South American Archaeology the Challenge Posed by the Lack of a Written Record

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Archaeology is the study of human culture and behavior from the past. Often these studies are conducted from fossils of humans, food, building ruins and artifacts such as tools, pottery and jewelry. Much of the knowledge of past human life can come from written records that people in the time kept. However, in ancient times there was much that was not recorded. Often archaeology is split into prehistoric and historical, the latter being the study of humans after written records came about.

Much like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, most of South America’s ancient languages are written with pictures or symbols, if there is one at all. In Caral, a Peruvian ancient civilization, archaeologists have found the earliest form of communication called the quipu. Quipu was the only type of record keeping this civilization had, being formed from knotted cords of different colors. Despite there being some written language, it is hard to gather much from it, and often an archaeologist must use other methods.

The challenges that archaeologists face because of having little to no written records include knowledge of locations of various other civilizations, determining how old a specific artifact or civilization is and finding out the chronological order of how certain things happened. Because of these challenges much more investigative work has to be done. Aside from just exploring one civilization, they often must compare others from all over the world to determine the age of the current one they are working on. This allows them to see differences in tools, pottery and jewelry as humans generally advanced during similar times.

When there are no written records the archaeologist must determine from their own research how a society functioned, whether the people were hunter-gatherers or learned to farm and even how they died. Since there is no clue as to how any part of some societies worked, extra time has to be put into studying everything from clay pot shards to tools, fire pits, ruins and bones.

Thankfully, these days there are many more methods of solving the mysteries of ancient life. Not only carbon dating for an approximate guess on age of many things, but radar for surveying land and scanning deep in the earth, x-rays for bones, increased mapping techniques, as well as photos from satellites that may indicate need for a dig.

Although some societies of the ancient world didn’t have written records or left difficult-to-decipher language, with today’s technology it is easier to get past that challenge. Without written records it may be there are some things never known, but with great research, technology and civilization comparisons it may be possible to learn just about everything about them. This also teaches the importance of written records and family history; future generations will be able to know how present-day people lived.

More about this author: Jerica Collins

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