Topics: American Archaeology

American Archaeology

Archaeology of the Americas

The archaeology of the Americas is the study of the archaeology of North America, Central America (or Mesoamerica), South America and the Caribbean. This includes the study of pre-historic/Pre-Columbian and historic indigenous American peoples.

Archaeological time periods

One of the most enduring classifications of archaeological cultures was established in Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips' 1958 book Method and Theory in American Archaeology. They divided the archaeological record in the Americas into five phases. These are:

* The Lithic stage, defined initially as a big-game hunting adaptation. In most places, this can be dated to before 8000 BC. Examples include the Clovis culture, Folsom tradition and Paleo-indian groups.

* The Archaic stage, defined as cultures relying primarily on increasing intensive collecting of wild resources, after the decline of the big game hunting lifestyle. Typically Archaic cultures can be dated from 8000 BC to 1000 BC. Representative examples include the Arctic small tool tradition, the Poverty Point culture and the Chincharro culture.

* The Formative stage, defined as "village agriculture" based. Most of these can be dated from 1000 BC to AD 500. Examples include the Dorset culture , Zapotec culture, Mimbres, Olmec, and Mississippian cultures.

* The Classic stage, defined as "early civilizations," and typically dating from AD 500 to 1200. Willey and Phillips considered only cultures from Mesoamerica and Peru to have achieved this level of complexity. Examples include the early Maya and the Toltec.

* The Post-Classic stage, defined as "later prehispanic civilizations" and typically dated from AD 1200 onward. The late Maya and the Aztec cultures were Post-Classic.

Since these simplistic periods were defined, numerous regional and sub-regional divisions have been created to break up the cultural landscape through time and space. Later archaeologists recognized that these linear stages did not adequately correspond to the cultural variation that existed in different locations in the Americas. Although the Formative/Classic/Post-Classic distinction is still used in the archaeology of Mesoamerica (see Mesoamerican chronology), this division has been replaced in most of North America by more local classifications. Also see Sociocultural evolution.

Archaeology in the United States

In the United States, physical anthropology and archaeological investigations based on the study of human remains are complicated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, (NAGPRA), which provides for the bodies of Native Americans and associated grave goods to be turned over to the recognized tribal body most legally affiliated with the remains. In some cases, notably, that of Kennewick Man, these laws have been subject to close judicial scrutiny and great intellectual conflict.

Humans in the Americas

Models of migration to the New World address the central question of when and how humans reached the Americas. The earliest definite human peoples visible in the archaeological record throughout the Americas are today known as the Paleo-Indians.


American Archaeology
Stone circle at Burnt Hill, Massachusetts, USA