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  • Print publication year: 1992
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - The development of American archaeology: a brief review


America and its inhabitants suddenly emerged from prehistory into history, that is, the period in which events have been recorded in written documents, when Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas that he named San Salvador (now identified as either Samana Cay or Watling Island). Columbus was not the first European to reach American shores; archaeological finds in Newfoundland have confirmed accounts in the Norse sagas of Viking expeditions to North America around A.D. 1000. However, the Vikings did not succeed in establishing permanent settlements on the American mainland. Even their initially prosperous colony in Greenland had perished by the mid-fifteenth century, unable to cope with climatic changes brought on by the Little Ice Age. As a legacy of their brief American venture, the Vikings left us the first description of Native Americans, whom they called “Skraelings.” These people, whose encounters with the Vikings were hostile, were probably Eskimos, and Algonquian-speaking Indians. Vikings who dug into the ruins of an Eskimo house in search of imagined treasures were the first Europeans known to have excavated an American archaeological site (Rowlett 1982). Even though white falcons, furs, and other items that the Vikings obtained in Greenland or farther west were traded southward into Europe, no one seems to have been very inquisitive about their point of origin. Several hundred years later, Columbus's reports of his discoveries evoked quite a different response from Europeans who had by then become acquainted with, and greedy for, the silks of China and the spices of the Indies.