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MARGINALIA

The Rat's Tale

A historical "document" isn't always a writing sample

Pat Shipman

The trick about studying the past is figuring out where relevant documents might be stored. I use "documents" in the broadest sense, because documents are not only written objects but also physical ones. The documents of anthropology are usually tools, ceramics, signs of buildings like walls or postholes, human remains, traces of DNA, cut or burned animal bones—tangible debris that has survived the ages. Instead of leafing through dusty archives, anthropologists dig trenches, sifting dirt for clues that humans once were there.

Looking for very early traces of human settlement in a region is difficult, whether the region is a huge continent, a small island, or in between. In most cases, the number of initial settlers was small and their remains and artifacts scarce. If there is a distinctive and common item that can be traced unquestionably to human presence—a new kind of document—then interpreting the archaeological record becomes a lot easier. 


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