Campus News

Archaeologist discusses recent discovery of Native American Canal

Victor Thompson, distinguished research professor and director of the Laboratory of Archaeology in the department of anthropology in Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, spoke with Smithsonian Magazine about a recent discovery.

In Gulf Shores, Alabama, archaeologists from the University of Southern Alabama in Mobile have finally investigated a place the locals called an “Indian Ditch.” What they found was much more than an ancient hole.

“I think one of the things that [this discovery] underscores is the incredibly engineered landscape that exists among the Native peoples of the Gulf Coast,” said Thompson.

The ditch was actually a canal, around a mile long, that was used for canoe travel 1,400 years ago by the region’s Native Americans, avid water travelers.

“They were able to engineer these landscapes that allowed them to flourish for millennia,” said Thompson. “The archaeology is so fantastic in this region, it has such an interesting history, and it speaks to the sophistication and ingenuity of Indigenous societies in the Southeast who have contemporary descendant communities.”

Thompson said that building the canal required knowledge of hydroengineering and large-scale labor, which would require a hierarchical social system. However, those types of chiefdoms were not known before 1,000 B.C.E.

“It’s emerging prior to all these large polities [or organized states] that we see popping up later on. To me, it speaks to a more collective sort of labor project, rather than one that is driven top-down,” he said.