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Reading the Bones

A visit with R. Lee Lyman, Professor and Chair of Anthropology

By Molly Duffy
Published: - Topics: anthropology archaeology conservation biology environment

R. Lee Lyman’s childhood backyard was nestled between a tall plateau and rolling hills of wheat. Growing up in the southeast corner of Washington state, he knew that, if anything, he wanted to spend his life being outside. So when his uncle asked him and his brothers to help him look for buried arrowheads, his parents ushered the boys out to explore. “When you’ve got three boys who are 6, 8, and 10, you want to keep them busy. And that was one way to keep us busy — go dig holes looking for arrowheads.” When Lyman went to Washington State University, memories of those outings were fresh in his mind. By his sophomore year, he was majoring in anthropology. Working one of his first paying jobs as an archaeologist and having just completed a course about how to identify animal bones, Lyman found himself captivated by his ability to explain the bones in archaeological sites.

“As I sat there and worked on them, saying this is a bison bone, this is a pronghorn bone or whatever it was, as I went along, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, this is kind of interesting.’ I was supposed to be looking at arrowheads and things like that, but I was kind of like, ‘No, I’d much rather do the animals.’” Back at WSU, mammalian faunal history became his master’s thesis work. “The more I learned, the more exciting it became for me.” He earned his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Washington in 1982 before going on to become a professor and chair of MU’s Department of Anthropology.

Lyman has always been an outdoorsman. If he hadn’t found anthropology, he probably would have been a park ranger or a game warden — something outside, where he could interact with people and animals. “People always say, so why did you get into archaeology? And I say that way I don’t have to talk to people,” Lyman jokes. “Which is crazy for an anthropologist to say. But we all know those people you don’t want to interact with — this is my escape. The animals don’t talk back. So I have kind of the best of both worlds.”

Although the Northwest isn’t technically his backyard anymore, his research is still focused on Washington state. He’s spent the last 20 years learning the geographical, archaeological and mammalian makeup of the region, and he’s one of only a handful of researchers working in that region. “There’s not nearly as much known archaeologically about Eastern Washington as there is about Missouri, simply because of the history of European colonization and occupation, so it’s kind of an archaeological blank spot,” he explains. “I feel like not only am I learning something, but I’m contributing to what archaeology and anthropology in general know about ancient human lifeways in the Northwest. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Lyman believes that studying mammals’ pasts can inform the ways humans interact with them in the future. As a zooarchaeologist, his work can feed into conservation work. Lyman, while on leave from MU in 1993, was working with a colleague at Portland State University. Lyman was reading a book about mountain goats, and he stopped — “There’s something wrong here,” he thought. One chapter outlined the story of a group of mountain goats: Some from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia and Alberta were captured and transplanted to what is now Olympic National Park in the 1920s; the park was created in 1938; then, 40 years later, the Park Service identified those mountain goats as exotic and unnatural for the environment and set about eradicating them.

The author of the book wrote that these mountain goats had never naturally occurred in the region — there was no paleontological or archaeological evidence that they belonged. “Well that’s not exactly false, but it’s not exactly correct either,” Lyman thought. “I knew enough to know that no one had ever done any paleontological work in the Olympics, and the amount of archaeological work was so small that it would be like walking into the room and (covering your eyes) and going, ‘There’s nobody here!’ Well, of course, because you can’t see them. You never looked.”

By consulting the archaeological record, zooarchaeologists can offer insight into the history of animals that can help inform conservation efforts. Lyman’s work with sea otter populations also began with him reading about conservation issues. Sea otters had been transplanted from the Aleutian islands in Alaska to the Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia coasts in the 1970s. Within 10 years, the population released on the Oregon coast was completely gone, most of the Washington otters were gone, and the British Columbia otters were surviving. Lyman examined the remains of late prehistoric Oregon otters and noticed that, phenotypically, the size and shape of the teeth looked more like Californian sea otters than the Alaskan variety. He suggested that the wrong population of sea otters had been transplanted — not a welcome idea to the biologists.

“But I’ve been vindicated,” Lyman explains. With the development of DNA extraction technology, some of Lyman’s colleagues recently looked at the DNA of the bones Lyman studied — and found that the Oregon sea otters’ DNA is more similar to Californian sea otters than Aleutian sea otters. If there’s ever another sea otter transplant to the Oregon coast, Lyman’s work points to sea otters from Southern California as having a better chance of survival.

Lyman believes his passion for his research feeds into his teaching. ““By-and-large, everyone who’s a dynamite researcher is a dynamite teacher. I’ve never seen the opposite. A dynamite teacher and a so-so researcher, yeah. But never a so-so teacher who was a dynamite researcher.” He has coauthored several books with Arts and Science Dean Michael O’Brien, and he says O’Brien says it best: “Most researchers are great teachers because what they do excites them.” And a great teacher can act as a recruiter for his field. Maybe Lyman won’t be able to complete all the research he wants to, but he can inspire someone else to carry on after him.

“To start, you have to be aware of some wildlife management questions, some conservation issues in the area where you’re doing your research,” Lyman teaches. “And then hopefully as you’re looking at collections and identifying bones and teeth, connect that: maybe if I look at these remains and figure out what they mean, hopefully that can inform conservation efforts. You have to be aware of conservation issues in the area you work. If you’re lucky, you’ll find remains that can address those issues.”

Lyman’s research has always followed what he found interesting and exciting — and he found a “huge arena of potential questions” in conservation issues. “I get to do everything I love,” Lyman points out. “And I get to, in the best of all possible worlds, leave something for my grandchildren and their children as well. It’s great. I love it.”