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These remains include the fossils (preserved bones) of humans, food remains, the ruins of buildings, and human artifactsitems such as tools, pottery, and jewelry.
From their studies, archaeologists attempt to reconstruct past ways of life.
The earliest archaeological sites include those at Hadar, Ethiopia; Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli, Tanzania; East Turkana, Kenya; and elsewhere in East Africa.
These sites contain evidence of the first appearance of bipedal (upright walking), apelike early humans.
Dozens of archaeological sites throughout Asia and Europe show how people migrated from Africa and settled these two continents during the last Ice Age (100,000 to 15,000 years ago).
Archaeological studies have also provided much information about the people who first arrived in the Americas over 12,000 years ago.
Archaeology plays a major role in the study of early civilizations, such as those of the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who built the city of Ur, and the ancient Egyptians, who are famous for the pyramids near the city of Giza and the royal sepulchers (tombs) of the Valley of the Kings at Thebes.
Other sites that represent great human achievement are as varied as the cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi (a group of early Native Americans) at Mesa Verde, Colorado (see Mesa Verde National Park); the Inca city of Machu Picchu high in the Andes Mountains of Peru; and the mysterious, massive stone portrait heads of remote Easter Island in the Pacific.
The material remains that still exist after hundreds, thousands, or millions of years have survived because of favorable preservation conditions in the soil or atmosphere.
For the most part, the only things that survive are durable items such as potsherds (small fragments of pottery), tools or buildings of stone, bones, and teeth (which survive because they are covered with hard enamel).
Because many items disintegrate over time, archaeologists get an incomplete view of the past that they must fill in with other kinds of information and educated reasoning.
Sites containing signs of the first simple but purposeful burials in graves date to as early as 40,000 years ago in Europe and Southwest Asia.
By the time people lived in civilizations, burials and funeral ceremonies had become extremely important and elaborate rituals.