In the rush to preserve river valley flora and fauna ahead hydroelectric dam construction mankind’s cultural impact is often ignored and often lost. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on Drowning Culture.
Modern protests against nature altering construction projects- in particular river halting dams- generally center on the defense of a geographical feature, saving a species of flora and fauna, or guarding the river itself. Historically, dam opponents and dam builders have overlooked or completely ignored a vital aspect of the landscape: mankind’s cultural artifacts, settlements and cemeteries clinging to river valleys around the world.
Traditionally, the dam construction debate rallies defenders of plants, animals or natural features. Rarely, if ever, has cultural heritage been weighed in these heated debates. The roots of this historically significant problem are entangled in the nature of human exploration. Whether cutting timber or damming a river to create a hydro-electric plant, developers often define the natural world as virgin or unspoiled by mankind. As we see time and again, in North America and around the world, mankind is a proxy term for civilized peoples, ones with technology and determination to shape the future. The very language of progress ignores or devalues the cultures of native or indigenous peoples that lived and thrived in the lands coveted for development.
Mankind’s culture is tied to river valleys even though it may not be obvious to all, according to a report from the World Commission on Dams. An international effort to study and assess the economic, environmental and social effects of dam building, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) possess a unique authority on the controversial subject. Without hesitation the report authors state that large dams, in particular, “have had significant adverse effects on this heritage through the loss of local cultural resources… and the submergence and degradation of archaeological resources”. It is incongruous that the dam is also considered by the WCD to be “our oldest tool” in controlling water, while also drowning ancient cultural artifacts. The detritus of earlier civilizations can take many forms from structures, tools, butchered animal remains and burial sites. The evidence of cultures lost to dams litter history, as the WCD authors explain, ” In most cases no measures have been taken to minimize or mitigate the loss of cultural and archaeological resources”.
In the case of Washington state’s Grand Coulee Dam, Native American burial sites submerged by the dam were relocated by the tribes, but only after waters receded enough to expose the burial grounds. Most famously when the site of the Egypt’s Aswan Dam was selected, the entire Abu Simbel temple complex was carved up and moved to higher ground, in order to prevent its loss. When planning for the large Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, Chinese developers chose to submerge nearby ancient carvings and building an underwater museum, instead of proactively preserving the site.
Viewing the river valley as a natural place outside the culture of man, a place of detached admiration, implies mankind does not belong there and therefore should not long for a connection to it. Scott Russell Sanders captures man’s connection to place, and its importance, in his work After the Flood, “A footloose people, we find it difficult to honor the lifelong, bone-deep attachment to place. We are slow to acknowledge the pain in yearning for one’s native ground, the deep anguish in not being able, ever, to return” . By constructing a dam, building a housing development of cutting a countryside to lay a highway, we permanently sever our connection to our collective past. The language and act of building in the wilderness becomes an act of redefining history, ignoring a richer collective history in favor of writing a new one. Techniques to protect cultural heritage sites are at hand, according to WCD recommendations, but still very much ignored. Not every valley shelters irreplaceable cultural heritage, but we will never know unless we slow down, acknowledge the entire spectrum of potential loss, whether natural or manmade. Like Sanders, perhaps we should slow our pace, look past the winding river, its fertile shores and through its dense verdant vegetation in order to find those arrowheads. To see and save our collective past.
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