Amidst congressional criticism, archaeologists take aim at the world’s big questions

By William Taylor

Last month, archaeology made headlines in the United States in the form of comments by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In an editorial in USA Today, Smith highlighted instances of what he perceived to be wasteful spending on “frivolous” research, funded by the National Science Foundation. Several of the projects selected by Smith were archaeological, including a study of Viking textiles in Iceland. His comments raise an important question – the world tackles high-profile issues like economic crisis, mass migrations out of the Middle East, terrorism, and global climate change, how can we justify government spending on quixotic and expensive archaeological projects?

Smith’s efforts betray a fundamental misunderstanding of archaeology and its role in science. Unlike many other disciplines, archaeology provides evidence of human activity over long time scales, helping researchers understand social and environmental changes that may play out over centuries or millennia. Key processes shaping our world today – such as globalization, technological innovation, and anthropogenic extinctions of plants and animals –are occurring now at what seems like an overwhelming pace. However, these processes have their roots in the deep past. Only by studying how ancient humans interacted with each other (and with their environment) in antiquity can we hope to characterize how modern societies might respond to the crises and challenges we face today.

Skeleton of the extinct giant sloth, Megatherium americanum, in the Natural History Museum in London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Skeleton of the extinct giant sloth, Megatherium americanum, in the Natural History Museum in London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The same day that Rep. Smith delivered his comments, a group of international scientists met at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany  to discuss the latest research on the extinction of megafauna – a term used to describe the diverse range of large-bodied animals (over 45 kg /100 lbs) including mammoths, giant sloths, or large land birds that once populated the landscapes of Eurasia, Africa, the Americas, and the Antipodes.

Researcher Natalia Villavicencio at the University of California–Berkeley was one of the attendees and presenters at the conference. She studies  changes in mammalian ecosystems in South America during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene – a period of dramatic climate and environmental change. While many big questions remain as to why and how the large beasts of South America went extinct, she says that through the efforts of archaeologists and paleobiologists, it has become “increasingly clear that climate change and human impacts played an important role in driving these extinctions.”

Dr. Natalia Villavicencio studies a leg bone from an extinct giant ground sloth (Diabolotherium nordenskioldi) in the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Photo: N. Villavicencio
Dr. Natalia Villavicencio studies a leg bone from an extinct giant ground sloth (Diabolotherium nordenskioldi) in the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Photo: N. Villavicencio

Natalia argues that today, just as in the past, climate is changing fast, and human impacts on ecosystems are accelerating. If scientists are able to understand how climate change and human impacts helped to drive the extinction of these ancient American megafauna, she says, perhaps we can figure out ways to mitigate the global-scale extinction crisis we find ourselves in today.

Figure 4 from Villavicencio et al. (2016), showing the timing of human arrival, megafaunal extinctions, and key climate and environmental changes in South America.
Figure 4 from Villavicencio et al. (2016), showing the timing of human arrival, megafaunal extinctions, and key climate and environmental changes in South America.

Experimentation with new scientific techniques, funded primarily by public agencies like the National Science Foundation, allow researchers like Villavicencio and her colleagues to ask questions about the disappearance of megafauna that were previously difficult or impossible to answer. For example, one major focus of discussion at the conference was the sequencing of ancient DNA. Fragments of genetic material can remain preserved in ancient tissues, animal bone, or even sediment for many thousands of years. Recovering DNA from these contexts can be challenging and expensive, but researchers are able to use such data reconstruct population dynamics – such as breeding habits or population sizes –for a given species in the time leading up to their extinction. This information helps researchers evaluate the significance of these ancient extinction events for modern ecological systems, many of which are facing unprecedented threats from climate change and human activity.

Cutting-edge archaeological research projects, like Dr. Villavicencio’s, continue to seek new ways to use data from the past to understand the pressing issues facing the modern world. As another Berkeley professor, Dr. Rosemary Joyce, recently pointed out , even the maligned Viking textile study –highlighted by Smith as an example of wasteful archaeological spending—tells us scientific information of key relevance for the modern world, by revealing the strategies used by Viking groups to respond and adapt to rapid climate change.

Smith’s high-profile criticism is part of a larger, more coordinated legislative effort aimed at curtailing public funding for environmental research and social science. Comments such as these threaten to debase archaeology in the public sphere, and cultivate anti-intellectual sentiment. Now more than ever, it is essential for people to stand up for science, even for those projects that may appear frivolous to congressional representatives – whose own concerns may not always align with the values of scientific integrity, nor the long-term interests of our species.  If we don’t, we risk creating a future stripped of insights from the past – some of which may come from unlikely sources – an old sloth bone, or a Viking textile.

The #ScienceServes hashtag was developed by March for Science as a way to highlight the many ways science and scientists benefit our communities. Please share this blog and the #ScienceServes message, and consider sharing your own thoughts or experience about role of science in our world today.

For further reading, check out the following:

Haile, J. et al., 2009. Ancient DNA reveals late survival of mammoth and horse in interior Alaska PNAS 106(52): 22352–22357

Barnosky, A. et al. 2017. Merging paleobiology with conservation biology to guide the future of terrestrial ecosystems. Science 355(6325)

Villavicencio, N. et al. 2016. Combination of humans, climate, and vegetation change triggered Late Quaternary megafauna extinction in the Última Esperanza region, southern Patagonia, Chile. Ecography 39(2):125-140.



  1. C Diane Jones
    Woodbine, Maryland
    April 18, 8:18 am

    Research is never wasteful, shortsightedness is.

  2. Tracy C. Brown
    Oak Ridge, Tennessee
    April 15, 10:07 am

    Well, I am with you, and as an archaeologist, I certainly think there is potentially great value in this. However, I think we have more obstacles to clear than just Congressmen. A close friend of mine was once an officer in the Association for Women in Science (East Tennessee Chapter). I attended a chapter meeting with her one night at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), It was awards night., and the meeting was well attended by both women and men in the local scientific community. Several scientific presentations were given, and in one Q and A session after one of these presentations, the question of National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the coming federal fiscal year came up, and a huge discussion ensued. The initial focus was on future funding for physical science projects. This lasted for quite a while, and then someone brought up the subject of potential NFS funding for the social sciences. The audience of mostly physical scientists broke out into a chorus of laughter and snickers–clearly conveying their obvious opinion that the social sciences are not real science and why even bother with it. I may have been the only university-trained social scientist in the auditorium, even though I was working as an environmental scientist at the time. The laughter and snickering made me feel about 2 inches tall—and I was more than just a little angry about it. I am probably stating the obvious here, but we archaeologists have a huge mountain to climb if we are to be taken seriously—and that climb needs to start with winning over our colleagues in the physical sciences. For example, if we think archaeology can contribute to climate change research, we need to hook up with climatologists, meteorologists, and environmental scientists first and make our case for how we can help them—and go after funding as a team. I think collaborative research really is the future in American archaeology, and we just need to accept that fact and move on. Bypassing the climate scientists and going straight to NSF and Congress to ask for archaeological funding to support climate change research is a really bad idea. We need to sell ourselves at a lower level than that, demonstrate our worth through collaborative research results, and then move on up when our value is firmly established. Right now we are kind of like Rodney Dangerfield—we don’t get no respect.