The Ancient Americas Curator Q&A
For Immediate Release
Contact: Field Museum PR Department
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The Ancient Americas: A Talk with Lead Curator Jonathan Haas
Dr. Jonathan Haas is an anthropological archaeologist with more than 30 years of field experience in both North and South America. His research areas include the origins of war, the archaeology of the Southwest and Peru, the evolution of complex society, and museum anthropology. He has been at The Field Museum for 17 years and has curatorial responsibility for the ethnographic and archaeological collections of North America and the archaeological collections of South America. As the lead curator for The Ancient Americas, he took some time to discuss the ideas behind the exhibition.
Why did The Field Museum decide to undertake this major renovation of its exhibitions on the Americas? What had changed?
Almost everything! The old exhibitions dated from the 1950s, and much of the information in them had changed. But it was more than that. The framework of anthropology itself had changed. The old exhibits presented a picture of static peoples living as they did in the late 19th century, with no explanation of how they came to live that way, and no indication that indigenous peoples are alive and well today throughout the United States and Latin America. The old exhibits described these peoples from the outside, as exotic “others,” and were filled with cartoon-like images depicting the primitive and savage. This wasn’t at all the message a 21st-century museum should convey.
What messages do you want to convey?
We want to show visitors how culture evolves, how people adapt to changing circumstances, and how that process is the same for all cultures. Cultural evolution is different from biological evolution; it’s based not on genetic changes in but on creativity and problem-solving.
All cultures are faced with problems, and the process of solving those problems is the same for all of them – I call it tinkering. Through tinkering, experimenting, some people will arrive at workable solutions, and others will adapt them. The emergence of communities is one example; communities are a result of problem-solving, and they look remarkably the same wherever you find them.
In other words, it isn’t just about the past. Today’s museums should give visitors tools for understanding the world around them. In the case of The Ancient Americas, we want to give visitors insights into the origin and the continuing development of their own society – things that are around us constantly, but that we don’t always have the space to think about. For example, why do people settle together and cooperate? Why do we have leadership? Why do we go to war? Warfare isn’t in our DNA, it’s not in our ethnicity. It’s a human invention, and if we want to get control of it, we have to look at what problems it was invented to solve.
This exhibition starts with the hunter-gatherers who were here about 15,000 years ago. Though they probably weren’t the first people to arrive in the Americas, it must have been a shockingly hard life.
Not really. Not that it wasn’t difficult in some ways, but it wasn’t as hard or as stressful as ours. Hunter-gatherers actually had less work and more leisure time. They would work until they had enough food for the day and then quit. If you kill one mammoth, it can last your band a long time. It leaves you plenty of time to tell stories, make things (like the beautiful spear points of the Clovis people), make love, play with your kids, and just relax.
If life was so great, why would you change it?
At some point, population growth or environmental change can throw off the balance of people and resources. When there are no longer enough resources on the landscape to feed your family, the first thing you do is move into another zone. That’s what you see over the first 5,000 to 7,000 years of our story. People moved first into zones with more natural resources, then pushed into areas where it was harder to make a living as a hunter and gatherer. Over time, people filled in all the niches of the Americas, populating land from Greenland to the Amazon to Tierra del Fuego. It’s exactly what had happened in Asia 15,000 years earlier, driving people eventually to discover America.
But at some point all the viable niches will be filled, and that leaves you with three choices: You can control your own population. You can go to war to reduce someone else’s population or to get them off the landscape you need; that’s where we see the beginning of warfare, on the west and east coasts, about 5,000 years ago. Or you can figure out how to extract more resources from the land you have, which we call “intensification.”
Intensification is all about tinkering again. You tinker with seeds, with animals, and eventually you find the ones that give you the best yield. You tinker with acorns or manioc, and you figure out how to get rid of the bitter taste and poisons and leave something that tastes good and gives you plenty of calories. One of the great inventions of the early Americans was maize or corn, which was developed over several thousand years of tinkering by people living in what is today central Mexico. Corn then came to provide the majority of calories consumed by most peoples in the Americas, and it continues to be an important crop throughout the world today.
So some groups became farmers?
Right. You stop wandering and settle down because it increases your productivity: you’ll be around to weed and to scare the crows away, and you don’t have to start over from the beginning every year. Your harvest increases, and pretty soon you have a surplus. Even children add to the surplus. Children can start working by the age of 6. By the time a child is 9, she’s contributing as much as she consumes. By the time she’s 12, she’s produced enough surplus to equal everything she’s ever consumed.
This is when you see some groups, like the Puebloans and the early Iroquois, forming villages where they can share communal work projects and storage facilities. These are relatively egalitarian societies, where people make their own decisions, and they’re very efficient. You’re also learning to get along with people outside your family, and you don’t need to go to war, as some of the hunter-gatherer societies did.
Sounds like a good life. You’re working hard, but the community is stable. Why not stay that way?
Some did, just as some hunter-gatherers kept their own way of life for thousands of years. But stability isn’t guaranteed. Precisely because you’re so productive, and because you need children to work the farms, your population starts growing again. Throw in some environmental change, and before you know it, in some places again there are too many people on the landscape, and not enough resources.
That’s when warfare, which had disappeared for as long as 3,000 years, starts to reappear. But now it’s a different kind of warfare: the object is not simply killing people, but raiding and conquest, to get other groups’ resources or to force them to contribute to your economy.
Is war inevitable, then?
No, there’s another option, and that’s reorganization – a new type of society with centralized decision-making, stratified societies, and specialized production. This is where government begins to take shape: organizational pressures give rise to leaders or chiefs, and their power grows. They may be head warrior, or have control over luxury resources, the economy, the religion, or all of these. And that power has both benevolent and dictatorial sides – sometimes in the same person.
On the positive side, chiefs can adjudicate, they help society be more effective militarily, they can help distribute resources more effectively. They can organize people to build major projects, like roads and irrigation canals, for a more efficient and productive economy.
On the other hand, the chiefs themselves benefit a lot more than the common people do. They have greater access to luxury goods, better living facilities. They dominate their populations and force them to do things like build large monuments that serve no practical function but give the leader even greater prestige. In other words, centralization itself isn’t good or bad – both effects come out of it. That’s a point we emphasize in the exhibition.
We have evidence in Peru, for example, that an early form of government – this kind of hierarchical, centralized society – started in the Norte Chico region on the central coast. The aim wasn’t conquest and defense, but economic and spiritual welfare. In the following centuries, ideas about government and political organization evolved and spread throughout much of Peru and the Andes, with new systems emerging much as our own form of government evolved out of Britain’s. A similar pattern in the development of government occurred in Mesoamerica as well.
In some cases, as leaders started to gain more power, they legitimized and maintained it less through consent and more through fear – for example, through a centralized religion with brutal, nasty gods whose role is to frighten people into doing what the leaders wants. The exhibition offers an example of that in the Moche people. In the Wari culture you’ll see a different process: the development of specialized warriors and a systematization of warfare for the wars of conquest I mentioned earlier.
But now it’s not economic pressures driving the warfare?
Not as directly. In this case rulers are seeking to maintain control over their own populations, or to expand their power base. And occasionally – again through tinkering – you get societies that are extremely successful in warfare and become empires, which is the label we give to conquest-based, multi-ethnic states. Most Americans know about Alexander the Great, the Macedonian warrior whose empire reached from Greece to India. Not so many are familiar with the Inca ruler Pachacuti, who had similar success; he conquered the Andean region from Ecuador to Chile and from the high mountains to the Pacific coast in just two years.
Of course, the bigger your empire grows, the less cohesive it is and the more fragile it becomes. People don’t speak the same language, they don’t have the same economy, and they resent paying bigger and bigger tributes to the central state. This is why a few Spaniards so easily conquered the Aztecs and Incas (along with disease, which was actually the biggest conqueror). Many parts of these large and diverse empires were oppressed by the ruling class, so they were happy to join the Spaniards to overthrow their oppressors. They had no idea at the time what that would mean for their own cultures.
What did become of all these people, all these cultures that had evolved in the Americas?
Millions of people died; we don’t know how many, because we don’t know how many were here, but up to 90 percent of a population that numbered in the millions or tens of millions or more died in the first centuries after the arrival of the Europeans. Many died from warfare and slavery, but the overwhelming majority died from European diseases like smallpox and influenza. Once the Spanish reached the Caribbean and infected people there, the diseases traveled well ahead of the Europeans, carried by the indigenous people themselves. The Inca emperor Huayna Capac died in 1530 of smallpox brought by the Spanish, though the Spanish themselves didn’t arrive in Peru for another two years.
But people from nearly every group, in every part of the Americas, did survive. And they’re still here, some of them carrying out traditions that are thousands of year old. Visitors can delve deeper into these cultures on touch screens at the end of The Ancient Americas.
What do you want visitors to take away with them from the current exhibition?
I hope they’ll appreciate the great accomplishments of indigenous peoples – the highly sophisticated art and astronomy, new foods like corn and potatoes that are today’s staples, bureaucracies and governments, and the highly successful cultures, such as the Puebloans, which lasted much longer than the empires. Museums have always had a big influence on how we see people, and it’s time for them – for us – to work on changing the views most Americans have of Native American peoples.
I also want visitors to understand that cultural evolution isn’t synonymous with “progress.” What it means is that people are problem solvers, and as conditions change and challenges arise, people will tinker until they invent a way to live with them. We do the same things today: The tomatoes at this market don’t look so great; maybe there are better ones down the road. Should I take a second job and try to get a bigger condo? What can I do about global warming?
And I hope it will open people’s eyes to the role of the individual – not necessarily the leader, but people like you and me – as an agent of cultural change. We’re all tinkerers and problem-solvers; in one way or another we do it every day. And eventually something we do will be better than what was done before, and it will change our society.