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Back to the Future
Park archeologists provide clues to the past and future of the human race
BY LISA BYERLEY GARY
It isn't so much the spear points, gnawed bones, and other signs of human life that excite Great Smoky Mountains National Park archeologist Pei Lin Yu-though finds like those are thrilling. The real rush comes when she fits such pieces into the great jigsaw of human history and environment. People and the Earth have co-existed for some 4 million years, says Yu, and her forays into the past may provide clues to sustaining this partnership in the future.
What we now know as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) has supported humans for at least 12,000 years, Yu says. Though near-vertical slopes and cold, churning streams might have been more challenging to navigate than were the flatlands, the area's biological treasure made it worth the effort.
The biodiversity that drew early human settlers also brought game animals searching for food and shelter; the Smokies support a range of plants not available elsewhere. "You'd have to travel 10 to 20 miles in the lowlands to find the same resources and distribution patterns," Yu says. But the changing climate from base to mountaintops produces a concentrated patchwork of resources. "If you wanted a Wal-Mart experience instead of a specialty store, you'd want to leave the flatlands and head for the hills. I think hunter-gatherers were very in tune with that.
"As settled people, we forget that hunter-gatherers made use of large areas," Yu says. "The mountains became part of a larger homeland, providing resources early humans couldn't find elsewhere." Early humans followed animal migration and went looking for specific plants, she says. "They moved themselves to the resources they needed rather than moving the resources like we do today."
And these early human activities left archeological footprints that researchers like Yu can interpret. Although the area abounds with artifacts, Yu is the first archeologist on staff at the Park-largely because of a shortfall in funding in earlier years.
"I've been finding sites at a rapid rate," says Yu, who came to work at GSMNP in January 2000. "Park personnel had previously recorded 242 sites in the Park; I've added 20 percent in a little more than a year." While she can't discuss specific sites because of the potential for looting, Yu says a "pretty exciting bit of archeology" is unfolding on the south side of the Park this spring.
Often, new sites are discovered when an area is subject to construction, she says. For example, an Early Archaic site was found recently in the construction zone of a rerouted trail. Park personnel and volunteers shovel-test such sites, digging small (50-centimeter or 18-inch) holes over the area in a grid pattern. The soil is then sifted through a quarter-inch mesh screen to retrieve artifacts, which are labeled for later analysis. "When we disturb ground in our explorations, we rehabilitate it afterward," Yu says.
Researchers recognize that each archeological site is a nonrenewable resource and the federal government has a directive to preserve such sites in the ground for future researchers and newer techniques. "Digging is a destructive means of recovering information, so we limit digging and try to preserve sites intact. We have methods now that we could never have dreamed of 20 years ago, but 20 years from now technology will be exponentially better. We also coordinate archeological activities with Park biologists and botanists to ensure that we don't harm sensitive or endangered species," Yu says.
Her finds in the Park often predate the Cherokee (who predated European settlers who began arriving in the 1700s). In fact, she found a projectile point that dates to around 7,000 B.C. "It looks like a Christmas tree cookie with serrated edges," Yu says. "It is Early Archaic-a time of major climate transition from the ice age to modern climate."
The point was found in a high gap between two drainages. Animals often travel back and forth between drainages, she says, so this point and items found near it might be remains of a small hunting site positioned to intercept animals.
As exciting as it is just to see a hunting tool used by early Americans, the projectile point could say much more about itself if given the opportunity, Yu says. In fact, blood analysis technology could detect the genus level of the projectile's prey-say, a member of the deer family or rodent family. Residue analysis could identify plant starches and oil residues, and intense microscopic analysis could determine the original use of an artifact-whether it was used to cut wood, skin animals, or crush bones.
Technology that relates to archeology is advancing each year. And other technologies, such as ground-penetrating radar, allow archeologists to work with fewer disturbances to the land, Yu says.
Of course, the Park can't afford to participate in some of these current technologies, Yu says. "The Park is barely able to meet legal obligations [for such things as visitor services] so there is no crew for my work; volunteer crews help with excavations. I'm cataloging items in plastic zipper bags and making sure they're not touched or washed," says Yu. "Should the money ever come [for analysis] these items will be in good shape for further research."
Park artifacts are currently stored in borrowed space in Oak Ridge because the Park has no place to put them. Even that will come to an end sometime, she says. "The clock is ticking; they can't give us space indefinitely. The next step would be [to collect] private donations for a structure with adequate storage." A museum where people could actually see the ancient parts of the Park's heritage is much further away, she says.
There is a dichotomy in public funding of national parks. Parks are labeled as either cultural or natural. For example, GSMNP is a natural Park, and aside from some cultural work in Cades Cove, not much has been done to explore and preserve the Park's cultural heritage. Yu's employment is a first step, she says, to changing that.
"We are in the process of opening up relations with the Cherokee Museum," Yu says. "We currently know very little of the Cherokee's past use of the Smokies." European descendants' use of the mountains is more widely understood, with interpretive homesites of pioneering farmers at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, and Cataloochee. "We know more about Europeans than any other inhabitants of the mountains, and that's one reason my work focuses on the earlier people rather than the Euro-Americans."
As fascinating as ancient artifacts are, and as much as they need preserving for their own sake, an archeologist's work is not about collecting museum pieces, Yu says. "Archeology is perceived as storytelling by the public," she says, "and a lot of the fun stuff includes that. But it is much moreso a science; we experiment in the laboratory of the past. Once we come up with strong relationships [between man and the environment] we can make predictive statements, if-then statements. 'If you have a hot, dry period then people may adapt this way,' for example."
Archeologists can answer questions about how humans have altered the environment and how the environment has affected people. Consider that 10,000 years ago, people around the world were hunting and gathering-with few exceptions. Then humans reached a curve of complexity where they produced their own environment. "To understand how we got here, we must develop predictive arguments regarding the interaction between people and their environments, and you can't do that without looking at deep time," says Yu.
The Smokies are rich in deep-time artifacts, Yu says. "Archeology is what we can infer from human remains," she says. "It is detective work. It may not be as easy as opening an old newspaper, but when you see a pattern taking shape, it's like the world is talking back to you."