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Archaeologist fuses anthropological approaches

October 02, 2008

Arizona State University doctoral student Scott Ortman, a rising star in the field of Southwest archaeology, is helping to close the gap between theory and data with his training in quantitative and qualitative work and his skillful way of linking the two. 

“A perennial problem in archaeology is that we have many interesting theoretical ideas – for example, how humans perpetuate material traditions – but we often do not know how to apply that theory to our data, such as counts of potsherds,” states archaeologist Michelle Hegmon, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Human Evolution and Social Change and chair of Ortman’s committee.  

According to Hegmon, Ortman’s dissertation – titled Genes, Language and Culture in Tewa Ethnogenesis – and the way he prepared for it exemplify new directions in teaching and research.  

Centering on the migration of people from the Mesa Verde region in the 13th century A.D., the project tackles a classic archaeological problem: Is recent human diversity the result of correlated or independent change in genes, language and culture? Ortman is addressing this research from a broad perspective that crosscuts the traditional subfields of anthropology and combines it with powerful quantitative approaches. He is investigating changes in genes (bioarchaeology), language (linguistic anthropology) and material culture (archaeology) to take a fresh look at the migration of a particular group over time to see whether there are predictable conditions under which genes, language and culture travel together. 

Investigating an ancient mystery 

“I’m studying the role of large-scale population movements in generating human diversity,” says Ortman. “Existing models in archaeology tend to view the social consequences of migration as being governed by the ‘social kinetics’ of the situation—the relative size of the immigrant vs. local population, the size of migrating groups, the pace of movement, etc. This leads to the assumption that, when immigrants outnumbered locals, it should be pretty easy to identify where they came from.” 

But Ortman’s subject doesn’t fit this model. As he explains, “What I’ve found is that the genes and language of the Tewa-speaking pueblos of New Mexico derived almost exclusively from the Mesa Verde area of southwestern Colorado, but their material culture derived largely from local New Mexico antecedents. In fact, the disjunction in material culture between the Mesa Verde homeland and the New Mexico destination is so complete that, using only archaeological evidence, one would be hard-pressed to argue that a migration between the two areas even occurred.”  

Ortman has come to realize that such problems are only difficult to fathom when viewed through the “social kinetics” lens.

“Why should we assume that migrants necessarily want to do things as they have always done?” he asks. “Of course they do in some cases, but in others, social change may be the reason for moving. Archaeologists are finding more and more ways that the pueblos encountered by the earliest Spanish explorers differed from the earlier pueblo societies of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Perhaps these differences were intentional and resulted from the collective and conscious choices of people who vacated the Ancestral Pueblo area over the course of the 13th century.” Ortman is enthused about the implications of this scenario for archaeology and human evolution. 

Looking across approaches 

Ortman’s training in multiple methodologies allows him to explore anthropological issues—such as the Mesa Verde migration—from various perspectives. The flexible, interdisciplinary nature of ASU’s doctoral program in anthropology enabled him to assemble an extraordinary team of faculty renowned for their expertise in their respective subdisciplines. Along with Hegmon, Ortman works with National Academy of Science member Jane Buikstra and assistant professor Chris Stojanowski, specialists in bioarchaeology, and Elizabeth Brandt, professor of linguistics and sociocultural anthropology.

Brandt is excited about Ortman’s research because “it involves the application of cognitive linguistic theory to archaeology, which is highly innovative.” She adds, “I know of no one else who has used this theory as productively as Scott has in archaeology. His current research is also very interesting, as he is crossing several disciplines and subdisciplines to bring the power of those theories and methods to bear on a major research question.”  

Ortman has made significant contributions to the field of anthropology. “In articles published in our field’s flagship journal, American Antiquity, Scott has developed empirical methods that allow him to apply linguistic and metaphor theory to interpret pottery design change, and he has used Bayesian empirical methods—mathematical concepts that combine rational inference and physical causality—to analyze survey data, thereby interpreting major changes in settlement,” says Hegmon. 

Due to graduate by May 2009, Ortman is already a well-published and respected researcher. While completing his dissertation, he is serving as acting director of research at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, one of the premier archaeological research facilities in the nation. His long list of accomplishments includes a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship and the Ruppé Prize for the best student paper in archaeology—an award usually reserved for senior students that Ortman managed to earn in the first year of his master’s program. Most recently, Ortman was awarded a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies Early Career Fellowship Program.

Rebecca Howe,
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
(480) 727-6577