Archaeology: the Big Data offers researchers an unprecedented overview

Thanks to Big Data, researchers at Brown University have been able to make new discoveries about Inca civilization. It’s proof that data can breathe new life into archaeology. However, this technology can also have a negative impact on the work of researchers…

Over the centuries, archaeological research has led to many discoveries and the accumulation of valuable knowledge about ancient civilizations. Now.., thanks to Big Data, it is possible to learn even more about these peoples of the past…

In the latest edition of the Journal of Field Archaeology, a team led by Parker VanValkenburgh, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University in Rhode Island, unveils the fruits of their research on the ancient Inca Empire of South America….

Using drones, satellite imagery and proprietary online databases, researchers were able to benefit from a new overview and unpublished information that also raises new questions.

As VanValkenburgh explains, he is very difficult to answer “the great questions about the Inca Empire with a pickaxe and a shovel.” . Nevertheless, the Big Data can answer these questions.

In collaboration with anthropologist Steven Wernke of Vanderbilt University, and Japanese ethnohistorian Akira Saito, VanValkenburgh has developed and completed two online databases. These databases contain historical information and satellite images on mass repopulation and forced from the Incan Empire by the Spanish Empire in the 16th century.

One of the databases, entitled LOGAR, brings together information from the report on the repopulation of the “Tasa de la Visita General” held by the Viceroy of Peru designated by Spain. The second database, GeoPACHA, serves as a repository for new and existing images from these sites. These include both historical and satellite images.

Previously, no complete list existed in the historical documents. Nearly half of the settlements could not be identified, even though it was one of the largest resettlement programmes in history with over a million displaced persons. Now, thanks to the LOGAR and GeoPACHA databases, three quarters of the colonies have been identified..

Using the data collected, the three experts were able to create a map of all known Spanish colonies, the famous “reducciones” from Ecuador to Chile. Thus, those studying the region will be able to better understand human flows across several countries.

In order to demonstrate the opportunities offered by these data, the authors of the study created a graph highlighting each reducción superimposed on a map of the road system of the Inca Empire. This diagram shows that the conquest and restructuring of the Inca Empire by the Spanish were highly dependent on indigenous infrastructure.

On another chart, a colour code allows to classify the redduciones according to their altitude. This demonstrates that the data can inform studies on the different ways in which mass repopulation may have affected the settlement systems of the Incan Empire.

By mapping the different locations of agricultural terraces in northeastern Peru on satellite images, researchers are also able to examine both the population evolution and the development of the terraces. the impact of the Inca Empire sn local environments.

The Big Data may take archaeologists away from the reality of the field

However, as VanValkenburgh explains, new issues are also emerging as a result of this large-scale overview. Compared to other fields such as genetics or astronomy, archaeology is only just beginning to tap into the Big Data..

Nevertheless, this technology holds a lot of promise. In particular, it could be used to examine continent-wide processes and patterns, for example to understand how entire societies have adapted to climate change over long periods of time.

The use of Big Data in archaeology, however, raises new challenges. Researchers will be increasingly dependent on high-resolution satellite images, which could represent a major challenge for the future. a threat to the privacy of individuals or national security.

In addition, a dependence on data-driven archaeological methods could create a distance between researchers and the civilizations they aim to better understand through their research. It is precisely this human dimension, these small anecdotes that have been the main interest of archaeology until now.

VanValkenburgh’s assessment is that the Big Data should make it possible to start conversations without, however, leading to definitive conclusions. Databases can open up new avenues of research, but archaeologists must remain in the field and communicate constantly with local communities… to keep one foot in the real world…

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