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Archaeological and anthropological theories about the origins and practices of ancient peoples, and about events and histories, distant in time, but blending into the present, have had impacts that transcend the tenets and borders of the sciences as discrete disciplines. Our suppositions about the factual past can influence our present beliefs - not only our understandings and conclusions about the tangible and practical - but our feelings and faiths about the intangible and the spiritual as well. Our values, principles, world views, and cosmologies may thus be shaped by our scientific backdrop. Beyond this, our social activity, our national policy, our institutions, and our confirmatory law may flow, in part, from the scientific descriptions of our history and prehistory.

What happens when the science changes and when presumptively neutral methodologies give us a revision of the world and the past? To the extent that the changing archaeological or anthropological views occur in contexts disassociated or marginalized from core personal values, the impact may be minimal but not of real consequence to our intellectual lives. The impact of discoveries and new hypotheses may, however, move beyond the boundaries of science and destabilize some central principles of personal belief and social direction. An illustration may be provided by the impact of the modern archaeological investigations on the battlefield of the Little Big Horn River in southern Montana. The legitimacy of white expansion onto the Indian lands of the western United States and the specific legality of the federal government's breaching of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had guaranteed perpetual possession of the Black Hills to the Sioux, was supported in significant part by the preliminary factual conclusions and resulting imagery that followed the demise of George Armstrong Custer on June 25, 1876. Historians began to reform the vision and archaeologists have further compromised the heroic image of Custer's defeat with solid scientific evidence that Custer's command and his troop's organization disintegrated under the pressure of a disciplined and methodical Indian encirclement and infiltration, which dispatched the confused and terrified soldiers at relatively minimal costs. These historical and archaeological reassessments of the Little Big Horn were not confined to minutia or trivia. They helped prompt changes in personal visions and values among the national populace, and this, in turn, led to institutional changes and legal consequences.

This article analyzes some paradigmatic changes in contemporary archaeological and anthropological theory and the results of such changes on personal values, collective institutions, and the law.

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University of Missouri Kansas City Law Review





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