The Great Archaeological Discovery of Our Time

Lambert here: As the cliché has it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m tempted, these days, to add, “except more stupidly.” Then again, whether repeating the past is A Bad Thing depends on that past, doesn’t it? (that is, “condemned” is doing more work than it might be seeming to, at first). In any case, these archeologists take a decidely more optimistic view, and good for them!

By Jan Ritch-Frel, executive director of the Independent Media Institute and a co-founder of the Human Bridges project. This article was produced by Human Bridges.

The motives that drove archaeologists of the past included a thirst for glory, a taste for treasure, and a desire to enshrine a new political era with the legitimacy of the ancient past.

Gradually, over the decades leading closer to ours, the discipline matured, gaining an ethical framework, and started asking questions about the societies and lifestyles of the people who had left their traces behind. Archaeologists began to compare their evidence to how we live now and increasingly started hunting for the origins of modern-day problems, from plagues and warfare to inequality. Archaeological research spread beyond the palaces and cities of a few civilizations to six continents, and the rapid growth of evidence in human origins produced a global outlook and a 6 million-year-long clock to record the gradual changes in the human story that led us to the present.

The diligent research of tens of thousands of archaeologists carefully documenting the past all over the planet has accumulated and crossed a new threshold leading to big implications: It’s socially useful information that we can plug into improving our lives.

Our sample size of this greater past dwarfs by many magnitudes what we thought history used to be. Thanks to advances in technology, the data about the human story can integrate and interact with the records we keep today.

Many modern human problems are the result of “evolutionary mismatch”—our lifestyles are at odds with the biological capacities we developed and relied on for millions of years to get here—and range from heart disease to various forms of addiction and ADHD. A synthesis of human origins research and our new understanding of human biology presents a powerful perspective and roadmap for dealing with some of our biggest challenges.

By combining that synthesis with the archaeological record’s increasingly detailed knowledge of human settlement and state formations, from its origins to the present, we can build from a universalizing framework and global data set. This approach can better integrate the wider body of Indigenous knowledge and worldviews than the Western-based historical models and understanding of the human story that continues to hold sway.

One of the first to see the scale of this opportunity is archaeologist, researcher, and professor Gary M. Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Feinman and a growing cast of colleagues have turned stereotypes about Mesoamerican societies on their heads: Many were cooperative, relatively egalitarian, and developed an impressive array of frameworks that allow us to compare different aspects of societies from various times and places, including ours.

Feinman has been a prominent advocate for developing better models to interpret the past and for the synthesis of information across time periods and regions of the planet. We are stronger when we can draw from a broader set of parameters, counterexamples, and nuances that prevent the common human instinct to take off on flights of fancy.

I thought readers could benefit from sharing our conversation about the great archaeological discovery of our time: the realization that this new data set is a powerful engine for the betterment of humankind.

Jan Ritch-Frel: Let’s start with a great essay you wrote in 2023, “Learning from History, If We Dare.” You wrote of a “treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.” We’re in an era, thanks to accumulations of evidence and technology, where humanity has a critical mass of history at its fingertips that it has never had before. Why is this significant?

Gary M. Feinman: As deep-time historians, we have finally gotten the volume and multiple scales of data that permit comparisons across different cultural periods, over long spans of time, and diverse social formations. In a real sense, through archaeology, we can now begin to assess a truly global historical record that is not narrowly restricted to just literate societies or the European past. For a long time, the classical Mediterranean world or medieval Europe—both known from texts—were used as proxies for humanity’s past. Now, we know that is not appropriate, as our past as a species has neither been uniform nor linear.

At the same time, we now have models that help us identify and point ourselves toward understanding what underpins good governance, collective and cooperative behavior, as well as the causes of economic inequality and their alternatives. The social sciences have finally discarded 200-year-old approaches to understanding the past, such as the idea that the nations of Europe are the pinnacle and end-point product of steady human progress. A historical framework pegged to that framework makes useful comparisons across history almost impossible.

Ritch-Frel: Do we have many examples of our leaders and governing circles daring to learn from anything other than cherry-picked history?

Feinman: The problem is that for centuries, scholars interested in drawing lessons from the historical past have looked principally to the classical world, Europe’s recent past, or progressivist models that made unwarranted assumptions about human nature writ large. Many leaders who saw history through a straw have paid a heavy price.

More problematic are the scenarios that presume humans are perpetually selfish or that our leaders are always despotic or militaristic. These scenarios ignore the nuances of human nature, which include both the potential for selfishness and the ability to cooperate with non-kin at scales unsurpassed in the animal kingdom. Human behavior is always contingent on context, and alone, it cannot account for human history. Rather, we must look for the parameters, patterns, and variability in institutions and behavior that account for humanity’s differences, diverse pasts, and changes.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, there is no end to the debates and lessons we can learn from history. Technologies change, but the basic socioeconomic mechanisms and relations that underpin human institutions have broad commonalities and structures. We know this in regard to scale and now another key dimension: the degree to which power is concentrated and distributed.

Of course, pure reliance on education and exposure to democratic institutions and good governance is not enough for these things to take hold. How institutions are financed makes a big difference, and if that does not change, then political realities will not either.

Ritch-Frel: Since we’ve never had so much history to learn from and make use of before, the reality is that the mechanisms for initiating better use of a more comprehensive history have to be produced. What are some of the key starting points?

Feinman: We first have to recognize that when explaining humanity’s past, history itself matters. The path dependence, or sequence of changes, and existing structures matter. In other words, the social sciences are historical sciences—like biology—but without general laws or mechanical explanations like there are in physics. Even though there are no universal laws of history, we can identify useful probabilities.

How do we do that? First, a comparative study of the past has to allow for variation in sequences, speed of development, and change. Then, as we compare different regional sequences of history, we can study the relations between historical factors and key variables under different parameters. One great advantage of history and archaeology compared to the recent past is that we know the outcomes. We already know what happened, and that gives us the opportunity to understand why.

As we build our understanding of humanity’s global past, the strength of the relationships we see between institutions and factors such as population growth, nucleation, and scale will become stronger. Only through a broad comparative lens, made possible with archaeological data, can we construct a genuinely global archive of histories and heritage.

Then there’s the social modeling question—a lot of historical error has been produced by seeing events as driven solely by the elites. High status generally may come with more clout than others have, but in social formations, there are many other groups and forces that have a hand in determining how events unfold. If we’re interested in greater accuracy, we will include the vantages of the wider population and daily life.

Institutions are part of this mix: They perform functions based on earlier embedded history that people have to contend with and sometimes reform.

Most human settlements and social formations are open—population flow and change are near-continuous. This means that membership and affiliations in our communities and “societies” are generally in flux and have mechanisms that reflect that.

Cultural groups are not homogeneous, and cultural traits do not shift in unison. Some aspects of culture, like worldviews or visions of the universe, resist change. Others, such as how people organize politically or what they do for a living, may shift more readily.

This is where it becomes so critical that we can study the past in both granular and scaled-up ways, using a range of new technologies we have available, from isotopes and DNA to satellite mapping.

The methodology of many research disciplines that use individuals as their key metric has continuously let us down the more our questions scale up—this applies to both behavioral ecology and classical economics. They are useful but conceptually inadequate when it comes to explaining the diversity and complexity of the deep past.

Ritch-Frel: Regarding the educational process for future leaders, where would you start?

Feinman: We need a curriculum for future leaders that broadens their perspective on human behavior and the global past. If we’re going to enjoy the benefits of history, behavior in the contemporary West should not be isolated or considered distinct from the rest. A proper dose of a synthesis of anthropology, archaeology, and history will temper the curricula that prepare future leaders in ways that dampen modernist and Eurocentric biases.

The famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) courses at Oxford and Cambridge, which have produced almost all the UK prime ministers for many decades, and the Grand Strategy courses taught at the elite campuses of the United States, are deeply imbued in these theories and presumptions.

Ritch-Frel: Do you think the PPE and the Grand Strategy crowd know they’re holding onto an obsolete and reductive bag and will embrace history and biological sciences, or will this have to be a knife fight in the alley?

Feinman: In so many ways, recent policies and beliefs regarding inequality, globalism, democracy, and migration have been birthed from disciplines like economics, politics, and law, which are grounded in Eurocentric ideas and assumptions. These biases are not surprising since Western social scientific thought grew hand in hand with Euro-American colonialism and contemporary paths of economic development.

But now, our mission is to disentangle and refine our conceptual frames, drawing on and broadening it based on what we have learned. The data we have collected in archaeology, anthropology, and history demand an episode of “destructive science,” a new conceptual development that aligns with what we know, in which we expand and integrate theoretical ideas drawn from economics and politics. And we can temper them with the diversity in practices and institutions that have been documented by archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. furnace

    I’m tempted, these days, to add, “except more stupidly.”

    A bearded old man (though he was a young man then) once wrote that things happen “first as tragedy, then as farce”. Being in the “farce” portion sure feels surreal.

    As for the piece, interesting stuff. I’ll admit to being a little bit biased against the historical interpretative key which says “there are no laws of history” (sure, I can work with that, though I’ve come to think it’s sometimes a cop-out for historians who want to avoid having to fit their work to a more complex epistemology).

    I do sympathize with the author’s intents, especially with his goal of making history and archeology (a science about which I know very little, so I won’t opine either way) sounder, but I can’t help but feel that his end goal being

    A proper dose of a synthesis of anthropology, archaeology, and history will temper the curricula that prepare future leaders in ways that dampen modernist and Eurocentric biases.

    betrays a certain milquetoast feeling. I suppose this is why radicals of all stripes have drawn upon history as their source: it’s tremendously capable of moving people. So to advocate for what is described as a radical epistemic change and also to “fix the leaders curriculum so that maybe they’ll do better” seems like a total contradiction. I don’t think “fixing” what Etonians are taught or what have you will really change much of anything; leaders don’t act in such ways because of a bad understanding of history and anthropology; they do so because it is in their interest to do so.

    1. JohnnyGL

      “I don’t think “fixing” what Etonians are taught or what have you will really change much of anything; leaders don’t act in such ways because of a bad understanding of history and anthropology; they do so because it is in their interest to do so.”

      Are you sure? We do seem to be on a real hot streak of getting crappier and dumber leaders.

      It can’t hurt to fix the schools a bit.

      1. Johnny Conspiranoid

        “Are you sure? We do seem to be on a real hot streak of getting crappier and dumber leaders.”
        Perhaps because the ‘leaders’ aren’t really in charge.

    2. .Tom

      > “betrays a certain milquetoast feeling”

      Yes, I agree. But baby steps. What’s threatened here is to tear down the most fundamental presumptions used, as though they were natural law any commonsense thinker can see, to justifying existing hierarchical power structures. So I can accept that a professor from Chicago might feel the need to be diplomatic in presenting his work. We can now take up what he and others give us and incorporate it in the preparation of our revolutions.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I remain a bit dubious about this article, mainly on the grounds that I do not think that we have more than an overview of the past and not the deep understanding that this article implies. It was only a century ago that archaeology was really about the study of Kings, Pharaohs and other elites as many of the early archaeologists came from or were financed by modern elites. It was only over many decades that the emphasis shifted to the study of the majority of the population and how they led their lives as it gave more context to their civilization and how it worked. There has been a lot of advances in recent years with advanced technology but my own opinion is that we are just at the beginning on the path to understanding real human history. We may know a lot more know but I think that we are still working out how to put all those pieces together so the famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) courses at Oxford and Cambridge may have jumped the gun here.

    1. CanCyn

      Thanks RK. I didn’t see the interview so much as saying that we know everything we need to know about the past as much as that we have enough to do comparative studies that allow us to get out of the Eurocentric bubble that has restricted western perspective and guided western ‘development’ for so long. Anything that helps to burst the ‘there is no alternative’ POV is a step in the right direction IMO. It made me want to pick up Graeber’s Dawn of Everything – mentioned in .Tom’s response (8:51am)

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Graeber’s book is very good. It isn’t the most rigorous academic study and there is quite a bit of speculation, but I do think he makes the case that there have been at least some societies that were much more egalitarian in the past than ours is today. I think his point with that book was to show that another world is possible, and in that he succeeded.

  3. .Tom

    A few years ago I read three books that meshed rather well, Mann’s 1491 and 1493 and then Graeber and Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything. Together these rinsed me of the Eurocentric and modernist views and gave me considerable hope that we have alternatives available. But Graeber and Wengrow explained that while the story that has emerged from archeology in recent years is fairly clear in some important aspects, the archeologists aren’t telling it in a coherent fashion, owing to the common problem in academic science: as humble specialists doing detail work they don’t see telling the combined story as their job.

    So it is very encouraging to read this interview with Feinman, an archeologist, boldly stating that archeology is now telling a coherent story and the world had better listen because it’s important, and that the story he seems to be telling is what I have got elsewhere.

      1. .Tom

        Indeed. I remember reading about the lidar surveys years ago but at that time I didn’t know anything about the social and political interpretations that were emerging from the physical work. It’s an exciting time because apart from the discoveries being made in the scientific domain pushing things forwards, I feel that the demand is rising for new ideas about in social and political thought. So it should be a good time for interdisciplinary writers to do more of the kind of work popularizing social/political interpretations of the science that Mann, Graeber and Wengrow did.

        1. juno mas

          A good book on the native American perspective of continental history is “One Vast Winter Count” (C. Galloway, 2006). It compliments “1491” (C. Mann).

          The reason our understanding of history is so distorted? All establishment education is political. Most Americans were taught the North American continent was mostly bare. Not so: there were 10-20 million natives, and Meso-American culture was quite advanced.

  4. Twitty

    We should all read Dave Graeber’s work. When he died in 2020 we lost a brilliant and transformative mind

    1. .Tom

      I agree. When news of his death came I felt something like grief, and again on the anniversary. Very unusual for someone I had never met. I could only understand it as a measure of how much his writing had influenced me. I’m not sure what my first encounter with his work was or when but it was likely around the time of Occupy. Debt was very good and then he had a series of articles in The Baffler (which was still good then and I was a print sub). The whole BS Jobs thing was awesome and we did a podcast episode on the book. But it wasn’t until after I had read Dawn of Everything that I came around to accepting that I can claim to be an anarchist. Prior to that I couldn’t see how to make it work at scale and I couldn’t conceive a practical theory of change: how to get from here to there. After reading it I was able to piece together answers good enough for me, for now.

      Dawn of Everything is a good book and a fun read. I recommend it to anyone.

  5. Candide

    While the ability to read wonderful close-ups from life fragments and patterns from the past implies utility in the ethical sphere, the global limits we are up against are left out of the enjoyable conversation. Are the insights are so compelling as to outweigh the “view through a straw” ?

    Today’s “smart” and well-funded sociopaths can make peace advocate Jeremy Corbin into a villain in the eyes of his own political party just in time for supporting more war.

    Noam Chomsky has observed, “There’s no right to self defense against the empire.”
    so human imagination has its work cut out for it… and for all of us.

  6. Mike

    To be more detailed is the goal of archeology, I would think, and the discovery of hidden complexes in the Amazon dating back a thousand years shows we have only scratched the surface regarding the extent of cultures and settlements. Further, it is not necessarily the sites or the material culture that are discovered or examined, but the method of interpretation that currently bogs down our understanding of culture history. What is an urban complex, and how do the various buildings function within it? Do settlement patterns really “tell” you how people interacted and thought? Is a pyramid always and only to be interpreted as religious? How much imagination vs. material evidence is present in depictions of material remains?

  7. Vicky Cookies

    Some academic is always rediscovering what was once called ‘primitive communism’, and then refusing to draw conclusions about what needs doing based upon the principles our human history suggests. Everyone knows from their common experience that human nature is not totally selfish. That fluff’s only for economists. If people acted as if they believed that, we’d all be dead before noon.

    PPE, Grand Strategy courses, and Oxbridge and the Ivy plus schools generally, are totally unreformable. Implying that they are ill-informed or misdirected gets you nowhere; the filters through which their graduates pass ensure that any doubts as to the righteousness of their closed-minded view are precluded. A rational society would’ve burned them to the ground by now, with, in some cases, several centuries of data about what they produce.

  8. Tom Pfotzer

    There are two aspects of this subject that IMHO didn’t get sufficient air-time in the article. I believe these aspects hold great potential for our society today.

    Those aspects are:

    a. The impact of technology on the society. Technology is “what humans know how to do” and technology generally evolves around key problems a society is experiencing in the moment. That technology has major, system-wide impacts on the societies that acquire it. Consider fire, tools-building, weaving, farming…those were all technologies that didn’t exist before, came into being by human innovation, and then profoundly impacted the trajectory of the societies which adopted them

    b. The degree of engagement of the entire society in the creative activities. Where does innovation come from? I assert that it’s rarely top-down. The capacity to innovate is fairly evenly distributed across the population, and it surely isn’t concentrated among the “elites”. The elites are more generally harvesters, not creators.

    Now let’s ask “how, and at what rate, did technology impact / enable / modify course of societies across time?”

    And then “is there something that some societies did to encourage this sort of adaptation and incremental discovery that other societies didn’t, and what was the effect of that difference between societies?”

    Think about schools, and how they’ve evolved over time, and how different they are from one culture to the next. Libraries. Guilds. Manufacturing facilities: contrast Jefferson’s artisan society with Hamilton’s capital-concentrated massive-scale, highly-specialized society (the one we have now).

    What’s the impact of those creative-powers dispersions .vs. concentrations? How engaged in the creative process is our whole society, and how does that affect the “evolutionary mismatch” the authors so brilliantly identified in the article’s lead-in?

    If you’re a specialist, can you see the macro-trends? If you’re a consumer, can you create the new technology your situation demands?

    1. .Tom

      These points go well beyond archeology and are so sweeping that only philosophy (in, for example, Sellar’s definition) has the scope for them. Which brings me to a slogan I’ve been mulling for a while that’s maybe a corollary or generalization of your b. Philosophy is too important to leave it to academics.

      1. Tom Pfotzer


        I can’t understand (yet) why you think this is a philosophical problem.

        Archaeology is about how societies coped. How they used what they had to deliver the max std of living possible for the context.

        Some societies (cultures) play _way_ better than their contemporaries, whether at comparable points in time, or comparable contexts (available natural resources, pressure from enemies, etc.).

        I posit that one major reason for that performance delta is [here it is!] : some societies innovate, invent, collaborate way better than others. They use what they have better.

        Technology plays a huge role in a culture’s delivered standard of living. Some cultures equip their citizens for creativity, others don’t. That’s why I mentioned schools; public schools extend to almost all echelons of the socio-econ continuum the basic capacities to make major contributions to the host societies’ welfare. Everyone gets a baseline set of skills with which to play.

        These sort of things – what the culture values and rewards (like creativity) and how that society equips the bulk of their potential contributors (via schools, for ex.) to participate and contribute … makes a world of difference in outcomes.

        In my estimation, those two factors are the _most_ relevant of all factors that affect std of living for _any_ society.

        Yet….those two factors don’t get discussed much by archaeologists. And it’s not like the technology used by societies is hidden. The artifacts are present in the excavation sites.

        So I don’t think this is a philosophical issue. It’s an inculcated values issue; what’s the culture’s expressed values? What behaviors does the culture reward, and what behaviors does it equip. The archaeologists aren’t (apparently) trying to find out what cultural values delivered what higher-std-of-living results.

        Creativity is where it’s at, at any point in history, for any culture. Ya get what you create. Or steal; that’s the major “innovation” of the Empire strategy. How long can an empire steal? Interesting question, indeed.

        And if your culture is in a box like ours is … our installed economic systems that we spent 300 years building … are trashing the biosphere we depend upon for life. And all that installed capacity has enormous momentum.

        This might just be a great time to revisit the question of what it takes to be really good at creating new stuff.

        That’s why – I think – the authors included the concept of “evolutionary mismatch”. Our extraction rates have overshot the recharge rate. That usually results in some type of collapse.

        This has happened before, and the archeologists are the ones that told us so.

        Now, Mr. N Mrs. Archaeologist, can you help us figure out how societies in our rich, not-well-understood past coped with or avoided these sorts of issues?

        Now _that_ would be a Great Archaeological Discovery.

        1. CA

          “Technology plays a huge role in a culture’s delivered standard of living. Some cultures equip their citizens for creativity, others don’t. That’s why I mentioned schools; public schools extend to almost all echelons of the socio-econ continuum the basic capacities to make major contributions to the host societies’ welfare. Everyone gets a baseline set of skills with which to play…”

          What a fine comment all through. This is just what Joseph Needham of Cambridge was looking at in what became 27 magnificent volumes:

          June 20, 1971

          Joseph Needham, the Real Thing
          By Richard Boston

          1. Tom Pfotzer

            “But with devout intention for the healing of the nations.”

            Today I needed some inspiration, some assurance that maybe humans are alright, after all.

            Tks, CA. It was a timely shot in the arm.


        2. .Tom

          People who know a lot more than me disagree strongly over the purview of philosophy so I don’t want to press the point … but … your paragraphs following from “So I don’t think this is a philosophical issue” discuss issues that, imo, go well beyond archeology and beyond even all science into questions of ethics and what values and morals we should teach. To me this is the kind of interdisciplinary inquiry coupled to imaginative, creative and noncritical nondisciplinary discourse that I find most exciting. This activity doesn’t fit any of the sciences as I understand them. It’s about how “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”.

          1. .Tom

            I had another idea for a different way to explain myself. Perhaps you like Sartre more than Sellars.

            You wrote “what the culture values and rewards (like creativity) and how that society equips the bulk of their potential contributors (via schools, for ex.) to participate and contribute … makes a world of difference in outcomes” and I agree. The importance is the obvious, unavoidable implication: “Then what should we choose to value and reward and how should we equip…?” The archeological record can’t answer that and it’s not even archeology’s job to ask the question. It is ours because is our freedom to choose.

            The recent advances in archeology have convincingly shown that we have this freedom through a wide range of counter examples to the previously prevailing Western thought that God, or natural law, or complex systems theory, or animal psychology, or Freudian whatever condemn us a much more limited set of social options.

            Archeology upturned some older philosophy so now we face more choices than old philosophy afforded. What shall we do? That’s up to us.

            “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent.”

            1. Tom Pfotzer

              Aright, .Tom. First order of biz is to thank you for that fine work.

              Now, allow me to acknowledge that archaeology’s job isn’t to define values. That’s our choice, as you stated clearly. We agree on that one.

              Now please consider this: archaeology’s job is to report out the choices our predecessors made, and tell us about the consequences. That’s the job of historians, and archaeologists are forensics experts who are telling us how things were (history), using physical remains as the lead witness.

              So now the question turns on “what remains (forensics) do we examine, using our agency (choice) in order to glean what?”

              I’m advocating for our current generation to make a values-choice to examine how other societies got themselves to create more than the norm.

              I’m asking the forensics experts to ID the behaviors that engendered high levels of adaptation among we humans.

              Creativity is _adaptation_. Will you accept that premise?

              If you do, then will you agree that it’s important for our society, at this time, to ID the societal behaviors, including cultural design, that tend to deliver high volumes and rates of adaptation.

              If it can be said that “there’s nothing new under the sun” – and maybe that applies also to we humans – then we are well-advised to comb the forensic evidence, and ID those cultures that hammered it on the adaptation dimension, and glean what’s to be had.


              I’m enjoying this, .Tom. Tks for taking time to respond.

              1. .Tom

                Sure, I can go along with all of that. I’ll try to wrap it back to my comment yesterday too.

                You wrote “it’s important for our society, at this time, to ID the societal behaviors, including cultural design, that tend to deliver high volumes and rates of adaptation.” I agree. We should undertake this task. Explaining why we should allocate resources for this effort is an exercise in ethics that I argue should take place in public in the language of the general public, i.e. avoiding the alienating technical and academic aspects of academic language. (Here I mean “language” in the broadest sense.)

                I think what I am arguing for is similar to what Latour called gatherings in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”.

                Scientists acting purely as scientists can deliver facts, and we need them, as much as possible, solid, secure facts. But facts must be interpreted relative to our purposes to inform our choices. That is not a scientific activity. Facts, measurements and objectivity exist in the scientific domain. Meaning, utility and truth may only be discernible given facts but they exist in another, orthogonal domain. Relating these domains is the key. It’s like: what’s the difference between data and information?

                And facts that aren’t relevant to any of our purposes kinda get in the way and consume resources so maybe the scientific agenda should take into account our purposes too.

                Hence the need, as I see it, for a continuous discourse between the scientists and … how to put it … us? The discourse requires understanding the science but isn’t itself scientific.

                My understanding is that philosophy is what we are doing when we discuss the meanings of scientific facts relative to our current purposes and I think this discourse is too important to leave to academics.


                I think you too for taking the time for this.

  9. Wukchumni

    One thing i’ve noticed in damn near every history museum i’ve been to, is typically its all the elite’s stuff on display, very seldom does everyday mundane items of the era ever get its due, mainly because its boring compared to the bitchin’ booty of the various .001%’ers.

    How is it in the Americas, those in South America up to Mexico, were aware of gold and produced objects out of it and valued it highly, but none of the aboriginals in what is now the USA & Canada, seemed to care whatsoever.

    When the first 49’ers happened upon a virgin river in places such a as Downieville in the Gold Country of California, said locales were so rich in placer gold on the surface, one particular place was called ‘Tin Cup Diggins’, as that was how much you could expect from a day of work.

    The Native Americans had around 10,000 years to have found these easy gleanings, but never bothered.

    It wasn’t something useful such as obsidian, also only found in certain locations.

    Asia was mad about jade, much of the rest of the world enamored with all that glitters, but what was it that Native Americans held dear other than various shell games, Wampum and whatnot.

  10. carolina concerned

    A general study of history shows that our academic elites and political elites will skew their information gathering and usage so it will align with their motives and goals. A general study of history also shows that our governmental and military leaders, and their motives and goals, have frequently been cruel and inhumane. This indicates that we need to use historical discoveries to help understand what positive things humans are capable of. But, more importantly, we need to understand what human tendencies our cultures need to control and suppress. In order to drive cultural advancement, we need to understand that the fundamental necessity is a culture based on cooperation, creativity, and caring for others. With this in mind, we see that it is important for academics to be part of a movement supporting, enabling, and empowering those who share those values. I think this article was very good, but leaves some concern about the lack of reference to the need to oppose ideas and leaders who are cruel and inhumane.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      Your first sentence is bang on. We can see it repeat over and over. Today is no exception. The elite class, of which most readers here are part, seems immune to the moderating effects of humility. Each generation confidently correct the errors of the past with remarkably similar errors of today and of the future, always certain that this time we have it right.

      Most notable is how almost every march to war can be seen in hindsight as a manipulation by the ruling class as a tool to cover up the consequences of their poor choices. And yet, tragically the same ploys are used time and time again to make it seem inevitable or the fault of some external force.

  11. lyman alpha blob

    I’m of two minds about this, as someone who has studied archaeology a bit and worked on a dig. I do think it’s very important to be aware of history and try to understand it, especially for those aspiring to leadership positions in a society. Then again, there is a lot we will never really know about the past, and creating a false narrative about the past based on scant evidence can be just as detrimental as forgetting it completely. Feinman has a good grasp of that judging by the interview.

    Modern technology coupled with new sensibilities among archaeologists really have improved things since the early days of archaeology when treasure hunters like Schliemann dominated the field, if you could even call it a field then. As Mike mentions above, rather than opening up test trenches all over the place hoping to get lucky, you can now fly a lidar equipped drone over a rainforest and discover a whole new civilization that nobody would have ever known was there, which brings a whole new understanding to the past.

    On the other hand, archaeologists, like other scientists, do want to discover new things, and some are based on pretty scant evidence (still not completely convinced about the accelerating expansion of the universe that Schmitt and Perlmutter won a Nobel for, given the small sample size they used, but that’s another story…). At the dig I worked with on Crete, the head archaeologist found traces of some mineral or other, realized there were deposits of the same mineral in Anatolia, and posited an ancient trade route. Then a local fisherman showed him local deposits of the same mineral just over the next hill, and there went that theory. Another time, a Minoan wall was tentatively redated to Byzantine times, all because of one piece of Roman glass that was uncovered nearby. I’m not sure what the final verdict on that was, but my own theory at the time was that a curious Byzantine era person had gone out to take a look at the Minoan ruins, much like we were currently doing, and dropped their water bottle. Seemed plausible to me, given all the plastic water bottles being left around the site by us, which would someday be dug up themselves, causing future archaeologists much consternation.

    Then there is the question of when something should be excavated, and when it should maybe just be left in the ground. Many North American First Peoples for example either ask for the remains of their ancestors to be reburied, or simply left in the ground and not desecrated in the first place.

    Given NC’s love of parody tunes, I will end with a little food for thought. One of my Greek friends liked to regale the archaeologists with his parody of “Another Brick in the Wall”, especially when we were all sitting in the taverna having some rakis. He thought it was hilarious, which it was, but I do believe he also thought his heritage was being pillaged a bit

    “We don’t need no excavation.
    We don’t need no Johnny Rhoades*.
    Hey! Johnny!
    Leave those deads alone.”

    *not the real name of the lead American archaeologist, but his name did also rhyme with “thought control”, the original lyric in the song.

  12. Watt4Bob

    While Ritch-Frel’s observations provide us a useful perspective from which to adjust and expand our various understandings of human history in the broadest sense, I find Michael Hudson’s more focused explanation of the the change from economies that had as a central tenant/feature, the necessity of debt forgiveness, to the current system featuring the sanctity of contracts, and never-ending debt, a much more significant bit of scholarship.

    It’s true, broadly speaking, Ritch-Frel is doing good work in inviting us to reconsider our biases, that’s all well and good, but Michael Hudson has gone a step farther, and digested a very useful subset of this challenging historical knowledge to offer us a concrete alternative to the dead-end we find ourselves in.

    I’d say Hudson is mining the same vein, and has come up with a very real jewel, the ancient wisdom-in-action, that debt forgiveness might save an economy like ours, seemingly locked in what seems an inevitable death-spiral.

    If I was asked where to start re-evaluating one’s understanding of human history, I’d have no problem pointing to Hudson’s work on the history of debt.

    1. JonnyJames

      Michael Hudson, (and David Graeber) are excellent suggestions. It took me awhile, but I finally finished Hudson’s latest: The Collapse of Antiquity. I think prof. Hudson said he is working on another book.

    2. Jan Ritch-Frel

      Hey Watt4Bob, I couldn’t agree more: we just published a series of essays on Bronze Age Near Eastern Economics with Hudson, and we’re starting to circulate edited versions of those. I wish you pleasant Sunday reading. It certainly was a delight for us to work on:

  13. lou

    “The social sciences have finally discarded 200-year-old approaches to understanding the past, such as the idea that the nations of Europe are the pinnacle and end-point product of steady human progress.”

    Seriously? The dialectical materialist conception of history completely debunked the idea that “there is an end to history” 200 years ago (Historical materialism).

    1. JonnyJames

      What? No end to (linear) history? I hear Fukuyama is still a fellow at Stanford, despite his work being turned into the butt of jokes. He also predicted that Ukraine would prevail and Russia would be defeated. A leading intellectual of our time

      1. ambrit

        ” A leading intellectual of our time.”
        Well citizen, there’s “intellectual” and there is “Intellectual.”

  14. David in Friday Harbor

    All hail the NC Commentariat! So relieved that they have had a similar reaction to mine. It was hard to read this post after scanning Betsy Reed’s The Guardian trashing Pope Francis for calling for peace in “Ukraine” and complaining about the NYT being mean to Genocide Joe from MBNA for publishing his abysmal polling.

    I also read Mann’s 1491 and 1493. Ever heard of the Gran Tzompantli of Tenochtitlan? What a charming, cooperative, and egalitarian society who believed that the tears of terrorized children about to be tortured to death must hit the ground for a good harvest. Sounds like a certain place in the eastern Mediterranean today.

    “Archaeology” appears to be the science of projection of whatever values the “scientist” wishes to impose on the past. At least some civilizations left a written record. I doubt that the Cloud will last much beyond the collapse of our own civilization. Future “archaeologists” will be left to sift through our landfills and mass graves to figure us out.

    1. CA

      It was hard to read this post after scanning Betsy Reed’s The Guardian trashing Pope Francis for calling for peace in “Ukraine” and complaining about the NYT…

      [ Thank you so much. ]

    2. CA

      March 9, 2024

      Pope Says Ukraine Should Have the ‘Courage of the White Flag’
      His words have raised questions about whether Francis was suggesting that Ukraine surrender, but a Vatican spokesman said the pope meant “cease-fire and negotiation.”
      By Jason Horowitz

      Pope Francis has reiterated in a new interview that Ukraine should negotiate to end the war with Russia, but this time he used language — adopting his interviewer’s expression, “white flag” — that has drawn attention and raised questions about whether the pope was suggesting that Ukraine surrender.

      On Saturday night, the Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, immediately clarified that the pope meant “cease-fire and negotiation,” not surrender, when he said white flag, a universal symbol for giving up.

      But the pope’s words and others he used during the interview have underscored how the Vatican has often bewildered Ukraine’s officials and supporters struggling to understand its position….

    1. .Tom

      Archeologists are calling BS on the chauvinist telos of Rousseau, Fukuyama, Diamond etc. and therefore of the authority of the West or any other grand claims to authority to talk about social organization.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I share your disappointment with the lack of substance in the post fleshing out the claimed great discovery. I am not sure what new data set provides the claimed engine for the betterment of humankind.

      Referring to Feinman’s essay linked near the top of this post:
      Three great myths the discoveries of modern archeology supposedly debunks —
      1) humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state
      2) large premodern societies were universally coercive or despotic in organization.
      3) Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.
      I believe the data appearing to prove these myths false is the supposed great archaeological discovery of our time. I doubt these myths were that widely accepted before the data — data little elaborated by this post — debunked them.

      Myth #1 characterized the description Thomas Hobbes used to begin his theories of the Social Contract. Many philosophers after Hobbes conjured alternative theories for explaining and justifying the political order of their times.
      Myth #2 is a convenient projection of present large societies onto premodern large societies.
      Myth #3 is very self-congratulatory propaganda for justifying and rationalizing the kind of Society we live in today.
      I believe all three myths were discredited without any data from archaeology

      I believe many of the broad kind of lessons archaeology Feinman teaches remind me of the book: Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay. Creative inferences from limited premodern artifacts too often become a little too creative. It would be a great archaeological discovery for our time if some library or writings are discovered in ruins of some great city or cities hidden in the jungles of South America — assuming they could be read and translated into modern language.

      1. Belle

        I loved that book! Parents read it to me as a kid! I later got a copy when I was older and appreciated it more. (I got the references in it that most kids wouldn’t get.)

  15. El Viejito

    For useful history/archaeology/paleontology/etc. I recommend Peter Turchin – End Tmes. He predicted the maelstrom we live in now back in 2010 or so, all based on his compilation of world-wide historical data. What I would find more useful is hints on how to organize to mitigate the looming disasters. For that I recommend Jem Bendell, Breaking Together.

    1. Gordon

      I too am reading, and strongly recommend, Peter Turchin’s End Times

      He describes himself as a ‘Complexity Scientist’ and has spent several decades assembling databases of statistics gleaned from thousands of years of history then interogating that data to discover what forces shape the way societies work.

      According to Turchin, the historical record tells us that when the balance of power between ruling class and the majority tips too far in favour of the elite, income inequality surges until eventually frustration with the self-serving establishment boils over, often with disastrous consequences.

      That sounds about right to me!

  16. Albert65de

    I read the referenced article and my comment that I left there was there are a lot of assertions, but where can the necessary details be found? Is there a book or a series of essays with these details?

  17. Adam Eran

    “In … Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), James Scott makes the point that whenever one group has overwhelming power over another, as when a community is divided between lords and serfs, masters and slaves, high-caste and untouchable, both sides tend to end up acting as if they were conspiring to falsify the historical record. That is: there will always be an ‘official version’ of reality–say, that plantation owners are benevolent paternal figures who only have the best interest of their slaves at heart–which no one, neither masters nor slaves, actually believes, and which they are likely to treat as self-evidently ridiculous when ‘offstage’ and speaking only to each other, but which the dominant group insists subordinates play along with, particularly at anything that might be considered a public event. In a way, this is the purest expression of power: the ability to force the dominated to pretend, effectively, that two plus two is five. Or that the pharaoh is a god. As a result, the version of reality that tends to be preserved for history and posterity is precisely that ‘official transcript.’ ”
    – From (footnotes) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by Graeber and Wengrow

    1. S.

      The “discovery” here is: archeologists are running with contemporary progressive ideas and trends to and not adhering to the ideologies of 1900. We know that archeologists of the past were wrong, have nothing to teach us, and were somewhat immoral because they didn’t have access to the tools of today and didn’t follow our ethical standards or treat the beliefs of Indigenous people with reverence.

      Generations of anthropologists and archeologists starting the 60s have been claiming that they are in a dialogue with Schleimann and his contemporaries, and now they have totally revolutionized their disciplines and made startling new discoveries about the enlightened, harmonious lifestyles of people who lived before or outside of industrial civilization. What makes this exceptional is that this isn’t a reaction to anything, it’s just a declaration that we’re better than them.

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