Learning from our ancestors
You have a modern lens through which the world is viewed. This can influence how you look at and interpret data, particularly in archaeology where researchers are often trying to piece together what an ancient person’s life might have been like. Scientists from Europe during the Victorian era might interpret artifacts found during an excavation in a different light than modern European scientists even though both are trying hard to be objective and learn more about the ancient world. This has a lot to do with advances in technology, but it is also due to differences in culture and worldview. Scientists raised in different cultures might also see the same artifacts in a different light.
Scientists throughout time have asked questions such as “Where did we come from?” and “How did my ancestors live?” These are difficult questions to answer, particularly for anything that happened before there was a written record. Even when ancient cultures had writing it is hard to know if everything written down is accurate or that the modern interpretation of what was written is correct. The farther back in time you go, the less accurate ancient activities and behaviors become due to a lack of data. Sometimes people and objects were preserved intentionally such as with mummies in Egyptian tombs. But more often, people and objects were not intentionally preserved, and it is only by luck, due to where they were laid to rest, that they survived and were found by researchers.
One famous and well researched modern discovery is Ötzi the iceman who was found on the border between Italy and Austria in 1991. Initially people thought he was a modern victim, but soon realized that instead, he had been lying in the ice for thousands of years. His remains are now kept at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Do an internet search on Ötzi to learn more about him. The museum’s site is a good source of information with sections on the discovery itself, milestones in past research, and descriptions of current research on the iceman. However, he is not the only ancient discovery. You can explore others here:
If the discovery of Ötzi had taken place in 1891 rather than 1991, the way his remains were handled and the research that could be done would have been very different. Identify and describe one modern analysis/technique that has been performed to learn more about Ötzi that could not have been done in the 1800s.
· It stands to reason that researchers in 2091 will have more technologies at their disposal to research a discovery like Ötzi. Should research on his remains be limited today so that he can be preserved and studied in the future? Provide one pro and one con of conducting research now rather than waiting. Discuss one benefit and one negative of putting research off until a much later date.
Advances in biotechnology have revolutionized the study of ancient remains. In Ötzi’s case, a genetic study showed that his DNA most closely matched up with people that currently live in Sardinia. One hypothesis for this is that at Ötzi’s time, a group of people with similar DNA spread throughout Europe including Sardinia. Sardinia is somewhat isolated so the DNA of the population living there has changed very little since that time. On mainland Europe, where his remains were found, there was more mixing of populations so there have been changes to the DNA profiles of the people living in that region.
· Based on the genetic results, do you think Ötzi should be considered Sardinian even though he lived in the Alps? Why or why not?
· Today you can have your DNA sampled and you can learn more about which genetic groups you are most closely matched to – just like was done with Ötzi. Is this something you would be interested in knowing? Why or why not?