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4.1: Evidence of Past Human Activity

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    As mentioned in Chapter 3, the overarching goal of archaeology is to preserve the archaeological record. What is the archaeological record? We tend to think of archaeologists as primarily studying artifacts, objects made, used, or modified by humans. However, archaeologists are interested in anything that is evidence of past human activity. This evidence can be a farmer's dwelling, a campsite, a cache of stone tools, a burial site, a scatter of flint flakes, or an ancient city. Just as anthropology studies "all things human", archaeology studies all things related to past human activity. Combined, the material remains of past human activity, such as the locations, artifacts, food remains, and refuse is the archaeological record.

    archaeological record

    The material remains of past human activity, which includes sites, artifacts, food remains, and refuse.

    Archaeological Data

    As defined in Chapter One, archaeology is the study of past human behavior through the systematic recovery and analysis of material remains. Through excavation and detailed recording, archaeologist recover the data from the ground. There are different forms of archaeological data, including sites, artifacts, ecofacts, and features. Together, all of these pieces of evidence observed at and collected from an archeological site make up an assemblage.


    All the artifacts and data collected from an archaeological site.


    Archaeological sites are any place where there is evidence of human activity. The evidence of human activity does not necessarily mean that the location was occupied for extended periods of time. However, they are reflections of human behavior and activities. The number of artifacts needed to qualify a location as a site varies based on the context, excavation funding as well as state or federal agency criteria. At the most basic level, they can be broken down into two types: open sites and natural shelter sites. An open-air site is one that had no protection from the elements while natural shelter sites such as caves and rock overhangs provide protection from the elements. A cave is technically defined as an opening in a cliff or rock face that is deeper than it is wide, setting it apart from a rock shelter, which is typically a shallow rock overhang or cliff. Site type provides important information for archaeologists. It indicates the likely function of the site and allows archaeologists to predict the types of artifacts and ecofacts likely to be uncovered. An open site, for example, will rarely contain well-preserved perishable artifacts or features because of damage from wind, rain, heat, and cold. Caves, on other hand, are excellent places to find preserved perishable items such as wooden artifacts and basketry.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Open-air Site
    Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Rockshelter
    Smith Rock Shelter, McKinney Falls State Park, Texas.
    In use from around 500 BCE until the 18th century.


    A spacial cluster of archaeological evidence of human activity such as objects, features, and ecofacts.

    open-air site

    A site that has no protection from the elements.

    natural shelter sites

    A site that has natural protection from the elements such as caves and rock overhangs.

    rock shelter

    A shallow rock overhang or cliff. A type of natural shelter site.


    Archaeologists also pay attention to the potential functions of a site—how the site was used by humans. Naturally, an important function of many sites is habitation; artifacts are concentrated where people lived for more than a few days or weeks. Sites of short-term habitation such as encampments typically offer few archaeological remains simply because of the short time humans were there. Sites where food was acquired and, in particular, processed are important parts of the archaeological record. They include processing sites where humans prepared plants and animals for consumption, such as animal kill sites and butchering sites; storage sites where items such as grains were kept for long periods of time; hunting blinds and traps humans used to catch and kill animals; and agricultural sites where humans cultivated crops for food and other uses. Cemeteries also yield important information about a people, even without exhuming the bodies.

    habitation sites

    Sites where people lived for more than a few days or weeks with evidence of domestic activity, such as food preparation.

    processing sites

    Sites where humans prepared plants or animals for consumption, such as animal kill sites and butchering sites.


    Archaeologists are interested in many other types of sites as well, including quarries where humans harvested stones for tools and building and lithic scatters (sometimes at quarries) where they made and repaired stone tools, which could include debitage. Finally, more recent excavations dealing with historic archaeology have focused on travel routes such as historic and prehistoric trails identified by shallow linear depressions over the ground and rock faces. Industrial and commercial sites are also an important part of historic archaeology and have a profound impact on our understating of economies of the past.

    lithic scatter

    A scatter of stone artifacts and debris.


    The material produced as a product of lithic reduction in process of making stone tools.


    Other sites provide information about human cultures and uses of symbolism, such as rock art sites at which humans painted pictographs, carved or etched petroglyphs, and scraped rocks and the soil to make geoglyphs.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Rock Art Sites
    Image 1: Prehistory pictographs found in Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, Texas.
    Image 2: Freemont culture petroglyphs found in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.
    Image 3: Aerial view of the "Spider". One of the many Nazca Lines geoglyphs in Peru's Nazca Desert.



    As previously discussed, artifacts are objects that were used, modified, or made by people. They are also defined as portable and could have been carried by humans from place to place. Common examples of archaeological artifacts are projectile points (arrowheads), ceramic pots, baskets, nails, and glass bottles. Of course, there is a natural preference for complete artifacts since many objects at sites were discarded and were broken before being found, entering the archaeological record because they were thrown in the trash. As a discipline, however, archaeology must analyze all types of artifacts to get the most complete picture of human occupation and behavior. It is also easy to miss single-use artifacts such as a rock used to pound a tent stake in place because no one packed a hammer or mallet. Archaeologists spend much of their time thinking about and analyzing artifacts because the items were made or used by humans and correlate directly to human behavior. Thus, many features of artifacts can be analyzed, such as the material from which they were made, their artistic or functional style, and their design. Archaeologists also create typologies, which provide a way to understand how an artifact such as a pot changed over time in shape, form, and use. Typologies also provide useful estimates of the period in which the artifacts were made.


    Portable objects made, used, or modified by humans.


    Classification of objects according to their physical characteristics such as shape, form, and use.


    Besides artifacts, archaeological sites provide ecofacts, which are the organic and environmental remains such as animal bones, plant remains, and soils that occur at archaeological sites but were not made, modified, or used by humans. Ecofacts can reveal much about human behavior. For example, plant and animal remains can allow archaeologists to reconstruct the environment when humans lived there, effectively telling researchers what types of plants or animals would have been available for humans to use. Another type of object found at sites is a manuport, which is an object brought to the site by humans but not modified by them. For example, an unusual stone material known for its excellent heating properties could be found in a hearth or fire pit.


    An object not modified by humans but brought to the site by past human activity, including both organic and inorganic materials.


    An object brought to the site by humans but not modified by them.


    A feature is an artifact such as a hearth, storage pit, midden (trash pile), house, or other structure that is not portable. Features cannot be removed from the site without damaging, altering, or destroying them. Features usually define an area where past activities or events have taken place. For example, in Figure 4.1.4 below shows several different features uncovered during a 2017 excavation of a Native American Farmstead in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. The most notable feature is a hearth, designated as feature #30 in the photograph). To the top and right of the hearth, there are slight discolorations of the soil, which indicate post-holes (designated by features #17, #18, and #31). These features are produced by past human domestic activities. Finally, along the top of the image, there is another area of discolored ground with what appears to be charcoal. This feature indicates a past event. This dwelling had burned around 1600 CE and this feature is what remains of the collapsed roof of the building. During a second excavation of this same site, another hearth or fire pit was uncovered. Further investigation led to the discovery that the site had been occupied 200 years earlier with the later dwelling being built on top of the earlier dwelling. For more information about the excavations, you can visit the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest website.


    A non-portable human-made material remains such as a fire pit, hearth, storage pit, house, or structure that cannot be moved from the site.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Features can help tell the story of past activities and events that took place at a site. For more images from Chattahoochee_Oconee National Forest archaeological investigations, you can visit their Archaeology & Heritage photo gallery.


    Figure 4.1.1 Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. (2007). By James Q. Jacobs under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 4.1.2 The Smith Rock Shelter located in McKinney Falls State Park, Texas, United States. (2006). By Larry D. Moore under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 4.1.3 Image 1: Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, Texas. Native American wall engravings inside one of the prehistoric caves, thought to be thousands of years old. By Zereshk under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 4.1.3 Image 2: McKee Springs Petroglyph. (2019). By Robert Shea under CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr.

    Image 4.1.3 Image 3: Aerial view of the "Spider", one of the most popular geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines, which are located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. (2015). By Diego Delso under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 4.1.4 2017 American Indian Farmstead Archaeology Investigation IMG_4770. By ChattOconeeNF under CC BY 2.0 via flickr.

    A derivative work from

    "Digging into Archaeology:A Brief OER Introduction to Archaeology with Activities" by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros, Faculty (Anthropology) at Cosumnes River College & American River College, ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI), 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    4.1: Evidence of Past Human Activity is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.