Much can be learned by digging through the castoffs people leave behind. Food waste, discarded clothing, and assorted debris can all shed light on a community’s diet, lifestyle, and environment. For scientists piecing together the history of human society, Indigenous middens—deposits of various leavings from ancient or abandoned settlements—provide invaluable windows into the distant past.
Human middens (the term also applies to dung heaps or debris piles left by animals) often contain waste such as oyster shells or animal bones, but can also include tools, pottery, and other materials. Such accumulations, which University of Washington geoarchaeologist Julie Stein compares to tools and miscellanea stored in a garage or shed, are found around the world, especially along rivers and coastlines, where Indigenous fisheries were common.
In America, non-Indigenous people have traditionally dismissed middens as historical garbage dumps with no particular use or value. Stein, who studies the sediments found in middens, tells The Scientist that such portrayals of middens as useless trash are unfair, given their ongoing importance both to living Indigenous communities and to scientists piecing together the cultural practices and environmental conditions of the past. “It’s a bit condescending,” Stein says, “to think that people hundreds and thousands of years ago just threw their garbage around them. . . . They knew how to manage the places they lived.”
Studies have pointed to middens as evidence of long-standing sustainable practices. Jesse Morin, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, tells The Scientist that middens have revealed a consistent fisheries harvest across centuries or millennia, suggestive of very careful management. One paper reveals that middens from past Indigenous oyster fisheries in the US and Australia first emerged at least 10,000 years ago, millennia earlier than many scientists assumed. Moreover, radiocarbon dating of shells from the middens suggests that these practices were maintained for thousands of years before finally being abandoned—perhaps due to changing coastlines or the arrival of Europeans who exploited existing fisheries.
While middens can provide unique glimpses into ancient cultures, researchers interested in probing the stories buried in these collections risk perpetuating colonial attitudes, Stein warns. “There’s all these white archaeologists that are talking about the practices of [Indigenous people],” says Stein, who years ago made the decision to stop initiating new midden excavations out of respect. “And those people are standing right beside us. They’re still alive.”
Morin explains that the descendants of the communities that left these middens behind may still live nearby and travel to the sites to practice rituals and pay homage to those who were buried in such areas many generations earlier. As a consequence, researchers studying middens should, and increasingly do, collaborate with Indigenous communities throughout the planning and analysis stages of their research, Morin says. Middens are “a specific people’s past, and they still have a direct relationship at these places.”