1. Introduction
2. Understanding the Past
3. What is Archaeology?
4. Methods Of Gathering Data
5. Archaeological Collections
Archaeology and the Public
7. Protecting the Past
8. Additional Resources
Table of Contents

Why Do We Study the Past?
How do we Learn About the Past?


Why Do We Study the Past?

To be human is to be curious, questioning, and inquisitive. We know that our ancient ancestors stared at the night sky with wonder, that they experienced fear as the sun disappeared during solar eclipses and joy at its return, that they witnessed the cycles of births and deaths, seasons and years, and that for all of these events they sought explanation and meaning. The search for and discovery of explanations and meaning contributed to the development of culture—that shared body of acquired knowledge that humans live by and pass on to each successive generation. Human curiosity and ingenuity have allowed cultures to evolve and flourish in almost every environmental niche on the earth.

Though people today understand much more than our ancestors did about the earth and the heavens, some old questions remain unanswered while new discoveries have yielded new questions. As long as humans exist we will ponder the mysteries around us and seek to acquire the knowledge and understanding necessary to satisfy our needs and solve our problems.

This thirst for knowledge reaches into the past, even when one is focused on solving contemporary problems. The search for solutions often requires an understanding of how problems developed or how our elders might have approached analogous problems in the past. We study both our collective pasts and our individual pasts to gain a better understanding of who we are today and where we are going in the future. Lessons learned from the past can influence—hopefully for the better—the social, political, and environmental actions we take today.

By studying the past we learn how and why people lived as they did throughout the world and the changes and causes of such changes, that occurred within these cultures. We study the past to acquire a broader and richer understanding of our world today and our place in it.

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How do we Learn About the Past?

We learn about the past in many ways. Space science now allows us to peer back in time to the birth of our universe 8 billion years ago, while the geologic sciences look at the origin and structure of our planet earth 4. 5 billion years in the past. Paleontology looks at the origin of life on our planet through the fossilized remains of plant and animal forms-- from the earliest invertebrate creatures through the era of dinosaurs to the development of our primate ancestors into our current species. History and archaeology are also fields that study the past. It is a common misconception that archaeologists study dinosaurs, but in fact archaeologists, like historians, study only the human past—the last one million years. Each of these fields has developed its own methods for studying the past. In this unit we will look at ways in which archaeologists learn about our human past.

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  • Life on Earth
    This image is a dramatic illustration of the short length of time that humans have inhabited the earth, compared to other forms of life.
  • Teaching the Concept of the Past
    This series of activities provides an introduction to, and helps students to develop, a concept of the past.
  • Why is the Past Important
    (Adapted from Intrigue of the Past, Smith et. al. 1996.) This activity will help students begin to discover why we study the past.

Click here for more Lesson Plans and Activities

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