Matthew Neff

Why Preserve the Past?

Matthew Neff explains why it is important to preserve the past and save archaeological and paleontological sites from wanton destruction.


Archaeological and paleontological sites throughout the world are under threat from human activities and natural processes. Construction, erosion, vandalism, and outright destruction have impacted areas that provide insight into past cultures and environments. Attempts have been made to preserve significant locations, such as Antiquities laws and UNESCO World Heritage designations, but the threat still looms. Groups have actively destroyed monuments and temples that they view as idolatrous; and armed conflicts have inadvertently harmed others. Much of this destruction can be seen in the Middle East and it would seem that these locations are respected and protected in the Western world, but this is not always the case.

Laws in the United States and Europe define the protections that sites are granted. For instance, if a farmer in France discovers archaeological material on their property, that site will be protected by the French government on behalf of the public. In the U.S., this is not the case. Archaeological sites, regardless of importance or potential for research, can be destroyed, ignored, or forgotten if they are on private land. In fact, many landowners view these materials as their personal belongings and seem to have a right to loot sites they find. Protections are available, especially for human remains, but these mainly limit the actions of the federal government or projects that have received federal funding. States, such as Oregon, may provide more stringent rules dictating the preservation of archaeological materials, but these vary and tend to be ignored in the name of development.

The question that must be answered is two-fold. Why is there such a difference in attitude toward preservation in the U.S. and why should we concern ourselves with preservation?

In the U.S., there is a disconnect between the European settlers and the people that created the majority of North America’s archaeological record. The indigenous groups that lived here for at least the past 14,000 years are not the direct ancestors of those that own the land now, unlike in Europe. Indigenous populations were ravaged by disease which opened the door for Europeans to take their land and further devastate them with war and genocide.

When Europeans first entered the Midwest, they were confused by large earthen mounds that were scattered across the landscape. People wondered who had built them. Obviously, it couldn’t have been the “Indians” they had rarely seen but definitely heard about. Many thought they were the remnants of a previous European settlement that had been wiped out by savages.

It wasn’t until 1848, when Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, by Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis, was published by the Smithsonian that the true picture began to emerge. Their investigation and documentation of these mounds found that they were not of European origin. They had been constructed by the indigenous tribes that had once dominated the area. Those “Indians” had been around for a lot longer and in greater numbers than people thought. It is this mentality that continues to skew the American population to value these sites for their novelty but fail to understand the true importance they hold.

Additionally, the artifacts and features present at sites throughout North America are different from what comes to mind for most people when they picture archaeological sites. The majority of sites in North America consist of stone tools, animal remains, and waste material. These are not the epic ruins of colosseums and grand temples. There are certainly exceptions to this, such as the Effigy Mounds in northern Iowa, Cahokia in southern Illinois, and the pueblos of the Southwest. In Central and South America, the remnants of stone temples and monuments are the draw for tourists, but these do not make up the majority of the archaeological record.

Since most sites throughout the American continents are not “impressive” to see, they tend to have less appeal to the general public. However, simply because these sites might not seem “impressive” to the human eye does not lessen their importance to the human experience or limit the information they can provide about past human behaviors. It also does not lessen the importance to their descendants that were driven from their land and forced to either adapt a European way of life or be left behind. These remnants of past human societies show diverse ways of living, many of which cannot be found anywhere on earth today.

Even more importantly, we must ask ourselves why protection and research matters. The first is because archaeological and paleontological material allow us to understand what happened in the past. Without this, anyone can create myths that further specific agendas rather than acknowledging what actually happened. It can lead to ideas of savage natives, global floods, and other myths that have no basis in the real world. The destruction of these landmarks is a cultural disaster akin to another burning of the Library of Alexandria.

Recently, proposals have been made to impact Dinosaur Ridge, which is located in the Front Range of Colorado, by rezoning for further development. There is no concern by developers to protect this paleontological treasure when they can make more money. The value of these sites are generally not viewed as being greater than a new housing complex or shopping center, though there is a petition to stop development in the area.

If the public does not recognize the importance of places like Dinosaur Ridge and other paleontological and archaeological sites around the world, they will continue to be encroached upon by development and ultimately may be lost. We have a responsibility to protect and respect past ways of life that all humans have shared, regardless of ancestry. Otherwise, we can ignore the diversity of life that existed on earth, both animal and plant. We can justify the genocide and theft of land from indigenous groups. We can dismiss others for their lack of “civilization.” And even more alarming, we can simply forget that people and cultures existed because that existence impedes development, progress, and the increase of profits.




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