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The Earliest Americans
Spring/Summer 2000

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*  Commemorating an Ancient Legacy

(image) Paleoindian Hunting Scene.

"Some Paleoindians witnessed catastrophic drops in the Great Lakes from levels far above to far below today. They saw a landscape transformed on a scale we can scarcely imagine."

Michael J. Shott

by Francis P. McManamon

There have been Americans for tens of thousands of years, ever since the first humans arrived in this hemisphere. Recent popular interest in this early settlement hints that today's Americans are becoming more aware of their ancient history. People want to know when and how the migrations took place, how many there were, and where the first Americans came from. Public archeologists hope their outreach efforts can feed this interest and grow to accommodate it. Commemorating sites as National Historic Landmarks-the main goal of the study underpinning this issue-is one of the best ways to do that.

How important is the honor? The most direct answer is that the select list of 3,000 landmarks, designated by the Secretary of the Interior, stands among the most highly recognized reminders of our collective history, alongside National Monuments and the units of the National Park System. Archeological sites, however, have been underrepresented ever since the landmarks roster was authorized by the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Most listings are structures linked to events or individuals associated with recent, i.e., post-European contact, times.

This call to commemorate archeological sites is a major opportunity to enhance understanding of the ancients, especially coupled with the increased attention in public schools fostered by the federal archeology program over the last decade. Most Americans do not need a cultural connection to make this heritage their own. An anchor to the past-in this case embedded in place rather than culture-helps balance modern life through reflection on the times that came before. Many Americans, their awareness heightened by recent media coverage, are concerned for the future of this legacy, at risk across the nation. Ever since the first decades of European settlement, we have attempted to understand our ancient predecessors. Over the last century, these intentions garnered strong public and political support, along with legal and public policy endorsement. But most efforts to understand and protect this heritage have been by a relatively small number of experts.

The landmarks study hopes to broaden the base of support, encouraging site nominations from individuals and private groups as well as public organizations at the local, state, and national levels. Archeologists working for universities, museums, and private contractors-as well as those in public agencies-are all invited to nominate sites and take part in their evaluation.

The process, which will also yield properties eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as well as for state and local honors, should improve the chances for sites nationwide, promoting their visibility to the media and to government agencies during environmental planning and development. The potential is ripe, but we must act before it is too late.

Francis P. McManamon is Chief, Archeology Program, and Departmental Consulting Archeologist, National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

MJB/EJL