Saving the Past
A chance find can change our history.
Published: August 18, 2012
by Gregg Braden
Consider the secrets the earth still holds.
For a brief moment, I closed my eyes and listened as the wind moved through the branches towering above me. The breeze that found its way to me through the dense forest, past the layer of sweat and dust that was clinging to my face and arms, was a welcome relief that morning. Even though the air was hot, at least it was moving and provided a break from the stifling heat and humidity of a late-summer afternoon in northern Missouri.
I remember thinking that there is a timeless quality to moments like the one I was experiencing. Surely the ancient peoples whose campsite I was excavating that day had had the same experience as they cooked their meals over the fire pit I was uncovering hundreds of years later. Streams of sweat rolled off my face and fell to the ground as I opened my eyes and leaned forward over the shallow depression where my trawl scraped away the next layer of earth.
Only a few weeks before, I had been at this same archaeological dig, which was exposing an ancient village, with my anthropology class in college. We had been asked to help with the emergency recovery of this surprising discovery. It was surprising because the 14C dating on initial artifacts recovered showed that it was the home of an indigenous people thought to have lived in the area only at a later time. The hunting camp beneath my feet was the first evidence that this group of people, the ancient Hopewell (100–500 C.E.), had migrated to the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River much earlier than had been known.
The emergency aspect of the dig was due to the fact that it was located directly in the path of an oncoming highway project that would cover the area. For reasons ranging from the cold weather that would soon make the construction difficult, to planning, priorities, and schedules, the timing of the project, we were told, could not be changed. In just a few weeks, the blades of heavy equipment would cut directly through the mound where I knelt, and the evidence of this site would rapidly be buried under tons of asphalt and concrete . . . or destroyed forever.
Before the construction began, no one knew the ancient campsite was there. As happens so often with archaeological discoveries, it wasn’t years of scholarly research that had brought the site to the attention of the authorities. Instead, it was the sharp eye of a heavy-equipment operator clearing the area. For just an instant, as the driver had raised the massive steel blade of his bulldozer from the ground, the glimmer of something shiny caught his eye. Maybe it was because he looked in just the right place at just the right moment. Or maybe it was because he cared enough to investigate what he’d seen. For whatever the reason, on that day the construction worker stopped his work long enough to follow the ray of sunlight that reflected off the slick, shiny surface of a piece of pottery that had been buried for centuries.
That driver’s discovery was the reason why my class had been asked to help. Rather than the orderly documentation and excavation that would normally characterize such a dig, we had been working on a countdown. Within a matter of days, the evidence and history of whoever had made their home at this site long ago was due to disappear.
On that day, I was at the site alone. While the construction project continued, classes had concluded and, for reasons of time and money, the official dig was considered finished. Nonetheless, I wanted to save as much of the site and the evidence of the people who lived there as possible. As I uncovered bits of bone, pottery, flint chips, and arrowheads, I wondered how this single find would change the way we see the history of America’s ancient heartland.
Then I began to think in larger terms, and to ask a bigger question: If our knowledge of local history was still changing, could the same thing be occurring on a global level? What else had happened to the people and cultures from our distant past that we’ve now forgotten? Have there been advanced civilizations that existed long before the accepted timeline of history suggests? And, if so, what changed them and their world so drastically? It would not be until decades later that I would discover some of the answers to my questions.
In just a few days of scraping away the wet, black earth of the ancient forest, the charred bits of bone and pottery changed the entire story of what had happened beneath the weathered cliffs of northern Missouri long ago. It changed what would be taught in the classrooms of high schools and colleges throughout the country. It changed the timelines and maps of where people lived and how they migrated in the past. It changed the course of careers for archaeologists and historians who had based their work on theories and assumptions made from incomplete knowledge. All of these things changed. They had to, because of the new evidence.
The existence of physical artifacts and the science linking them to a specific date long ago told researchers a story that could not be ignored. And just as the local history of cultures along the bluffs and river valleys of northern Missouri had to be revised to reflect the new evidence found at our dig, the global history of humankind throughout the world must now change to accommodate new science-based discoveries.
New York Times best-selling author Gregg Braden is internationally renowned as a pioneer in bridging science, spirituality, and the real world.