The Fun of Archaeology: Discovering Something New

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Many people think that archaeology is just a bunch of digging in the dirt to see what kinds of tools people used a long time ago.

That is an important part of the study of archaeology, to be sure. But the recent discoveries at Caral in South America shed new light on civilizations in the Americas and also have caused many historians to throw long-held theories right out the window.

It seems that people lived in Caral (which was in what is now Peru) 4,600 years ago, a full 1,500 years before anybody thought they were there. At the same time the Egyptians were building the Pyramids, the people of Caral were building their own pyramids and their own grand way of life.

What was so grand about this settlement? Archaeologists have discovered that the six pyramids uncovered so far were of different heights, each one surrounded by a group of buildings whose inhabitants had wealth and status according to where they lived. In other words, the richest and most important people lived around the tallest pyramid, the poorest people lived around the shortest pyramid, and so on.

What's the big deal about this? Historians had no idea that any of this was going on. The common belief for the longest time has been that civilizations in the Americas began much later, probably in what is now Mexico or Central America, and that it took awhile for those people to create what was, in effect, social classes. But the discoveries at Caral have made those theories flat-out wrong.

This is fun stuff! It's not often that historians and archaeologists get this kind of big wake-up call. They're used to uncovering smaller details that force them to revise in small ways their versions of past events. In effect, the discoveries at Caral give historians and archaeologists a chance to create new theories and beliefs, based on newly discovered evidence.

History isn't boring. Archaeology isn't all about dirt. They're both ways of studying the past. And contrary to popular belief, the stories are always changing.

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