iMahal Interview Series:
David Gimbel
July 22, 2001

iMahal:  People can visit the Archaeos website and learn about Vijayanagara. How does learning from the past help us, other than satisfying our curiosity? Is there something more meaningful for the people who are not intimately involved in your profession? What is in it for the average person?
Gimbel:  I view archeology as part of a longer curve of history, and history obviously presents a lot of lessons. I think that as a species, we are at a very important crossroads right now, where a lot of our decisions are going to profoundly affect how we evolve. It's clear that the environment that we live in, to a large extent, is polluted. I don't want to sound completely cynical, but it's the truth.
..We live in a world of diminishing resources..
There's waste all over the place. We live in a world of diminishing resources. Everybody in the northeast is happy because lobsters are cheap, but the reason that they are cheap is that fish such as fluke and flounder that used to live on the bottom and eat the lobster larvae, aren't around anymore: they've been fished out. We live in a world where rainforest - square miles of it - disappear by the day, or by the second or whatever, I don't know the statistics. And I think that when you look at each culture, and you look at the way they utilize their natural resources, you can conclude that it's had profound impacts on them. In the case of Sumer, they destroyed many of their natural resources as they developed cities. They succeeded in denuding their habitats by burning a great deal of the surrounding flora for fuel. They lost huge quantities of fertile topsoil because of this. They also hadn't discovered a lot of agricultural practices that we now take for granted such as crop rotation. In the end, these factors, combined with their irrigation practices, destroyed the majority of their farmland. They ended up with salinated ground that they couldn't grow anything on and eventually the majority of their cities disappeared.

Observations about how humans interact with each other and with their natural habitat teach us profound lessons about how we are going to survive as human beings, and about the relationships that we should have with each other. I think the questions that archeology asks are of profound importance. And I think it's also important to view archeology not strictly as a scientific discipline. Archeology is not a science; it's pseudo-science.
..I think the questions that archeology asks are of profound importance..
We use a lot of scientific means. We go out there and collect data, excavate, shoot survey points, and model our discoveries using coordinate geometry. But the interpretive part of it is really classical humanistic studies. And I think that you can take archeology and you can approach it from any vista that you want. I think that whatever your personal interests are -- state formation, economic and social power, distribution of wealth, the role of women -- you can approach a lot of these questions through archeology. You can collect data, or use existing data, and you can remodel and reinterpret it to try to understand how a particular society functioned and to explore whatever questions you feel are valuable or pertinent.

Another important thing for us to learn is that our cognitive evolution closely parallels our cultural evolution. A famous experiment was done by a guy named William Greenough. He used two sets of genetically-similar rats. One set he kept in his laboratory. The other set he took home for his kids to play with. After about a year he dissected the rats. What he found out about the rats that played with his kids, is that they possessed higher levels of neurotransmitters and higher levels of dendritic connections between axons. One conclusion is that exposure to a cognitively richer environment affects brain development and therefore is likely to affect cognition. So when we examine the evolution of societies we might also discover the evolutionary steps in the way that humans think. If we go back to the questions that I was talking about before, such as the development of symbolic systems of communication such as writing and art, these are questions that deal with the evolution of human thought. Our bodies form certain types of cortical connections as part of an array of neurological responses to our physical world. The information around us effects our cognition because it physically changes the structure of the brain. A we learn more about how human systems of communication affected our mental evolution we might eventually also learn about the effects of technologies such as the television, or computers, on current societies and on future generations.
iMahal:  We would like to learn about your most proud moment thus far in your career.
Gimbel:  I am extremely proud of the fact that I was even able to get Archaeos to work. It started out as a dream that I spent years modeling. I am proud of the fact that I was able to get it off the ground, to get projects running, and to get people interested in it. I look at that in a lot of ways as my most profound achievement. Granted it's a small achievement, but it's mine.

All photographs copyright and courtesy of David Gimbel or Archaeos



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