Spotlight On: The Department of Anthropology’s Past, Present and Future

by | Dec 13, 2019 | Features, Outreach & Impact

Image of bonesFifty years ago, the first human set foot on the moon in “one giant leap for mankind;” the Woodstock festival marked a pivotal moment in both music and culture; and ARPANET – the predecessor to the Internet – sent its first successful communication between two universities.

Here at the University of Arkansas, that same momentous year – 1969 – also marked the official founding of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Anthropology.

And while the department’s roots go back even further to the first anthropology courses taught at the U of A in the 1920s, one thing has remained very much the same – the faculty’s commitment to helping students better understand human similarities and differences through the study of world peoples, their ways of living, and their world views.

How It All Began

Portrait of Dellinger The university’s first anthropology courses included one taught by geologist Carey Croneis in the Department of Geology in 1924, and one taught in 1926 by Samuel C. Dellinger, who was then chair of the Department of Zoology and curator of the University Museum.

In a 1957 letter, Dellinger recalled, “I started anthropology here many years ago at the time the Scopes trial was going on in Dayton, Tennessee. The course that I offered was somewhat similar to that contained in Hooton’s Up From the Ape text book.”

In their history of the department’s founding, Hester A. Davis and Charles R. “Bob” McGimsey III state that Dellinger “intended his course to be a direct and open challenge” to a new Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution.

Dellinger even wrote the State Attorney General pointing out the content of the course he was teaching – risking a hefty $500 fine and firing. But the confrontation he hoped for never came, so he continued to teach physical anthropology and evolution.

“We were definitely founded by audacious, tough and rebellious leaders with a passion for anthropology,” said JoAnn D’Alisera, current chair of the Department of Anthropology. “Which is a really joyful part of our history.”

“They championed things that are still timely now, like factual and scientifically-derived knowledge,” added George Sabo III, current director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

“Dellinger in particular also really championed the public’s right to have access to information, and the right of every Arkansan to have direct access to the history of our state. I think that everybody that is part of the department today can and does to one degree or another draw inspiration from the people that were here before us,” he said.

The Early Years

Founding staffBy 1930, the university experienced an uptick in interest in anthropology and archeology courses, likely because of excavations happening in the bluff shelters of northwest Arkansas. By the late 30s, Dellinger was involved in the Works Progress Administration’s program that resulted in the excavation of sites in the Ouachita drainage, and the University Museum handled all the lab work for this program as well as became home to its collections.

One of Dellinger’s chief concerns became preventing “looters” and “outlanders” from removing “artifacts to institutions out of state.” He became a fierce advocate of preservation and in this way planted the first seeds of what would later become the department’s noted focus on public anthropology.

By the late 1940s, anthropology courses were also being taught in the Department of Sociology and the 1949-50 course catalog for the first time listed a major in anthropology requiring 24 hours of study in anthropology with the courses Social Anthropology, Indians of North America, and Anthropology and Archeology of North America as requisites.

Future courses would soon include Archeology of Mexico and Middle America, Archeological Field School, and Museum Methods. And by the time the 1956-57 academic year came, a now combined Department of Sociology and Anthropology existed.

Creating the Arkansas Archeological Survey

Image of Hester DavisIn 1957, Charles R. “Bob” McGimsey III joined the combined department, and he quickly began preparing proposals for a statewide archeological program centered at the University of Arkansas. While his initial attempts were unsuccessful, two years later Hester A. Davis joined the faculty and served as Museum Preparator.

The duo then worked together to broaden McGimsey’s initial proposal, and in 1967 the Arkansas legislature passed Act 39 to create the Arkansas Archeological Survey. An accompanying antiquities preservation bill also passed at the same time, as did an appropriation bill providing $125,000 in program funding – no small amount then.

The Survey created an inventive model, with research stations across the state, each staffed with an archeologist.

Davis would also go on to become Arkansas’ first State Archeologist in 1967 and was instrumental in creating far-reaching national public policy and conservation standards for cultural preservation, as well as helping to found professional groups and ethical standards in the field. She served in her state role until her retirement in 1999.

Likewise, McGimsey served as director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey from its founding through his retirement in 1990, helping the Survey to become a national model for state programs promoting archeological research, preservation and public education.

Sabo also credits the pair for putting University of Arkansas on the map for their venture into the new field of public archeology, which at the time mainly meant projects funded by the public.

“In other words, not confining the practice of archeology to academics, but reaching out to people who are interested in ancient history and citizens across the state to engage their support and efforts on a volunteer basis,” Sabo said. “Davis and McGimsey knew that if we could engage the interested citizenry of the state, we could do so much more.”

Sabo said the program “caught fire” across the nation, creating a national model and attracting more graduate students who wanted to specialize in public archeology.

Moving Toward an Independent Department

Image of Sugg, Davis and McGimseyDuring the late 1960s the pair, along with other faculty members, also started working to create an independent anthropology department to allow for further growth and support of the anthropology B.A. and M.A., the University Museum and the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Luckily, with the support of the dean, it was determined that “this is basically an administrative and operational change” since the course catalog already listed sociology and anthropology courses and majors separately and each area operated fairly independently.

So, on July 1, 1969, the Department of Anthropology officially came into being, boasting 27 declared undergraduate majors, nine graduate students, and McGimsey as its first chair.

“These people really valued the department, they really valued anthropology on this campus, they were committed to Arkansas, committed to public archeology, committed to making sure that anthropology had a place on this campus,” D’Alisera said.

Now emeritus professor Jerry Rose joined the university in 1976 and taught courses ranging from physical to cultural to medical anthropology, to human and forensic osteology, dental science and more.

He also served as the college’s pre-dental advisor for almost 40 years, in addition to prolific publishing and involvement in forensic cases while building the department’s biological anthropology concentration.

Rose, who also served two non-consecutive terms as chair, fondly remembers lots of social interaction between the new Department of Anthropology, the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the University Museum, especially when all three were located together in Hotz Hall.

He, too, credits the founding of the Survey and the department with putting anthropology in Arkansas on the map.

“The survey was an important step forward in the United States,” Rose said, because of the state support it received. “The laws protecting antiquities gained international renown, and the department’s forward-thinking and cultural resource management focus created a very intellectually stimulating environment.”

Heading into the Future

Image of MicroCT labWhile much has changed since then, the Department of Anthropology of today still focuses on three main areas of study – archeology, biological anthropology and cultural anthropology – though now offering both a B.S. and a B.A. option as well as M.A. and Ph.D. programs.

D’Alisera said that within the three main areas of study, the department’s faculty has particularly strong archeological expertise in the U.S. Southeast, the Great Plains, Mesoamerica and South America.

Archeological research focuses also include ethnohistory, quaternary environments, landscape archaeology, ground-based geophysical and satellite remote sensing, applications of geographic information systems technology (GIS), quantitative techniques, cultural ecology, geoarchaeology, paleoarchaeology, materials science, lithic analysis, ceramic analysis, historic archaeology, and public archaeology.

In biological anthropology – broadly defined as encompassing the present and past nature and evolution of humankind and other primates – D’Alisera said that faculty members have particularly strong expertise in dental anthropology, biomechanics and advanced quantitative techniques while being actively engaged in bioarcheological, paleontological, and ethnographic fieldwork across the globe.

The biological anthropology concentration also offers training in evolutionary theory, paleoanthropology, dental analysis, bioarcheology, comparative morphology and environmental adaptation, using advanced visualization techniques, GIS, dental histology, and comparative morphometrics.

“When I started, I was the only biological anthropologist and now we have seven faculty in this area,” Rose said. “We have several people who are very successful in working on research on possible hominids in Africa. A faculty member was recently in National Geographic with South African fossil finds. Others are doing really great work on jaw biomechanics and working on fossil science. Another faculty member just left to study the teeth of arctic animals.”

D’Alisera said that the department’s cultural anthropologists focus on issues including ethnicity, gender, class, religion, and public culture as shaped by history and migration.

Lee Town Archeology DigFaculty areas of expertise in cultural anthropology include North America, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, particularly the transnational and global forces that connect these areas. The concentration also offers training in popular memory, labor studies, material culture, religion, performance studies, sociolinguistics, and popular culture.

“Our department has always had a strong cross-disciplinary focus,” D’Alisera said. “We’ll continue to emphasize the importance of study in all three concentrations and we’ve really expanded our focus on area studies in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and indigenous peoples.”

However, D’Alisera said the core mission of the department is very much still linked to its founding charge to preserve and study the antiquities of Arkansas.

“This is a flagship state school and as part of our mission we need to have preservation of the past and the current moment in Arkansas always in mind. We won’t let that go,” D’Alisera said.

Rose said that his hope is that the department’s graduates are considered to be well-rounded and “go forward with a strong focus on teaching and mentoring, in addition of course, to research.”

“All our students are required to take some courses in archeology, biological anthropology and cultural anthropology, so they leave with at least some knowledge from each area, and I think that is really important,” Rose said.

Rose also credits the faculty with keeping the U of A’s Department of Anthropology on the national and international radar.

“Our faculty continue to be innovative in their respective fields,” Rose said. “Our department now is more than twice the size of its founding and the research productivity of the faculty is excellent.”

To learn more, visit the Department of Anthropology website, the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s website, and the University of Arkansas Museum’s website.

Andra Parrish Liwag

Director of Communications, J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences 

479-575-4393 //