Amidst congressional criticism, archaeologists take aim at the world’s big questions

By William Taylor

Last month, archaeology made headlines in the United States in the form of comments by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In an editorial in USA Today, Smith highlighted instances of what he perceived to be wasteful spending on “frivolous” research, funded by the National Science Foundation. Several of the projects selected by Smith were archaeological, including a study of Viking textiles in Iceland. His comments raise an important question – the world tackles high-profile issues like economic crisis, mass migrations out of the Middle East, terrorism, and global climate change, how can we justify government spending on quixotic and expensive archaeological projects?

Smith’s efforts betray a fundamental misunderstanding of archaeology and its role in science. Unlike many other disciplines, archaeology provides evidence of human activity over long time scales, helping researchers understand social and environmental changes that may play out over centuries or millennia. Key processes shaping our world today – such as globalization, technological innovation, and anthropogenic extinctions of plants and animals –are occurring now at what seems like an overwhelming pace. However, these processes have their roots in the deep past. Only by studying how ancient humans interacted with each other (and with their environment) in antiquity can we hope to characterize how modern societies might respond to the crises and challenges we face today.

Skeleton of the extinct giant sloth, Megatherium americanum, in the Natural History Museum in London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The same day that Rep. Smith delivered his comments, a group of international scientists met at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany  to discuss the latest research on the extinction of megafauna – a term used to describe the diverse range of large-bodied animals (over 45 kg /100 lbs) including mammoths, giant sloths, or large land birds that once populated the landscapes of Eurasia, Africa, the Americas, and the Antipodes.

Researcher Natalia Villavicencio at the University of California–Berkeley was one of the attendees and presenters at the conference. She studies  changes in mammalian ecosystems in South America during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene – a period of dramatic climate and environmental change. While many big questions remain as to why and how the large beasts of South America went extinct, she says that through the efforts of archaeologists and paleobiologists, it has become “increasingly clear that climate change and human impacts played an important role in driving these extinctions.”

Dr. Natalia Villavicencio studies a leg bone from an extinct giant ground sloth (Diabolotherium nordenskioldi) in the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Photo: N. Villavicencio
Dr. Natalia Villavicencio studies a leg bone from an extinct giant ground sloth (Diabolotherium nordenskioldi) in the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Photo: N. Villavicencio

Natalia argues that today, just as in the past, climate is changing fast, and human impacts on ecosystems are accelerating. If scientists are able to understand how climate change and human impacts helped to drive the extinction of these ancient American megafauna, she says, perhaps we can figure out ways to mitigate the global-scale extinction crisis we find ourselves in today.

Figure 4 from Villavicencio et al. (2016), showing the timing of human arrival, megafaunal extinctions, and key climate and environmental changes in South America.
Figure 4 from Villavicencio et al. (2016), showing the timing of human arrival, megafaunal extinctions, and key climate and environmental changes in South America.

Experimentation with new scientific techniques, funded primarily by public agencies like the National Science Foundation, allow researchers like Villavicencio and her colleagues to ask questions about the disappearance of megafauna that were previously difficult or impossible to answer. For example, one major focus of discussion at the conference was the sequencing of ancient DNA. Fragments of genetic material can remain preserved in ancient tissues, animal bone, or even sediment for many thousands of years. Recovering DNA from these contexts can be challenging and expensive, but researchers are able to use such data reconstruct population dynamics – such as breeding habits or population sizes –for a given species in the time leading up to their extinction. This information helps researchers evaluate the significance of these ancient extinction events for modern ecological systems, many of which are facing unprecedented threats from climate change and human activity.

Cutting-edge archaeological research projects, like Dr. Villavicencio’s, continue to seek new ways to use data from the past to understand the pressing issues facing the modern world. As another Berkeley professor, Dr. Rosemary Joyce, recently pointed out , even the maligned Viking textile study –highlighted by Smith as an example of wasteful archaeological spending—tells us scientific information of key relevance for the modern world, by revealing the strategies used by Viking groups to respond and adapt to rapid climate change.

Smith’s high-profile criticism is part of a larger, more coordinated legislative effort aimed at curtailing public funding for environmental research and social science. Comments such as these threaten to debase archaeology in the public sphere, and cultivate anti-intellectual sentiment. Now more than ever, it is essential for people to stand up for science, even for those projects that may appear frivolous to congressional representatives – whose own concerns may not always align with the values of scientific integrity, nor the long-term interests of our species.  If we don’t, we risk creating a future stripped of insights from the past – some of which may come from unlikely sources – an old sloth bone, or a Viking textile.

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For further reading, check out the following:

Haile, J. et al., 2009. Ancient DNA reveals late survival of mammoth and horse in interior Alaska PNAS 106(52): 22352–22357

Barnosky, A. et al. 2017. Merging paleobiology with conservation biology to guide the future of terrestrial ecosystems. Science 355(6325)

Villavicencio, N. et al. 2016. Combination of humans, climate, and vegetation change triggered Late Quaternary megafauna extinction in the Última Esperanza region, southern Patagonia, Chile. Ecography 39(2):125-140.



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