Detecting Prehistory


When studying prehistory, historians and other professionals often have to act like detectives to solve the mysteries of the past. Instead of reading books, diaries, or speeches from a specific time period, scholars normally are forced to rely upon artifacts to provide information about ancient peoples and cultures. Because the people living in North America before European exploration did not have written languages for experts to analyze, much of what we know about the first inhabitants of this continent originates from the careful analysis of artifacts. Furthermore, when attempting to identify and explain the early artifacts of Native Americans, historians often don’t work alone; they rely on the help of archaeologists, anthropologists, and geographers (and other people from related fields). Together, as a team, professionals make inferences about artifacts and how these prehistoric objects explain past events and people. Although the conclusions reached by experts provide new insight about the lives of prehistoric people, the discovery of new artifacts, in addition to advancements in science and technology, often triggers debate, controversy, and at times even the rewriting of history!

Before you Begin…

Each of you has received a card identifying your profession for the day (archaeologist, anthropologist, geographer, or historian) and by now you should be assembled in teams based on the color of your cards. In order to prepare yourself for your upcoming “detective” work complete the following 3 tasks:

Use a dictionary (traditional or online) to locate and record the definitions of the 3 bold words in the first paragraph entitled “Background.”

Use a dictionary (traditional or online) to locate the definition of your designated job (either archaeology, anthropology, geography, and history).

Based on the definition you found for the previous question, construct 3 questions that someone in your profession might want to answer when analyzing a prehistoric artifact. For example, a historian would want to know, “When was this object made?”

The Case…

Use the essay (“American Prehistory: 8000 Years of Forest Management”), the chart you completed in Worksheet 1, class discussion, and the 3 completed tasks above to help you solve Worksheet 3: “The Case of the Mystery Artifacts.” Before trying to solve the mysteries, look at each of the artifacts on Worksheet 3 and answer the 3 questions you decided were relevant to your field of study (from question #3 above). Your ultimate goal is to rely on each other’s expert opinions, and as a team make inferences based on the evidence to answer the questions listed under each artifact. Be prepared to give a 5-10 minute oral presentation in order to teach the class about your line of work as either an archaeologist, anthropologist, geographer, or historian and to explain how and why your group reached its conclusions for each of the Native American artifacts. Note that the mystery of Artifact #1 has been “solved” – use this example as a guide in your detective work.

* The 4 photos from Worksheet 3 are courtesy of Indian Artifacts of the Midwest. Lar Hothem, Paducah: Collector Books, 1992.