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.
Michael J. O’Brien, Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Museum of Anthropology, and Dean of the College of Arts and Science, studies culture through the lens of evolutionary theory. His research interests range from the tangible Indian arrowhead to more abstract theories of social influence on consumer choices. The common denominator is that evolutionary theory can be applied not only to the biological sciences but the social as well. He explains, “If humans evolved—descended from other humans—the information that they carry has evolved as well. We’re interested in those paths of transmission of cultural information.” Dean O’Brien’s study of human interconnectedness also fosters it; he maintains that collaborative scholarship, or “wired brains,” produces scholarship more rigorous and expansive than does individual work.
Sometimes, in order to see the status quo, it takes a little distance. When MU’s Peace Corps Fellows return to the United States, they bring their global perspectives to the University of Missouri campus in order to open the minds of students, staff, and community members. Nathan Jensen, Jennifer Keller, Amy Bowes, and Andy Craver are among this year’s fellows. Their work in distant countries has changed them, helping them grow. Now they’re sharing their experience and newfound attitudes with MU.
As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.
Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions.
We see that as humans we are different from other modern primates, although we don't know exactly how that came to be. Unlocking this mystery has been Anthropology professor Carol Ward's life's work. While the fossil record is sketchy at times, it is crucial in estimating the chronology of certain key acquisitions of modern humans, be it walking on two feet, developing big brains, changing their diet, or changing their tool-making behavior. Working with fossils, Ward seeks to answer the bigger question—why did those changes occur?
Dr. Lyman describes what animal remains can teach us about the paleoecology of an area, and how he became interested in studying mountain goats in Olympic National Park.
Dr. Lyman gives us an overview of how he finds his research projects.
As a child, Dr. Lyman loved digging for arrowheads. Memories of that pastime fed into his research interests as an adult.
Dr. Lyman quotes Arts and Science Dean Michael O’Brien and talks about his zeal for his research spills over into his teaching.
Dr. Lyman demonstrates how using a greater time depth — 10,000 years instead of 30, for example — can better inform scientists dealing with conservation issues.
Dr. Lyman explains the connection between anthropological research and policies that address climate change.
Fieldwork images used with the permission of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.
Researchers discuss how collaborating with other scholars and reaching across disciplinary boundaries enriches their work.
The Peace Corps experience changed all of these fellows. Each of them plans on continuing to partner with people in other countries, although their specific aspirations are quite different. Jensen wants to work in the area of international development, hoping his experience will help him to deploy funding wisely, while Keller plans to earn a degree in policy and get involved with with non-profit organizations. Bowes hopes to gain a position in a foreign embassy, and Craver aims to pursue a PhD in anthropology and conduct field research abroad.
VanPool talks about growing up in New Mexico, where she lived just a few miles from the Mescalero Apache Reservation and soon discovered that she had an interest in North American and Mesoamerican Indian cultures.
VanPool describes her work with ceramic analysis in which she studies the configuration and design of pots and jugs.
VanPool describes her research into shamanic practices among different groups of people. In order to develop a connection with the gods, some tribes use mind-altering drugs to slip slowly into a temporary altered state.
VanPool talks about her archeological field research in Chihuahua, Mexico. Not only does she have the opportunity to study the culture, but she also gets to study the language.
VanPool believes that learning about other cultures has helped her to step out of her own cultural shell. Taking the time to understand other groups, she explains, paves the way towards accepting others.
VanPool talks about her undergraduate research at Eastern New Mexico University where she studied several cultural groups to understand their different birthing practices.
“I could never decide what I wanted to do,” recounts Barker. “I was interested in everything. People have described archaeology as being a discipline that takes from all the other disciplines. He began his career in archaeology at a very young age—during middle school, in fact—doing field camps through a Northwestern University program in southern Illinois, where he helped to excavate a series of very large sites. After doing a few seasons there, Barker was hooked.
“Most people don’t realize how complex ancient North America was,” notes Barker, and for a long time its history was based more on imagination than investigation: “One of the most important myths energizing the nineteenth century imagination was that of the moundbuilder. This was the idea that the ancient mounds of the southeastern and eastern United States had to have been built by an advanced race that was far too complex and far too ‘civilized’ to have been the ancestors of modern Native Americans. It is probably not a coincidence that this myth took off just about the time Indian lands began being taken away, reached a zenith during the period when lands were being taking away most rapidly; and when all the land had been taken away, the myth vanished.” Barker studies the myth to better understand how the past is constructed and construed in the present.
“Collaboration is necessary for someone like me because I don’t have a field,” says Barker. “Am I an anthropological archaeologist or am I a museum director? I’m both. We often talk about interdisciplinary research; by necessity, mine is completely interdisciplinary. It is always sitting between and spanning multiple disciplines.” He collaborates, for example, with other museums and research centers, for example with Michael D. Glascock of the Missouri Reactor Center’s Archaeometry Laboratory.
Barker has also being doing fieldwork in the New World, especially in ancient Missouri and the Ancient Southeast and in more recent historical periods, from 1000 to 1500 CE across the American midcontinent. Art styles of all of those regions used the same basic symbols, apparently referring to the same basic concepts.
Alex Barker wears several different hats. As an anthropological archaeologist, Barker’s research and fieldwork resolves around the Bronze Age of Europe and the late prehistoric period of the American southeast, digging for and studying evidence for social change. Barker also serves as the director of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.
Almost all of Barker’s field research in Romania focuses on a single broad question: how does society go from the sovereign individual to the individual sovereign?
Barker is trying to understand the relationship between that process and the economics underlying those societies, seeking answers to questions about the economic basis of political change, and the development of economic mechanisms like taxation and charity relief, as well as why people would be willing to forsake their rights as autonomous individuals for more autocratic control by some kind of hierarchy. Barker surmises that individuals must have somehow perceived themselves as benefiting from the change.
The potential at MU to create profoundly innovative and viable research collaborations, for example, with MU’s Veterinary School, Medical School, College of Engineering, and Department of Anthropology. More specifically, Ward discusses the exciting joint project to examine the effect of exercise and mechanical load (weight) on joint and bone growth, with implications for arthritis treatment.
Collaborating with Mark Flinn (psychology and anthropology) and David Geary (psychology) on how and why human brains developed as they did.