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Piecing history together

Anthropology professors Todd and Christine VanPool use a hands-on approach

Photograph courtesy of TODD VANPOOL

Todd and Christine VanPool work with their students to research prehistoric societies in Deming, N.M.

March 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Todd and Christine VanPool aren’t a traditional couple. While others enjoy the first days of their marriage sightseeing or lying on a beach, the VanPools spent theirs taking tree samples on a Navajo reservation.
The couple met at Eastern New Mexico University in 1989 and fell in love over their shared interests of ancient worlds and the school’s rifle team. Now, the parents of two work together as professors of anthropology at MU. But their teaching isn’t all about books; it’s really about the hands-on experience.
For the past four summers, the two have been working with students in Mexico and New Mexico. They give them hands-on experience while researching the evolution of prehistoric societies. “When I’m doing my research down there, I’m asking some historical questions, and I’m getting some historical answers in terms of what happened, when it happened and who did what,” Todd says. “But there’s a more significant thing that I’m generating, and that is to increase the knowledge of how culture’s transmitted between people and the actual development of culture among humans.”
This research is used to recognize patterns in how societies develop. By identifying the factors that altered the past, anthropologists can examine how culture developed in prehistoric times. After identifying how it evolved, they can begin to understand how our culture might be changing today.
That is what the VanPools and their students are working toward. Todd helps students map out and excavate, which begins with creating a grid. “We start by shovel scraping, which is basically just taking flat-bladed shovels and slowly taking off the surface until we hit basically anything,” Philip Leflar, one of Todd’s students, says.
Leflar says much of what comes from these sites are mere shards, or pieces of ceramics, sometimes as small as a quarter of an inch. One alone doesn’t tell a lot, but take a few hundred, and there is a story. According to Leflar, the group recovered several thousand ceramic shards last summer. A single shard is made up of specific materials and has patterns that are indicative of a specific region. When all of the shards are gathered, they can then compare them to determine when different communities began communicating and trading with one another.
“If we really want to understand human behavior, we have to understand culture,” Todd says. “If we really want to understand culture, we have to understand the variations of human culture, and if we really want to understand that variation, we have to look at it archeologically.”

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