Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A new subject: Linguistics

It's the Fall semester, so it must be time for Dr. Hudak's Principles of Linguistics class. I've been looking forward to this, mostly because it is the only field of Anthropology about which I still know NOTHING.

We're beginning with phonetic consonants (for English), and we already have a quiz tomorrow after only three class periods.

There's not much to report yet, but it's good to be back on campus.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Long Commute: Northern Arizona University

I hopped in my car last Tuesday and took a drive up Interstate 17 to Flagstaff. As I approached the end of the interstate (yes, it actually comes to an end in Flagtown), the Skydome figured prominently in my field of view. Home to the NAU Lumberjacks football team, it is the largest building on the South campus of Northern Arizona University... and my landmark for where to turn.

I had an appointment with Dr. George Gumerman IV, the chairman of the Anthropology Department at NAU. I wanted to learn more about the department, the graduate program, and to discuss the feasibility of joining the program and commuting from Phoenix.

It was great talking with Dr. Gumerman and seeing the Anthropology facilities. They are very focused on the experiences they provide for their graduate students. they place an emphasis on the importance of working with your cohort, whether just exchanging ideas or collaborating on research projects. they do not offer a Ph.D., so the Masters students get all the attention.

They have recently revamped their website, and there is a lot of information about the department and its faculty. The primary focus at NAU is on Applied Anthropology, but they also offer thesis-track programs in both Socio-cultural Anthropology and Archaeology. I mentioned to Dr. Gumerman that I had considered the University of South Florida (another school with a strong Applied Anthro program), and he noted that NAU had placed several of their graduates into the Ph.D. program at USF.

I proposed to Dr. Gumerman that prior to entering the Masters program officially, perhaps I should try commuting to NAU as an unclassified graduate student, taking one course and seeing how it all works. Much to my relief, he agreed. He recommended the Lithics course which will be offered in the Spring semester, and I can hardly wait.

So, what about the commute? Well, it took me 110 minutes to drive from Pinnacle Peak Road and I-17 (that's basically where I work) to the parking lot outside the Anthropology building in Flagstaff. The return trip was almost identical... so that's almost four hours, roundtrip. It was an easy drive, but also easily the longest drive I've ever done in a typical day, even in the sprawling Valley of the Sun. I'l willing to try it, though!

NAU does not have a foreign language proficiency requirement, so the only class I still need in order to be accepted with no deficiencies is Linguistics, and I'm taking that in the Fall from Dr. Hudak. Looks like it's time to start asking for recommendation letters, since all application materials for the masters program are due at the end of January.

I'd still like to learn Spanish, and with a four-hour commute, some language tapes might be just the thing.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

If you build it, they will come (another way)

National Geographic reports that the new barrier recently built on the U.S. border between Arizona and Mexico has been effective in eliminating illegal crossings by vehicle through Organ Pipe National Monument, but an unintended consequence in a sharp increase in foot traffic through the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

Prior to the barrier's construction, large numbers of vehicles crossed over from Mexico at all hours, carrying illegal drugs and immigrants. hundreds of miles of dirt roads were cut into the desert by these unwanted vehicles, and rangers say it will take hundreds of years for them to grow over again without human intervention.

Now that vehicles cannot cross, smugglers as moving into the U.S. on foot, many of them through the wildlife refuge. Not only are they eroding the natural terrain, they are also polluting it with large amounts of trash and human feces.

The smugglers are not the only ones damaging the landscape-- law enforcement officials from the border patrol and the park and wildlife services must move through the area to deal with the interlopers, and they also erode the natural desert.

There is some good news: In 2008, Cabeza Prieta is slated to have its own barrier at the border completed. Still, good news for the wildlife refuge is bad news for some other border area, since illegal crossers will just go somewhere else.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Archaeologists find Inca who was earliest gunshot victim in N. America

Peruvian archaeologist Guillermo Cock, a research associate at UCLA's Fowler Museum and a researcher for National Geographic, excavated hundreds of shallow burials in Puruchuco that showed extensive evidence of violent deaths: Many were hacked to death, some were stabbed, and one was shot.

The skull of one individual showed the entrance and exit holes of what Cock believes to be a musket ball, fired from a Spanish weapon. Physical anthropologists confirmed Cock's initial conclusion that a round projectile caused the injury, and experts at the University of Connecticut used a powerful microscope to detect trace amounts of iron around the holes in the skull, confirming the hypothesis.

Cock believes these victims were slaughtered by the Spanish during an Inca uprising in 1536.

See the rest of the story at National Geographic.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Peking Man OR Piltdown Man?

Just found this on Boing Boing... the skull of Pac-Man. Is it authentic, or an elaborate hoax?

Neither! Just some very interesting art.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

More evidence of a violent Peruvian culture

National Geographic reports on a new article announcing the discovery of a headless burial in the Nasca region of Peru.

Christina Conlee from Texas State University found a tomb containing a skeleton seated cross-legged, but missing its head. Sitting just to the skeleton's left was a ceramic jar decorated with an image of a human head, which may have functioned as a substitute for the body's missing head.

While this is only the third such burial found involving a decapitated skeleton and a head jar, researchers have long documented the large number of human sacrifices performed by the Nasca, their use of "Trophy Heads" (mummified human heads which have been modified and decorated), and numerous depictions of such severed heads in their artwork.

In spite of the significant number of large caches of mummified heads and a matching abundance of severed head iconography, few of the corresponding headless bodies have been found.

Monday, April 30, 2007

You don't have to have a B.A. in Anthro to go to Grad School

Okay, so I still need two Anthropology courses to graduate (Linguistics and another Physical anthro course), plus a "Literacy & Critical Thinking" course, and my foreign language.

It's going to be pretty tough to get all of these completed by the summer of 2008, and even if I succeed, I can't take any more courses that I want to take. There's a really great class being offered (for seniors only) that includes a lot of research, and I still want to take a good Mesoamerican archaeology class.

I decided to take up the subject once last time with the undergraduate advisor, Jennifer Gordon. We talked for quite a bit, and in the end, she agreed that if I was planning to apply to graduate school for the Fall of 2008, then I only needed to worry about getting the courses that a graduate program would care about. They are NOT going to care whether I took a "Literacy" course, and they won't even care if I never finish a B.A. in Anthropology (I have nearly 40 credit hours in Anthro, plus an earlier B.S. in Computer Science).

So, I'm going to continue taking Spanish, and then take Anthropology courses that I want to take (i.e., that are in the area I wish to pursue as a graduate student).

I have dropped the courses I was originally registered to take in the Fall (2007), and instead signed up for ASB 337, Prehispanic Civilizations of Middle America. I'm going to take Spanish 101 this summer, and continue with 102 in the Fall. In the Spring of 2008, I hope to take Linguistics and keep going on the Spanish. By then, I will have applied to graduate school, and I can just kiss my undergraduate life goodbye.

Of course, I have a final exam THIS semester, happening one week from today... so I better keep my mind on the present, for now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New paper on the chimpanzees by ASU Prof

I just posted over at an overview of a new paper entitled "Genetic structure of chimpanzee populations." It finds that the three large populations of chimps in Africa are not just separated by geographic features, but are in fact different genetic populations (and that the taxonomic designation of each of them as a subspecies is entirely valids).

One of the co-authors is Dr. Anne C. Stone, a member of the faculty here at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dig Vicariously in Mesoamerica

If you want to look over the shoulders of a team of archaeologists excavating in Mesoamerica, then you should hop over to the Blog for the 2007 field season at Calixtlahuaca.

Dr. Michael Smith from Arizona State University is leading the multi-year project, and is one of the primary contributors to the blog.

A Postclassic urban center, the site is of particular interest because it includes well-preserved public architecture and residential zones.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the likely ancient name for the city, which Smith says was populated by non-Nahuatl speakers (the language of the Aztecs).

One last note: the site of Calixtlahuaca is the source of one of the only suspected European artifacts discovered in a precolumbian New World context: the Roman Figurine. Most agree that it is not a Roman artifact, but Romeo Hristov at the University of New Mexico hasn't given up hope.

[I've also posted this item at]

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mesoamerican Tidbits: Did the Toltecs Rule an Empire?

Aztec writings and traditions tell of the hallowed Toltecs-- the builders of a nearly ideal empire whose art, science, ceremony, and mastery of the region were unequaled.

The Florentine Codex spoke glowingly of the Tolteca:

"Their works were all good, all perfect, all wonderful, all marvelous... These Tolteca were righteous. They were not deceivers. Their words clear words... They were tall; they were larger... They were very devout... They were rich."

The Toltecs were credited by the Aztecs with inventing the art of medicine, as well as inventing the Mesoamerican calendar. All Aztec nobles by birth claimed their legitimacy by tracing their ancestry to the Toltecs.

Archaeologists for many years accepted the idea that Tollan (now known as Tula) was the capitol of a large empire which controlled much of northern Mesoamerica. Archaeological finds of art across the region bearing clear Toltec influence, combined with uncanny architectural similaries in far-away Chichen Itza and Guatemalan oral histories claiming Toltec ancestry, all seemed to be sufficient evidence to corroborate the Aztec accounts.

Evidence of Empire

But is there sufficient evidence that Tula was the seat of power for a far-reaching empire?

While many archaeologists and ethnohistorians continue to accept the Toltec empire without question, a growing number of noted scholars see no real evidence that the Toltecs militarily dominated a large area. It seems clear that the Toltec traded across large distances, and may also have been responsible for spreading the cult of Quetzalcoatl, but the area of their political influence was actually quite small (Smith and Montiel, 2001).

One of the biggest arguments made by supporters of a Toltec empire involves the Toltec "conquest" of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Mayan legend in the Yucatan tells of a king Quezalcoatl from Tollan who conquered Chichen Itza, and remade the city center to look like his old home. This story fits well with the striking and uniquely shared architectural features of the ceremonial centers of both Tula and Chichen Itza, and easily supported the empire theory. The big problem is that recent dating of materials associated with the decline of Chichen Itza place them squarely in the Classic period, while Tula is a post-Classic site. In other words, if there was any copying of architecture, it happened the other way around!

Then Why All the Fuss?

So, if there was no Toltec empire, why did the Aztecs make such a big deal about them?

The Mexica (as the Aztecs called themselves) arrived in the Valley of Mexico well after many other groups in the post-Classic period. They were poor, and only managed to survive by hiring on as mercenaries to one of the larger city states in the valley. Over time, they pulled themselves up from their humble beginnings, building a town which would one day become the center of their empire.

Most of the people living in the central highlands of Mexico proudly claimed the Toltecs as their ancestors, including the Mexica. As their ambitions grew, so did the picture they painted of the Toltecs. If the Mexica were destined to rule a great empire, then the legitimacy to do so must be great, as well. By portraying the Toltecs as being much more than they really were, it helped to sell the idea that their descendants, the Mexica, were destined to be just as great.

Remember Bernardino de Sahagun's entry in the Florentine Codex? He never saw the Toltec-- he only heard about them from the Mexica: "Their works were all good, all perfect, all wonderful, all marvelous..." It certainly sounds too good to be true, especially for an empire that rose and fell in just 250 years. But it made a good story for the Aztecs to tell to the people from whom they were demanding tribute.

If you want to read more, take a look at the paper below by Michael Smith and Lisa Montiel. They have built a model for evaluating whether a polity was or was not an empire.


Sahagun, FB (1950-1982) Florentine Codex, General history of the things in New Spain. School of American Research and the Univ of Utah Press, Sante Fe/Salt Lake City.

Smith ME and Montiel L (2001) the Archaeological Study of Empires and Imperialism in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico. J Anthropological Archaeology, 20:245-284.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mesoamerican Tidbits: The Fall of Teotihuacan

If you are ever in or near Mexico City, you would be foolish not to visit the great city of Teotihuacan (a Nahuatl name given to the old city by the Aztecs). The largest urban center in pre-colombian Mesoamerica, it may have hosted a population as large as 200,000. For a thousand years this orderly, planned capitol of an influential empire dominated the highlands of what is now central Mexico.

Around 500-600 CE, the city's population was in decline, and by 800 CE the monumental center of the empire was largely abandoned. Conventional thinking among Mesoamerican scholars has for years lay the blame at the feet of invaders from the North (perhaps even the Tolteca), relying on extensive evidence of burned structures which hinted at a sacking of the city.

More recent excavations which focused on modest structures in the area show no burning, suggesting that internal conflict between nobles and commoners may have culminated in the elite leaders being run off by their subjects.

I find it ironic that the typical bias of early archaeologists to only excavate monumental architecture led to a mistaken conclusion that all of Teotihuacan had burned, when in reality only the structures associated with the elite class fell victim to fire (photo courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Two Hearths for the Price of One?

Well, it seems that a communications breakdown has led to two (nearly) simultaneous releases of the current edition of the Four Stone Hearth.

Hot Cup of Joe acted as a last-minute fill-in yesterday, but today we are greeted by the actual carnival as originally scheduled at Boas Blog.

Enjoy the bountiful crop, and read 'em both.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Mesoamerican Tidbits: Etymology

This semester, I'm taking ASB 322 Peoples of Mesoamerica from Dr. John K. Chance, a long-time expert in the indigenous cultures of central Mexico. It is not an archaeology class, but rather an ethnohistorical view of the peoples living in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala today.

Each time I learn something unexpected (and somewhat interesting) about Mesoamerica, I plan to post it here. Experts in Mexico or Mesoamerica will say "well, duh," but those of you who have known only a little about the region might learn somethin new and surprising (as I have).


You certainly know words from other languages that have made their way into English-- words such as cockroach ("cucaracha" in Spanish) or balcony ("balcone" in Italian).

Dr. Chance surprised our class today by sharing a brief list of English words which originated in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs (among others):

  • tomato (tomatl)

  • chocolate (chocolatl)

  • avocado (aguacatl)

  • coyote (coyotl)

  • mesquite (mizquitl)

You can find several more here.

Nahuatl is an Uto-Aztecan language, still spoken by over a million people in Mexico today (see map above). Mexican Spanish has incorporated many Nahuatl words, particularly place names.

Several languages spoken by Native Americans across the American West are also Uto-aztecan (e.g. Paiute, Shoshoni, Commanche, Tohono O'odham).

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

7th Edition of the Four Stone Hearth is up!

...and I am again absent from the contributor list. I'm disappointed in myself, but you won't be disappointed in the wonderful collection of anthropological posts you'll find at Aardvarchaeology today. I love the name of Dr. Martin Rundkvist's site over at ScienceBlogs!