exhibits any physical attributes that can be assumed to be the result of human activity. Archaeologists look at their finds not merely as objects to be examined and admired but as vital parts of the extinct society which made them. The ultimate goal is to study the society that created the objects, not just the objects.
A different type of archaeology, called new archaeology as opposed to traditional archaeology, has developed over the past thirty years. Traditional archaeology looks at the material remains of an extinct culture in order to define what ideas, values and beliefs the group shared and passed down to the next generation. The new archaeologist sees culture as a link between behavioral patterns and material items. The culture that a society develops therefore is the direct result of the way humans learn to cope with their environment.
To find out how well a group has adapted the new archaeologist must explore two areas, the environmental system and the cultural system. In doing this he collects various kinds of materials that the traditional archaeologist ignores, dark stains in the soil, tiny flint chips, pieces of broken tools, fish scales and seeds. These discarded materials and markings are the products of the everyday life of prehistoric man.
Archaeologists have to work with the tangible remains of human activity. When working in North America the archaeologist does not come upon great temples, massively carved statues and engravings of calender systems such as the material remains of King Tut or the Mayan Civilization. Although the cultural artifacts of North America attract little public attention, they are no less important.
Archaeologists must study the environment in which ancient man lived, along with what he has made, in order to better understand his way of life. It is virtually impossible to separate cultural living patterns and man’s environmental relationship. Animals, plants and climate all have a direct bearing on the cultural development of the people of prehistory. This unit is therefore divided into three parts:
I. THE TIME ON THE PLANET—Prehistoric archaeology deals with an enormous time scale of human cultural evolution spanning four million years. Where does man in North America fit in the time scale?
II. THE PLACE—THE ENVIRONMENT OF NORTH AMERICA—What was North America like at the time of the arrival of the first humans on the continent?
III. MAN IN TIME AND PLACE—A look at the evidence left by early man from which we can draw conclusions about their life style.
* VISUAL AIDS—Overhead transparencies of maps, charts, diagrams and artifacts have been prepared to be used in the classroom to aid you. These can be borrowed from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.