The New York Times recently published an article about the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, discussing the issues the city and specifically the neighborhood faces six years following the hurricane. The article, titled “Jungleland: The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans Gives New Meaning to ‘Urban Growth,’” addresses a question archaeologists have studied for decades: What causes a once densely populated area to be abandoned and returned to nature? Archaeological theories run the gamut-political leadership, economy, diseases or epidemic, social unrest, mass dispersal of residents or even a natural disaster of epic proportions.
Well, quite frankly, most archaeologists are of the persuasion that it is usually more than one of these factors that contribute to the major collapse of a great civilization. However, no archaeologist puts their trowel to the dirt without wondering how the buildings and things they unearth went from being inhabited and full of life to being abandoned for so long that nature reclaimed its territory, destroying the cultural landscape that was once an escape from the harsh elements of nature.
I remember my first archaeology class, learning about the great lost civilizations: Egyptians, Maya, Romans. The lost civilizations were so romantic, filled with the exciting possibility of discovering something new and interesting. Through my anthropological studies, I continued to explore archaeology and its fallen civilizations, but never fully understood what it took for nature to reclaim the land that was taken from it by culture.
It’s amazing to me how I didn’t fully comprehend this having grown up in New Orleans, a city that is so vulnerable to the elements of nature that you see it in the cracked sidewalks, the potholes in the roads and the roaches you can’t keep out of your home. Witnessing the aftermath of Katrina, really put this into perspective. In the hot and humid climate of the Louisiana bayou, nature moves pretty quickly. Plants sprout up in a matter of days with the nurturing love of the daily tropical rainstorms and with a nonexistent winter, no wildlife is kept in balance through an annual freezing cycle.
The only way to keep nature at bay is by constant maintenance work to a property and even then without a little construction work here or there, the buildings begin to look worn and weathered quite quickly in this raw environment. What is happening right now in the lower ninth ward is the opportunity for a once in a lifetime archaeological case study that can give needed modern day evidence to theories that until now archaeologist have only been able to speculate about. It is a real life example of how nature reclaims its territory despite the efforts of man to keep the advancements at bay.
Aside from the physical evidence that is staring the lower ninth ward residents in the face, there is also an interesting cultural study to be done here. Another question archaeologists often wonder is “Why?” Why did people choose to stay in an area that had unfavorable living conditions? Why did they not relocate to an area that was safer and more stable? The only explanation anyone is able to come up with is culture.
New Orleans has always been a unique cultural gem in the United States with its rich history and strong traditions that have been slowly built upon between outside influences and the geographic landscape where these cultures collide. Culture cannot simply be relocated, it is an intimate dialogue between the people and the place. In a city with as deep of a history as New Orleans, the culture is rich and flavorful. It has been created through generations and given depth by the layers each new generation and each new immigrant brings to it.
It is the complexity of this culture that has caused the residents to stay and fight, rather than flee to higher ground. The culture that pulses through the veins of this city hits each NOLA-ite on an emotional level so deep that the thought of a world without it is to difficult to bear. It is an emotional relationship that people are willing to make sacrifices for and one that will take precedence over other priorities. Witnessing and understanding these priorities and the lengths that a civilization will go to in order to protect them under extreme duress, is a cultural study that is invaluable to understanding human nature. I can only hope that my anthropological colleagues are using this opportunity to advance their understanding of the human condition.