Searching the Present for Signs of the Past

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been engaging in research lately with a focus on learning about the connections between the past and the present. I’ve learned that there are a lot of things I just haven’t been exposed to, such as some of the less savory aspects of this country’s history, as well as many present-day issues that are ignored by the media and the general public. Oftentimes these ignored parts of history are directly connected to the ignored political issues of today. For example, our schools here in New Jersey fail to teach students that the lands we’re living in today originally belonged to the Nanticoke tribe. My research has shown that while they lived here for thousands of years before us, they began losing their lands not long after European settlers arrived, and they still struggle with this issue today. As early as the 1700s, the Nanticoke were restricted to reservations in Delaware and New Jersey, and in more recent times, the tribe is still struggling with issues like state protection of their lands, property tax issues, and pollution.

onlooking_horowitzIn addition to learning about specific political and civil rights issues, I also wanted to learn about how to see more signs of the past right here in the places I live and work every day. It occurred to me that there could be issues right in front of my eyes that could connect to things from the past. So I took a step back from examining specific issues in order to learn how to look at what is around me. The inspiration for this exploration is Alexandra Horowitz’s book, “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.” In her book, Horowitz takes walks around her familiar city blocks with various experts, including her dog (who “saw” through scent and thus introduced her to a new way of seeing the world), a geologist, a bug expert, an expert on typography (who could tell her a lot of things about a building’s history just by the type of font used on the building signs), a doctor, and even a blind woman. After traveling with each expert, Horowitz found her mind opened to new ways of seeing the world around her.

Along those same lines, my hope was that being guided by an anthropologist might give me some insights into understanding how the world can be seen when you understand the connections between the past and the present. I contacted the Rowan University Anthropology Department, and I was put in touch with several professors who work in the Museum of Anthropology at Rowan University. The museum is brand new, having only just opened in 2012. I was taken on a tour of the museum’s collection by Maria Rosado, Rowan professor and one of the museum’s curators. I asked her to explain the museum’s artifacts to me so I could understand how they can serve as evidence of the past.

Most of the collection included bones and skulls from humans and various other species. Some were real bones, while others were plastic and plaster replicas made from the originals that are kept in other museums. Professor Rosado explained that original artifacts are always kept in museums near the place where they were discovered. I found this to be an interesting fact in relation to my Native American studies; just as many people wish to remain in the lands where their ancestors lived, it seems that anthropologists believe in keeping fossils and artifacts near their place of origin. The artifacts on display at the museum included replicas from Clovis, New Mexico, from the La Brea Tarpits, and from various other places around the world.

When I first asked what could be learned by studying these bones, Professor Rosado told me one of the main uses is forensic anthropology, which she called “The study of corpses as evidence.” Markings on the bones, for example, can indicate the cause of death, such as from a bullet wound or a stabbing. She also explained that the bones alone can tell a researcher a great deal about who the person was when they were alive. The shape of the skull can indicate sex, the size of the teeth can indicate whether it was an adult or child, cranial sutures can tell age, and the shape can even identify race. Individual physical characteristics can also be determined, such as by measuring the bones to determine the person’s height.

We then began looking at some of the animal fossils on display. I asked Professor Rosado what we could learn about human history by studying animal bones. It turns out that there is a lot we can learn. First, she showed me a fossil of an ancient horse skull, and she explained that horses were extinct in America for about 10,000 years. In fact, it turns out that American horses lived here for millions of years, and some that traveled across the land bridge to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Present-day zebras are descended from those horses that originated in America. The horses that remained in America, however, died out as part of the mass extinctions that came as the planet grew colder and many species were unable to adapt. Horses were then reintroduced thousands of years later, when Europeans brought them here during the colonial period. Other examples included the American Mastodon, the Giant Beaver, the Giant Armadillo, and the American Lion. While most of these species are extinct today, they were alive when the ancestors of Native Americans first came to these lands, and they would have been hunted by those original inhabitants of the country.

This led to us discussing the evolution and migration of human life. Professor Rosado explained that current evidence suggests all human life began in Africa. She also sat that National Geographic has been tracing genetic mutations to compare populations to determine where people came from geographically. The oldest known human skeletons were found in Ethiopia, and date back 120,000 years. Genetic tests on ancient fossils, however, can do more than just tell us where people came from. They can also show a connection between present day humans and their ancestors, by tracing DNA. Professor Rosado explained that DNA comparisons between fossils in Africa from 50,000 years ago have been matched with the DNA of people living in the same region today, showing that those people are descendents of the land’s original inhabitants. Along those same lines, it is possible to test DNA to show the connection between Native Americans living here today and their ancestors who inhabited these lands for 10,000 years.

After speaking with Professor Rosado, I had a second guided tour by Rowan Professor Jared Schultz. This tour went beyond the Museum of Anthropology and took us out onto the campus itself. The goal was to see what we could find around campus that could be connected to the past. Specifically, we were looking for anything that could be connected to Native American history and culture.

We walked around the campus on  a warm spring day, which was conducive to an open and exploratory stroll. The first thing that Professor Schultz pointed out was the trees. He pointed them out as an artifact of cultural ecology, and as a renewable resource. He also explained how Native American tribes of the northeast cultivated the land through the use of what he called “slash and burn agriculture”. He explained how they would burn down trees, shrubs, and undergrowth in order to simultaneously clear and fertilize the land. This not only kept areas cleared of undergrowth to make plantation easier, but at the same time the burned plant life created nutrients for the soil.

Professor Schultz then pointed out the overgrown plant life that covered the campus just off the cement walkways we were walking along. Several of the trees were overgrown with vines that were choking them and stunting their growth. Professor Schultz explained that when the lands were cultivated with slash and burn agriculture, that kind of overgrowth wouldn’t have occurred. The overgrowth was made worse by the introduction of invasive species, which are often brought in for aesthetic purposes without proper consideration for the effect they will have on native plants. In fact, Gloucester County, NJ, where Rowan University is located, is home to 163 different invasive species of plants. Some of the invasive species commonly found in New Jersey include English Ivy, which was first introduced to the United States by European immigrants, and which can often be found growing over walls and choking tree trunks.

While we were examining the trees, Professor Schultz also pointed out the tree trunks and drew my attention to their bark. “We’re looking at the presence of Native American culture that’s not being used anymore,” he explained. The bark, it turns out, was once used in the building of wigwams, longhouses, and wattle and daub houses. Different types of bark would have been used for different purposes: birch was used in the construction of wigwams by the Algonquin, elm was used in the construction of longhouses by the Iroquois, and wattle and daub houses were made with rivercane and wood by the Cherokee. Other types of trees would be used in making other tools or canoes, depending on the type of wood.

After examining the plant life, we also toured some of the campus buildings. While we didn’t find many examples of Native American art, culture, or architectural influences, one modern thing that Professor Schultz did point out was the Rowan Lacrosse team. Lacrosse, he explained, was originally invented by Native American tribes. It was played as far back as 1100 AD, and it was introduced to European settlers in the 1600s.

At the end of the tours, I was left with more questions than answers. These connections, from DNA to plant life to sports, are just some small examples of the connections between the past and the present. What was most interesting, however, was how those connections can be found in such simple things that are right in front of our eyes. Hopefully, in the future I’ll be able to learn to look at such things with new insight. It takes a lot of deeper digging to learn all of the facts and details behind such things, but knowing where to look in order to ask the right questions is the first step.

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