Flawed Attitude: Deconstructing the History of Our Prejudice Mindset through Archaeology and Anthropology

One of the participants from UK – Sam has made a reasearch of Flawed Attitude as outcome of the project.

Race and racism have been subjects of much discussion throughout the humanities and social sciences, but archaeology has not participated in these discussions as fully as it might be. This article will show how the academic disciplines of archaeology and anthropology is highly important in the modern discourse on race, and how it has been abused in the past as a tool to support racist ideologies. Furthermore, I will argue that a correct interpretation of these disciplines is critical to demolishing contemporary biases and prejudices.

Archaeology remains the gateway to our past, and to our history. The understanding, interpretation and diffusion of history affects our everyday view, both of ourselves and others. Thus, archaeology, as the pragmatic data-miner that the historian uses to create cultural narratives, is highly critical in forming, or unforming, racialized ideas and prejudices. As with any science, its interpretation can be skewed according to preset biases, with its findings manipulated to concur with some political or cultural belief.

I would define racism as a product of colonial and capitalist relations over the course of the last few centuries, dating the root of its modern form to the landing in the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Starting from this point, the European conceptions of the mode and style of living and cultural practices of ‘discovered’ indigenous peoples became increasingly negative, both popularly, and scientifically. These initial judgments made on first and subsequent contacts became cyclically entrenched with a reflective relationship of servitude, where people of colour in Western society occupied a narrow range of roles, of varying brute meniality, such as plantation worker or household servant or slave. The physical commodification of their bodies led to a psychological parallel to other working animals, a lowliness of social and economic position which transmuted into attitudes that for the most part negated even the factors of culture and language in an individual, and instead focused on skin pigmentation.

Anthropology and archaeology in Western nations essentially started as an attempt to understand both their own histories and those they considered different – and possibly unequal – to themselves. What they found was subsequently used to promulgate a racial narrative that justified the existing status quo between Europe and its colonial subjects. Archaeological research in the United States, for example, such as that contained in the 1848 book ‘Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley’, attributed the monumental earthworks found across the plains to some lost race, refusing to believe that the Native Americans were capable of creating such complex and sophisticated sites. This and similar works supported the white settler’s beliefs about Indigenous inferiority for decades, vindicating their forced removal and eradication to make way for a ‘superior’ breed, using African Americans in particular medical experiments, and economically exploiting Chinese immigrant laborers. The division of peoples into sectionally divided hierarchies derived from such research helped justify pseudoscientific racial hierarchies that remain with us today.

Similarly, the great walls and towers of Zimbabwe were supposed to have been built by a Semitic race from the Levant: for obviously the local black people were entirely incapable of building such cyclopean works. This assumption of neoevolutionary linearity of progress is one of the most harmful social mindsets, and one that is entirely prevalent today, shaping much of our opinions. It states that the story of humanity is one of steady progress, which implies that groups that exist in a more ‘basic’ state contemporaneously are at their pinnacle and were subsequently historically technologically inadept. This narrative of ‘savage’ to ‘civilized’ is deeply, deeply rooted in our mindsets and thus early historical investigation is a foci of today’s prejudices.

Another way the practice of nascent science continues to affect discriminative attitudes today is through the early anthropological studies that aimed to categorize and specify the variations in human anatomy. Throughout Europe in the 1800’s there was a mass of data involving the emerging ‘science’ of phrenology, which sought to predict mental and emotional types through the analysis of skull measurements, which was meant to reflect the dominant zones of grey matter underneath. The U.S.-based scholar Samuel Morton’s 1839 ‘Crania Americana’, for example, summarized human diversity based on cranial capacity, ranking Black people at the bottom of a racial hierarchy and Caucasians at the top. Morton’s work supported ideas of Black inferiority that maintained segregation and perpetuated negative public views of Black people.

Consistent attempts were made to link political and economic changes to physical type so that various ethnic populations could be differentiated by their skeletal type. Differences in physiognomic and physical proportions led to an association of certain inherited genetic features to be associated with their resident ‘primitive’ populations. This human predisposition to respond strongly to visual markers and stimuli continues today, with the phrenological precepts of heavy features and overhanging brows, such as commonly seen in Aboriginal Australians, still being associated with a ‘lower’ intellect. Furthermore, the stereotype of the typical Middle Eastern man replete with ‘swarthy’ looks and ‘Taliban’ beard is more than enough to promote rabid and intense distrust in many individuals in the West, as is amply evidenced by the strange propensity of supposedly ‘random’ spot checks in airports. However, I must argue that whilst discrimination is highly unethical, as mere biological animals, our brains are programmed to create a system of danger markers: so, whilst a targeting of the entire Middle Eastern populace is grossly unfair, the prevailing ideology behind most terror attacks in the West is extreme Islam, a religion with ethnic associations from its place of autochthonous conception.

In conclusion, this article has hoped, in such a short space and with such limited examples, to delineate how neophyte and problematically-minded anthropological and archaeological research defined a Western mindset that continues to dominate; a narrative present in everything, from cartoon cavemen and Native American book characters to understandings of modern African tribal culture. The people responsible for our history, the archaeologists and historians, remain overwhelmingly homogeneously white and male. Today white people are more likely to qualify for and attend college, and pursue a graduate degree in anthropology and archaeology, whilst in the last survey of the U.S. archaeological workforce, done by the Society for American Archaeology in 1994, a whopping 98 percent of 1,502 respondents identified themselves as being of European heritage. Whilst this situation continues it is difficult to imagine our cultural mindset changing. Thus, I argue that we both need to deconstruct historical narratives and also become more representative in our academic authorities. In this way we can tackle much of the underlying bedrock of our prejudice and discrimination.

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