Contributions of Other Disciplines to Archaeology


What are the contributions of othe disiplines to archaeology? Information about the study of archaeology.

The discussion of dating illustrates one of the characteristics of modern archaeology. So many kinds of science are involved that this has become an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary field. An archaeologist cannot expect to become expert in all of the disciplines that contribute to his field. Yet he must have sufficient background in a number of subjects so that he has some idea of what kinds of natural and physical scientists might be able to help him in the solution of archaeological problems. He must also have some idea of what kinds of problems would be of interest to these physical and natural scientists, who already have enough to do and will become professionally interested only in those problems of archaeology that have some relevancy to their own fields. How archaeologists work with scholars from other fields can be illustrated by describing a major study under the leadership of Richard S. MacNeish in Mexico.

Formulating the Problem.

MacNeish set up his problem by asking the following questions. (1) How, where, and when did agriculture based on corn begin in the New World? .(2) What cultural changes from savagery to civilization accompanied this development in the basic subsistence pattern? (3) What bearing would the answers to the first two questions have on the problems of how and why civilization arose anywhere in the world? In common with archaeologists everywhere MacNeish knew that the development of agriculture was basic to the rise of a civilization. He assumed that if he could find the origin of the systematic growing of corn (or maize) as a food crop, he would be able to contribute to the knowledge of where, when, and how civilization began in the Western Hemisphere. Thus his first problem was to find the area in the New World where maize was first domesticated.


MacNeish knew that botanists who had studied both modern and fossil corn had determined that corn had been developed in the New World. They knew the characteristics of primitive corn and believed that it probably was derived from a highland grass. Archaeological studies in Peru had already indicated the probability that corn had originated north of there. Archaeological finds of corn in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States had already shown that corn had been domesticated for at least five thousand years and that its origins were somewhere to the south of that general region.


Other studies of fossil corn and of fossil pollen suggested an original homeland for corn in Mexico somewhere north of Chiapas and south of the valley of Mexico. In 1959, MacNeish conferred with Paul C. Mangelsdorf, director of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University and an authority on corn and its ancestry. Mangelsdorf and MacNeish decided that to seek information on the origin and development of corn, one must look in the region between southern and central Mexico for a highland area that possessed caves suitable for occupancy by humans and a dry climate suitable for the preservation of corncobs in the archaeological sites. They made a careful study of maps, charts, and data dealing with rainfall, climate, topography, and geography and reached the conclusion that there were likely areas in southern Oaxaca, the Tehuacán Valley, and the vicinity of the Rio Balsas. In the winter of 1960 MacNeish made a brief archaeological survey in parts of Oaxaca and Puebla. Near the end of his survey he found a likely cave in the Tehuacán area of Puebla. His test trench showed that the cultural deposits in the cave were stratified. In a layer that could be dated at about 3600 b.c. he found very primitive corn cobs. This was the beginning of the interdisciplinary expeditions and researches that became the Tehuacán Archaeological-Botanical Project.

Arranging Sponsorship and Finances.

With the archaeological and botanical problems defined and the geographical area for investigation found, the next problem for MacNeish was to decide what kind of organization could most successfully sponsor a program of the sort he had in mind. Should he choose a huge institution with many facilities and a large staff or should he choose a small, flexible institution with experience in handling interdisciplinary programs on»a cooperative basis? He chose the latter type of institution and in the spring of 1960 approached the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology at Andover, Mass. This foundation, under the direction of two anthropologically oriented archaeologists, Douglas S. Byers and Frederick Johnson, has a history of successful interdisciplinary programs in archaeology and a proven ability to administer a project of the kind MacNeish planned. The Peabody Foundation was interested in his proposals and appointed him research associate of the foundation.

The next problem was that of financing the research and field work such a project would require. The Peabody Foundation was fortunate in obtaining the necessary funds from the National Science Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Support and assistance were also received from the Instituto de AntropologĂ­a e Historia of the government of Mexico and from other Mexican institutions. Thus the project acquired a sponsor and adequate funds, obtained permission to do archaeological research in Mexico, and enlisted an international coterie of cooperating scientists.

Organizing the Tehuacán Project.

The basic organization of the Tehuacán project consisted of three divisions. Under the direction of Douglas S. Byers, the Peabody Foundation at Andover did the basic administration and planning, received and disbursed funds, and handled the accounting and receipts for all aspects of the venture. Business management is an important part of any expedition or large research project. The success of such undertakings is in great part due to the skill and experience of those operating the home office. It is important that they allow simplicity and flexibility in handling expenses in the field to suit varied customs and changing situations.


The field division of the Tehuacan project was under the direction of MacNeish, who took a leave of absence from his regular position as chief archaeologist in the National Museum of Canada. In the field MacNeish functioned as instigator of specific projects and general supervisor. He was also responsible for training personnel and for maintaining liaison with the technical consultants and local scientists. During the first year of the project he worked with Frederick A. Peterson, the assistant field director. The two men surveyed the Tehuacan Valley for sites and partly excavated some before turning them over to other archaeologists. Later in the season the important Coxcatlan cave site was completely excavated by Melvin L. Fowler, who was on leave from Southern Illinois University. Other sites, including the El Riego, San Marcos, Te-corral, and Abejas caves and the Ajalpan, Coatepec, and Quacheco sites, were subsequently excavated to establish the basic stratigraphy.

MacNeish also organized the field laboratory. After it was set up, the laboratory was taken over by Antoinette Nelken, a student of the Sorbonne who was on a fellowship at Escuela de Antropologia in Mexico. About 30 workmen, some of whom became excellent field technicians, were hired locally and assigned to the various excavations under the direction of the archaeologists in charge of specific sites. Along with his other duties, Peterson kept the field headquarters running smoothly, handled local accounts, and did the local purchasing.


The field headquarters in Tehuacan consisted of a large rented house with rooms for sleeping and eating, baths, laboratories, storerooms, and an office. Mrs. Peterson ran the household at the headquarters’, hired the necessary domestic help, and saw to it that the scientific staff was fed. An expedition depends upon these important and often difficult functions. Field equipment consisted of shovels, trowels, screens, paint brushes, camping chairs, tables, tents, dark-room equipment, cameras, office supplies, and much more. The expedition purchased one Jeep station wagon, and cooperating Mexican institutions furnished a Jeep pickup truck and an army-type truck. Additional equipment for the Tehuacán project was supplied on loan from the Departamento de Prehistoria of the Instituto de AntropologĂ­a e Historia of Mexico. Later, such items as a Landrover station wagon, a wide-carriage typewriter, and replacements for worn-out digging tools were purchased from expedition funds. The expedition was assisted in many ways by the people of the Tehuacán region. An unusual aspect of this cooperation was the guarding of the archaeological excavations by soldiers of the local Mexican army garrison.

The third division of the Tehuacán project included the work of botanists in the field and in their home-based laboratories, as well as the work of other specialized scientists called in as consultants. C. Earle Smith made a botanical survey of the region and identified plant remains found in the excavation of the cave sites. The fossil corn from the sites was analyzed by Paul C. Mangelsdorf and W.C. Galinat of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University and by Edwin J. Wellhausen and William C. Hathaway of the Rockefeller Foundation. The remains of squashes and pumpkins were studied by Thomas W. Whitaker of the United States Horticultural Field Section at La Jolla, Calif., and by Hugh C. Cutler of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Irmgard W. Johnson of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia studied the remains of textiles. The planners of the project hoped that fossil pollen might be secured from the excavations to serve ;as a guide to climatic characteristics of the times represented by the archaeological deposits. However, conditions were such that no pollen was present from any but the most recent levels of sites, and this line of approach had to be abandoned.

Expanding the Project’s Scope.

As the Tehuacán project expanded, the operations of each division continued as before, but with significant additions. The increased staff of the laboratory processed greater amounts and kinds of archaeological material. The survey found an average of two new archaeological sites per day. At first MacNeish’s main activity was testing new sites in order to choose which ones were to be excavated intensively. This testing consisted of digging trenches 1 meter (about 39 inches) wide and from 3 to 5 meters (about 118 to 197 inches) long across the cultural deposits of the sites, most of which were in caves. The test trench went as deep as the cultural refuse and was dug to establish stratigraphy. Additional archaeologists were placed in charge of the new sites selected for excavation while those archaeologists already in charge of excavation units continued with their sites. For a period the archaeologists from the home office in Andover, Mass., joined the field operations. Douglas S. Byers joined MacNeish in the excavation of the Ajalpan site designated TS204. Frederick Johnson collected carbon samples for radiocarbon dating and instructed the archaeologists on methods of collecting and treating samples suitable for radiocarbon measurement. He also organized the expedition’s system for recording the radiocarbon dating of archaeological remains.


The botanists and other specialists were also busy. They studied the geology, geography, and fauna of the Tehuacan region. The scientists who were authorities on corn and squashes continued their work in the field and in the laboratory, and Lawrence Kaplan, a specialist on beans, was added to this division of the project.

The most unusual speciality added to the already brilliant spectrum of Tehuacan project specialities lay in the talents of Eric O. Callen of McDonald College of McGill University. Callen began the analysis of human fossil feces, or coprolites, found in the caves where they had been preserved by the dry climate. By chemical and physical methods, minute scraps of plant and animal material were recovered and analyzed microscopically. Not only was it possible to determine the diets of humans who died more than 7,000 years ago but also the presence of fats and starches, the probable time of year when the food was eaten, and methods of processing and cooking the food. Animal materials that had survived in the coprolites and could be identified microscopically included bones, cartilage, meat, and hair. Meat as such is recognized only by its decomposition products, but hair serves to identify sources of meat such as rabbit and deer. Small bones identify rodents, snakes, and lizards. Fragments of eggshell and turkey feathers were also identified. Vegetable material that could be identified in the sequence of coprolites covering a span of 7,500 years in the Tehuacan Valley included squash or pumpkins, corn, beans, grass seeds, peppers, prickly-pear cactus, organ cactus, agave, and starchy roots of a small silk-cotton tree.

Not all these plants were present at all periods in the span of time covered, but they serve to demonstrate the range of what could be identified by means of microcharacteristics of exceedingly minute and fragmentary materials. Plant seeds ground into meal on a stone slab could be recognized as different from those pounded into meal in a mortar. It could also be determined that cooking of plant and animal food was done by a roasting method, although plant food also was eaten raw. In addition to the data on prehistoric food, the analysis of coprolites produced some information on human and animal parasites and on certain kinds of insects. The analysis also suggested differences between foods consumed by village dwellers of the later periods and their contemporaries living in areas away from the villages or perhaps on seasonal hunting trips.

Summary of the Tehuacan Project.

The Tehuacan Archaeological-Botanical Project was in the field for more than three years. About 400 sites were selected for testing, and 13 major excavations produced 140 stratified floors and occupational zones. In the dry-cave sites the unusual conditions of preservation allowed recovery of cultural materials that gave a remarkably full picture of the mode of life of the ancient inhabitants, including how they made a living, what they ate, and the seasonal activities they pursued. More than 750,000 archaeological specimens were recovered, cataloged, and analyzed. Finally, more than 20 authors began to collaborate on a 6-volume report of the work and conclusions of the Tehuacan Archaeological-Botanical Project.


The project found evidence of a major step in man’s climb toward civilization during the last 10,000 years. This evidence records the transformation of a wild highland grass into corn, the most productive of cereals, and a basic food plant not only of pre-Columbian America but also of modern America and much of the rest of the world. The work of all the scientists in this project stands as a prime example of the problem-oriented and interdisciplinary approach that characterizes modern archaeology.



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