Communities Coming Together

By Kate Hodge, Public Education Coordinator

People tend to group together based on a variety of factors, from ethnicity to gender to age. Communities, from an anthropological perspective, provide safety, comfort, and a group of people on which to rely. Communities can also provide refuge and medical aid when necessary. There are many examples that archaeologists have been able to uncover all over the world from different moments in history.

With everything going on in the world right now, it is easy to feel alone and unsupported as well as scared. It is important to remember that, somewhere, you have a community of support, and that people in the past have been through similarly difficult times and came out of it more knowledgeable. Let us take a minute to look at these communities and realize that we are not alone.

Chinese-American Railroad Community

Transcontinental Railroad (photo from:

Everyone knows about the Transcontinental Railroad and the final, golden spike that connected the Eastern and Western United States. Many people don’t know that Euro-Americans didn’t build the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese-Americans did. These workers were harshly discriminated against  and, as a result, many kept to themselves. This resulted in smaller communities that were very tight-knit and cared for one another in a variety of ways. Interestingly, historians think that the Chinese-American population was healthier and less sick than the other worker groups because they practiced making tea. Drinking tea is a cultural practice in China, and is one of the many things the railroad workers brought from home to make their new country feel more like their old. In addition to the medicinal properties of the plants in tea, boiling water may have saved many from getting sick.

Beyond safe drinking water, these communities also had different uses a variety of medicines variety of medicines to help cure sickness or alleviate ailments workers may have suffered. We know this because archaeologists have found broken pieces of medicine bottles at different campsites. The presence of these bottles suggests that workers used a blend of both western methods for treating diseases as well as traditional Chinese medicine cures. Beyond medicine bottles, archaeologists have also found opium at these campsites. Opium is a frequent component in Chinese medicine , as it has properties that help fight infections as well as subdue pain. The Chinese-American community played a vital role in our nation’s history. They forged a community in harsh conditions that fostered a feeling of home, support, and belonging.

Enslaved Peoples’ Communities in the American South

The archaeological record, as well as oral history, has revealed a great deal about the communities of enslaved peoples in the American South. The vast majority of those who were enslaved were from West Africa. These people had not only a wide variety of rich cultures and religions that they brought with them but also an expansive knowledge of medicinal plants. This expertise was even recognized by the captains of slave ships, who used West African plants as a remedy for fevers.

Enslaved peoples’ remedies were usually simple, which is thought to be due to their lack of time and resources for more complicated cures. They would use local plants gathered from the forest or countryside and turn those into treatment for a myriad of diseases and discomforts. This kind of medicine did not act alone and had an important religious connection. Healing and religion went hand in hand for some enslaved communities.

Sassafras plant commonly used in medicine (photo from:

Depending on location and enslaver, this traditional medicine was encouraged, highly feared, or something in-between. Certain slave owners would tolerate or encourage traditional medicine as it would result in economic gain for them due to more people being able to work efficiently. Other slave owners were highly fearful of the practice, worrying that the enslaved doctor would try to poison them. This knowledge of medicinal plants, however, was orally passed down. There is also evidence that enslaved peoples’ medicine was more effective  than that of white Americans at the time.

The archaeology of caring is something scientists can trace back tens of thousands of years. The practice extends not only to the use of natural medicines but also to humans caring for one another in diverse ways—from splinting a bone to caring for the disabled to curing a fever. For humans, difficult and dangerous situations help us identify essential things, solve problems, and create solutions. When someone falls down, you help them up. The two communities described above, though very different, highlight this quality. Archaeologists have seen this quality all over the world. There are sites where older individuals were fed and cared for years after they were unable to participate in contributing to their group physically. Some sites show evidence for broken and then splint bones. These actions don’t happen without creative problem solving, but more importantly, they don’t happen without care or love.

Beyond these two groups, there are countless examples of communities banding together throughout history to enjoy each other’s company, help each other out, or to survive. This idea of working together to help each other is a very human thing to do. It is this quality that has allowed us to survive Ice Ages, wars, and plagues of the past. Banding together to help splint a bone or just share a cup of tea by the fire is one of many ways humans support one another, and we are stronger and happier for it. In light of the incredible communities of the past, reach out to your community, wherever they might be, for a phone call, zoom call, or FaceTime session to get some support—just like the people of the past.