Saturday, June 02, 2007

Archaeology, terminology, and racism

I’ve been reading another interesting book titled, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians by Timothy Pauketat (2004). There is one section that raises some key points regarding the terminology we employ for describing the archaeology of ancient Native North American civilizations, and particularly that of Cahokia.

Following are a few quotes from this book:

… the legacy of this nineteenth-century "Moundbuilder Myth" still lurks in the dark corners of archaeology, shrouded in some of the well-meaning interpretive schemes used by archaeologists and laypersons alike (see Kehoe 1998; Patterson 1995). In plain words, that legacy is racist. But it lives wherever archaeologists [or laypeople] understate the cultural achievements or de-emphasize the historical importance of First Nations peoples. It is hidden in words. For instance, Cahokia has been called a "mound center," a "town and mound" complex, or the "ceremonial center" of a "chiefdom." Few North American archaeologists call it a city. Fewer still would think of it as a kingdom or a state. Even the term "pyramid" is thought too immodest by many eastern North American archaeologists. They prefer to call these four-sided and flat-topped equivalents of stone pyramids in Mexico … mounds.

However, if Cahokia, Cahokians, and Cahokia’s mounds had been in ancient Mesopotamia, China, or Africa, archaeologists might not hesitate to identify
[Cahokian] pyramids in a city at the center of an early state….

…many North American archaeologists are "downsizers"
(Yoffee et al. 1999:267). We have inherited the conservative and subtly racist terminology of the nineteenth century (Kehoe 1998).

…cultural biases have crept into our interpretations of New World people, and the Moundbuilder Myth lives.

May I also proffer that some of this "subtly racist" terminology in regards to the New World, and particularly to the ancient civilizations of North America, arises from our own sense of guilt? I mean, the idea that our government attempted and performed veritable genocide on peoples who may have built Old World-type city-states does not sit well with most Euro-Americans today. Thus, "downsizing" their accomplishments (such as making a "pyramid" into a mere "mound" reminiscent of something a gopher can make) serves to somewhat assuage said guilt. Amazing how a manipulation of terminology can so subtly affect all aspects of society, from government right down to science. Linguistics can indeed turn ugly!

Citation references:

Kehoe, Alice B. 1998 The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology. Routledge, London.

Patterson, Thomas C. 1995 Toward A Social History of Archaeology in the United States. Harcourt Brace and Company, Orlando, Florida.

Yoffee, Norman, Suzanne K. Fish, and George R. Milner 1999 Communidades, Ritualities, Chiefdoms: Social Evolution in the American Southwest and Southeast. In Great Towns and Regional Polities in the Prehistoric American Southwest and Southeast, edited by J.E. Neitzel, pp. 261-71. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.


Anonymous said...

Or perhaps the archeologists are as conservative, in the sense of "afraid that they might make false-positive error", as their linguist counterparts. Haida the sister-group of the rest of Na-Dené? WAAH! Not so rash -- "extremely prolonged contact" plus "widespread multilingualism" might also explain the same similarities. Cahokia a city with a pyramid? WAAH! Not so rash -- maybe it's not completely comparable, so rather than maybe exaggerating it, we'll rather understate it.

Or maybe they're just overly afraid of attracting cranks. A large city with a pyramid in North America? Yay! Obviously, the Book of Mormon must say the Truth! And the extraterrestrials, and so on.

Dave said...


Point taken. To be clear, the Cahokia pyramids are not quite to the same caliber as those of Mesoamerica since the former are built of earth rather than stone.

Still, Cahokia's pyramid and plaza scheme was built during a massive construction phase about 1050 A.D. requiring a certain amount of organization and authority for its planning. Also, Henry Marie Brackenridge in 1811 described his leaving St. Louis and coming upon the ruins of Cahokia: "...I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids" (Pauketat 2004:73).

Perhaps Cahokian pyramids were made of different materials, but I don't think that should diminish their importance.