How Do We Learn About the Past?
by George Sabo III
Information about the American Indian past comes from three kinds of sources: archeological, historical, and ethnographic. What are the strengths and weaknesses of these sources?
Archeologists study the preserved material remains of past human activities. Places where these materials are found are called archeological sites. Archeological remains include weapons and tools used to accomplish tasks such as hunting, farming, cooking, craft making, and building houses or other facilities. The debris left over from performing those tasks is also found at archeological sites. Evidence of houses and facilities such as cooking fires and storage pits sometimes can be identified as anomalies, disturbances, or other features that stand out in natural soil layers. Animal bones and plant remains left over from meals can tell us what people ate. Sometimes skeletal remains are preserved in cemeteries or in isolated burials. These remains are studied by biological anthropologists to answer questions about ancient life histories, including patterns of health and disease.
Archeologists work much like detectives to determine from fragmentary evidence what actions or events produced the remains preserved at a site. They then use this information to compare and contrast what people did at different time periods and from one region to another. This ability to study activity patterns over long periods of time is one of archeology’s great strengths. A weakness of the archeological record is that it is incomplete. Most items crafted from perishable materials, such as wood, plant fibers, and most animal products, disintegrate rather quickly. Only the most durable materials, such as stone, fired clay ceramics, dense bone, and plant remains that have been carbonized (that is, turned into charcoal by burning) survive in the ground for more than a few years. This means that archeologists often are able to reconstruct only some of the activities that characterized ancient societies. What ancient people thought, along with other “intangible” aspects of their cultures are not preserved in the ground and can only be imperfectly inferred by interpreting certain categories of materials.
You can learn more about archeology by visiting the Society for American Archaeology's Archaeology for the Public website.
A wealth of information on Arkansas history, including information on Arkansas archeology and Indians, can be found at the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Ethnographic accounts also have limitations. First, most ethnographers choose to examine a particular aspect of culture—for example, social organization, religion, economic activities, or political relations—so no single ethnography provides a complete cultural account. Most ethnographic fieldwork is limited to a few months or at most a few years’ time, so cultural processes operating on longer time scales may go undetected. Finally, anthropologists, despite their best efforts, often remain “outsiders” in the communities they study; they are not privy to every aspect of community life.
These three major sources of information—archeological, historical, and ethnographic—each possess strengths as well as weaknesses. Archeological information permits us to compare and contrast cultural features from different times and places and to trace the development of long-term cultural processes, but usually only in very general terms rather than in fine detail. Historical accounts offer better chronological coverage and detail, but are selective in terms of topic and observation may be highly biased. Ethnographies are richly textured and highly detailed accounts by specialists trained to be aware of their own cultural biases, but temporal coverage is very limited. Many factors can reduce the quantity and quality of archeological, historical, and ethnographic evidence. These factors must be critically evaluated whenever we turn to these sources for information to answer questions about the past. When properly used, all of these sources can provide important information on American Indian history in Arkansas and the South.