Anna C. Roosevelt is the Curator of Archaeology at The Field Museum, and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Roosevelt earned her B.A. degree in History from Stanford University in 1968, and her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia in 1977. She has authored numerous books, monographs, and scientific articles on archaeological topics, and serves on various editorial boards including Latin American Antiquity. Dr. Roosevelt’s research focuses on the changing relationship of humans and their environments. Since 1983, she has conducted a research project in the Brazilian Amazon, where she is perhaps best known for her discoveries at Pedra Pintada, a site first occupied 11,000 years ago by some of the earliest Americans. She is currently working in the Congo Basin of central Africa.
Dr. Roosevelt was the Awards Banquet Keynote Speaker at the 2000 SCA Annual Meeting in Riverside. This interview with Dr. Roosevelt was made possible through the efforts of SCA members Breck Parkman and C. Kristina Roper. (Photo of Anna C. Roosevelt and Breck Parkman Copyright 2000 by Trudy Haversat and Gary S. Breschini).
SCA: When did you first become interested in archaeology?
AR: I first became interested about age 9, when I took a trip with my mother, grandfather, and sisters to Mesa Verde, CO. There I saw Esther (a mummy) in the museum, and the cliff dwellings, and artifacts. I also read a children’s book based on Roy Chapman Andrew’s Dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert and C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, and Scholars. What I liked about Andrew’s book was the way the dried-up, red soil with broken chips of dinosaur egg could be interpreted to give a vivid picture of a cool swamp where a mother dino brooding over her eggs was attacked by a predator (supposedly). Ceram’s book intrigued me as a child because of the story of the Rosetta stone and its role in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
SCA: Did you ever consider a career other than that of archaeologist?
AR: Never seriously. Earlier, when I was five, I thought of policeman, fireman, and doctor, but they faded when I got interested in archaeology. I should explain that I think I was rather confused about what paleontology and archaeology were. What I was interested in at 9 had both dinosaurs and pyramids in it.
SCA: What do you like to do when you’re not working? [i.e., what are your hobbies, do you follow or participate in sports, enjoy gardening, cooking, traveling, etc.]
AR: I seem to like to do nearly everything. Can just living be considered a hobby? I like to swim, dig shellfish, fish (I grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where fishing is everyone’s favorite past-time), play badminton, hike, climb mountains, run, lift weights, garden (especially old roses and clematis), have picnics and cookouts, and cultivate vegetables. I like architectural history and decorative arts. I like 19th century literature and culture. I love to cook simple things for friends and family. I like animals and to visit zoos and farms. I like to raise animals and birds. I’m interested in botany and herbal medicine, soils, and geology.
SCA: While archaeologists are generally adventurous by nature, most work in more tame environments than Amazonia and the tropical forests of Africa. Did being a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt help shape your views of the world and give you a desire for adventure?
AR: No. He seemed just a stout, kindly old great-grandfather (and long dead) to me, I’m afraid, and not terribly inspiring to an eager nine-year-old. The families of famous people often have quite a different view of them than the public. (Remember, he really only went on a couple of safaris, complete with crates of champagne. He’s lauded for those few trips because he was a famous president, not because they were important expeditions or because he was a great explorer. It’s good to keep things in perspective.) My inspiration came from my indefatigable, b-minded mother, and perhaps also from my great aunts and grandmothers. They all traveled the world and feared nothing. My mother, a painter, student of Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City, was a lover of archaeology. She took us to many archaeological sites as we were growing up and always encouraged my interest in the subject.
SCA: What do you enjoy most about archaeology?
AR: I like the process of research and discovery. I love settling down in an archive or museum collection to see what’s there and what it might mean. I love following the trail of an idea, searching for sites. Survey is one of the great experiences. Perhaps most satisfying is the process of digging for days, weeks, and months, searching to understand the layers and objects. And I love the drama and suspense of waiting for the radiocarbon dates to be run to find out what the history of the site was.
SCA: Who were the archaeologists and others whom most influenced your career?
AR: Junius Bird was my first mentor. I worked with him as a college-age, summer volunteer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My great aunt Ethel introduced me to him. He was gentle and kind, humorous, and very knowledgeable. He would sit in the lab and hold forth for hours about this site or that, or this object or that, of this scandalous archaeologist of that. I and the other interns were always riveted. I also was helped very much by Gary Vescelius, also of the Museum, and Ben Rouse at Yale.
SCA: What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
AR: I am working on the peopling of the Americas, still, and on the history of human occupation in Amazonia. I also am working on a new problem: the role of tropical rainforests in human evolution in Africa. I am doing fieldwork both in Amazonia and in the Congo Basin, Africa. I hope sooner or later to do some digging in southern Baja California, where I’ve surveyed some interesting sites. I’ll be very interested in what Matthew des Lauriers finds in northwest Baja for his dissertation.
SCA: What do you consider to be some of the most important discoveries made in New World archaeology in recent years?
AR: I think that the discovery in Peru of preceramic complex societies with essentially nonagricultural subsistence was very important. Researchers who contributed to this insight include Junius Bird, Mike Moseley, Jeff Quilter, John Rick, Frederick Engel, and Richie Burger. I also think that the discovery of maritime foragers in Peru and in California between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago is very important, John Erlandson, Susan de France, Mike Moseley, Daniel Sandweiss did some of this work.
SCA: If you could figure out one thing about the past, what would it be?
AR: I want to better understand the way foragers live, organize themselves, and interact with each other. I want to know more about their crafts and subsistence methods.
SCA: What is the primary importance of your work at Pedra Pintada?
AR: Pedra Pintada, parallel with the discoveries on the west coast of South America, showed a different and somewhat unexpected type of terminal Pleistocene culture. The people who lived in the cave gathered nuts and fruits, fished and collected shellfish, turtles, tortoises, and frogs, and caught small animals, not big game. They also painted in caves and on rock surfaces out in the open. With this site and all the others in Brazil, we have a picture showing much more heterogeneous Paleoindian cultures than envisioned in the Clovis model. In fact, nowadays, Clovis looks more like a regional specialization than the ancestor, since few or no South American cultures were specialized big game hunters, and there are now many sites throughout the hemisphere that, like Pedra Pintada, are the same age as Clovis: about 11,200 to 10,800 years old, and very different in culture.
SCA: What do you feel are the common goals of archaeologists and indigenous peoples?
AR: Archaeologists relate to the interests of indigenous peoples in several ways. Archaeologists need indigenous peoples for their skill and knowledge in their cultures. On the other hand, indigenous people need archaeologists to show how their earlier ancestors lived. In Amazonia, for example, the Kayapo chiefs were fascinated in our results from digging in the mounds of Marajo Island because it showed them a rich culture that had not previously been bly linked to them. They said to me about the Marajoara culture, “This is fantastic. This is our ancestral culture.” Archaeologists and native people together, also, can document how people interacted with environments over the long term. Conservation biologists have promoted the idea of the virgin environment, vulnerable to damage by native people, and some argued that the people should be removed from land for conservation purposes. However, archaeologists and indigenous people have access to the knowledge that their interaction with environments is a kind of co-evolution, in which both sides influence each other. People adapt to environments but they also change them. There are no virgin environments on earth in areas where people lived.
SCA: What advice would you offer women considering a career in archaeology?
AR: I would advise women to ignore anyone who attempts to discourage them, not to listen to anyone who tells them they might be unsuited to a career in archaeology. Archaeology is a great field for women. Women, often very persistent and hard-working, tend to do well in long-term research. Women, often not integrated into traditional power structures, may be more independent than men in academe. Women also tend to do well in interactions with local, rural people, who may be more suspicious of foreign men. I’ve not even had much problem with government bureaucracies. People are pretty nice, in general. Those who have a problem with women for some reason are few and far between.
SCA: What do you see as the major challenges facing archaeology at the millennium?
AR: Archaeology needs to get its information out to the public and to other scientists. The danger I see is that the value of their information is not being recognized. Thus, systematic studies of human remains are being ignored in the debates about the peopling of the Americas even though they have important relevant information. For example, Joe Powell’s research comparing Paleoindian, Archaic, and Amerindian skeletal remains shows continuity between the three, indicating that they are linked in an evolutionary process. This insight has not been dealt with in the public discussion about Paleoindian origins. In addition, much of evolutionary biology ignores the evidence from archaeology, which is needed to correct its concepts of the past. As another example, conservation biologists and development experts rarely look to archaeology to test their ideas about past land use and environment and the potential impact of particular land uses on long-term environmental conservation. Better integration of prehistory in such work would make the work more effective in planning for the future.
SCA: Looking ahead to the year 2050, what do you think archaeological text books will say about the peopling of the Americas?
AR: The big-game hunting culture would no longer be considered the archetypal culture of the first people. Also, discoveries at new sites would have revealed some achievements only suspected nowadays, such as boats, carvings, textiles, pottery, and cultigens. The links to northeast Asian coastal Old World ancestors would have been firmly established through DNA analysis of skeletons.
SCA: What can archaeology offer the future?
AR: Archaeology’s great usefulness is that it offers a view into the process of history, of change through time. So many fields operate with theories based on undocumented assumptions about what happened in the past in relation to today. Biogeography, for example, or evolutionary sociobiology. What archaeology can do is test those assumptions. It can show what certain regions were like at certain times and what earlier peoples were like, in this way checking the principles of important theories that are being used to guide the future. Through archaeology, the past can contribute to useful knowledge for the future of the world.
Today I think that archaeology is of importance in demonstrating diversity in an increasingly globalised world. But of course, the other, dangerous side of archaeology is the way it has been used to prop up nationalism and genocide. Today it is part of global, national and ethnic conflict wherever one looks. For me the great failure is still that archaeologists, however unwittingly, often collude in such processes of identity formation. The underlying difficulty is that we have not sufficiently argued against the idea that the past is something that can be owned. And we have not sufficiently shown to disadvantaged groups across the world how archaeology can play a beneficial role – although great strides have been made in this area in recent decades.