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“Holy cow, this is huge!” Crouched in a trench dug to excavate a Hohokam dwelling more than 600 years old, Professor Jim Watson shares his find, sweeping dirt from the edges of a large mammal bone, perhaps a deer.

The dig site, on 13 acres of University of Arizona land in the Tanque Verde Valley, is one of the few well-preserved Hohokam villages remaining, and its accessibility to UA researchers and students makes the School of Anthropology’s Indian Ruins complex a unique treasure.

Dating from early to late classic periods, roughly 1200 to 1500, approximately 1,000 people lived in the village, dwelling in adobe complexes surrounding a central platform mound. The Hohokam settled the desert Southwest for about a millennium, close to the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Hohokam were farmers who hunted sparingly, so bones from big game are rare discoveries.

Watson, UA assistant professor of anthropology and assistant curator of bioarchaeology at the Arizona State Museum, and student researchers recently explored an area of the settlement “absolutely chock-full of artifacts,” he says. They unearthed about 50 pieces of obsidian, large pot shards, tiny shell fragments, fire-cracked rocks, and bases of bowls and pots.

Anthropology professors Paul and Suzanne Fish, also curators at the Arizona State Museum, are leading a new era of excavation in the complex, donated to the UA by Dorothy Knipe in 1934. The ruins were excavated in the 1930s, but otherwise preserved until exploratory digging began in 2007, which led to the start of a new field school this semester.

“Because the university owns the property and has kept it safe, it’s still available to study,” Fish says. Sixteen students worked on the dig during the spring semester, earning six credits each, as they learned how to excavate the ruins and evaluate found artifacts.

“I’ve learned more here in the field school than I have my entire time in anthropology classes,” says senior Ariel Myers. “It’s a great opportunity to make connections with faculty and it’s a great resource.”

The original adobe buildings, constructed to provide lab space and a caretaker’s house used for the excavation efforts in the 1930s, were recently renovated using $500,000 of an $8 million gift from A. Richard Diebold Jr., professor emeritus of anthropology.

Toughing It in Tibet and Mongolia

As early humans moved around the globe, some settled in areas that were among the least hospitable, carving out an arduous existence with few resources. An international archaeology project centered at the University of Arizona is working to understand what drove humans to the fierce climates of Tibet and Mongolia, and how their cultures developed in the era before Buddhism came to dominate the region about 2,000 years ago.

“I’m interested in what we might call human adaptation to extreme environments, like high altitude and deserts. Central Asia is an interesting place to look at because you have both,” says Regents’ Professor of Anthropology John W. Olsen.

Olsen is the executive director of the Je Tsongkhapa Endowment for Central and Inner Asian Archaeology at the UA. He began research in the region in the mid-1980s, focusing on the Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago, when the world’s population was roughly 10 million.

“These were foraging people, so they were very mobile. Environments like the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert may have been attractive to people living in that mode of subsistence, perhaps because of the relatively low competition for resources,” Olsen says.

Because the logistics of travel make it impossible to adequately research both areas in one season, Olsen’s team alternates summers researching in Tibet and Mongolia. This summer, the researchers and students will be in southwest Tibet, looking for evidence of how, when, and why the people first moved onto the Tibetan Plateau.

“What it boils down to is spending as much time in the field as possible, literally on the ground,” Olsen says. “We’re trying to unpack what we find in the sparse artifacts. The goal is to use these archaeological traces to understand how Tibetan and Mongolian cultures changed, and, ultimately, why they changed.”

The field study location in Tibet is a seven-day drive from the nearest airport, and the researchers have to bring in all the water, food, and other supplies necessary for a dozen people to live and work for six weeks.

Olsen’s project, which includes colleagues at a number of other universities, receives financial support through multiple sources, including federal funds. For the UA, core funding comes from the Je Tsongkhapa (named after the 14th-century Tibetan Buddhist scholar) Endowment. Created in 2004, the endowment provides researchers with a consistent and reliable stream of money to cover travel and supplies for the excavation trips.

“One of the ongoing problems at all state universities, not just the University of Arizona, is inadequate funding for students participating in research. In order to attract and retain the very best students here, we have to overcome that challenge,” Olsen says.

“One major benefit of the Je Tsongkhapa Endowment is to give our project a reliable income stream for students to participate. It really makes a difference.”

Published in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Alumnus.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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