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Washington State University
CAS Connect September 2015

In Motion: Erin Thornton, real-life adventurer

Erin Thornton
Erin Thornton

What ancient people ate reveals a great deal about the way they lived, says Erin Thornton, assistant professor of anthropology. She recently discovered 2,000-year-old turkey bones in Guatemala that suggest the Maya people participated in an extensive trade network through which they obtained domestic food animals up to 1,000 years earlier than archaeologists previously thought.

Thornton’s work in environmental archeology focuses on New World societies, including cultures from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, the Caribbean, and the southeastern United States. She founded and directs WSU’s Anthropology Stable Isotope Prep Laboratory, where she and her students use sophisticated isotopic analyses to unravel secrets hidden in ancient bits of bone, teeth, shells, plants, and hair.

What influenced you to join WSU faculty in 2013?

I was attracted to WSU because the University has specialized resources, such as mass spectrometers and comparative skeletal collections that I need to conduct my research.

How did you get into environmental archeology?

I started as an English major at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn., but took quite a few anthropology classes due to a lifelong interest in archaeology. By the end of my sophomore year, I still hadn’t decided on a major but knew I wanted to study abroad. I had largely decided on a program focused on Celtic literature in Ireland when I came across an interdisciplinary program on the cultural and natural ecology of Belize. It focused strongly on experiential learning, and either camping or staying with host families while we explored ancient Maya ruins, hiked through the country’s lush tropical rainforests, and immersed ourselves in Belize’s impressive cultural diversity. After this trip I returned to school, declared myself an anthropology major, and never looked back. It was absolutely pivotal to getting me where I am today.

Erin Thornton, Uxmal, Mexico
Thornton on an archaeological site in Uxmal, Mexico.

What interests you about ancient turkey bones?

The turkey is the only vertebrate animal domesticated by prehistoric populations in North and Central America. As such, understanding when, where, and how the turkey was domesticated can tell us a lot about past human subsistence and human–environment interactions. Within archaeology, plant and animal domestication is an important topic because the transition to food production caused major transitions in human society. These included faster population growth, greater environmental impacts, and increased social inequality. For my current research, we’re using ancient DNA from archeological turkey bones gathered at sites across Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to determine when domestic turkeys were first introduced to and widely adopted by the ancient Maya.

What does the Anthropology Stable Isotope Prep Lab do?

Working primarily with archaeological specimens between a few hundred to several thousand years old, we prepare the samples for stable isotope analysis on various WSU mass spectrometers to reconstruct what people and animals ate in the past and to determine where they came from and what the environment was like. Isotopes are forms of elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen, that are absorbed by plants and animals over their lifetime and stored in their tissues. The results of these analyses can be surprising. For example, some people were skeptical that common, large-bodied animals such as white-tailed deer were traded by the ancient Maya, but the isotopic data suggested that such trade has been under-estimated. I love being able to take an established idea and put it to the test.

Why is environmental archaeology important to modern society?

Environmental archaeology provides temporal depth to our understanding of human-environment interactions. It tells us about how human societies have been shaped by past climatic and environmental conditions, and how we’ve in turn used and impacted the environments we live in. Some aspects of environmental archaeology also have direct relevance to modern environmental challenges, such as climate change, deforestation, and over-hunting.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The things I love best are the freedom to explore questions and topics I’m interested in, learning something new every day, and the opportunity to share my interests with students. As an instructor, teaching is also about learning, of course, and I enjoy the challenge of exploring new ways of presenting or understanding topics I teach.

Is archaeology as exciting as the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies suggest?

I would be lying if I said the Indiana Jones movies in no way influenced my interest in archaeology. Archaeological field research can have its fair share of real-life adventures. However, archaeology is a lot more like very detailed detective work than swashbuckling adventure, and much of our work takes place in the lab analyzing artifacts and in front of a computer writing and crunching data. With that said, I think handling artifacts that haven’t been touched by another human being for hundreds or even thousands of years, and potentially discovering something new about past societies, is just as exciting—and much safer—than many fictional tales.

Snapshot: Department of Anthropology

The Department of Anthropology is devoted to the study of human beings and human societies, past and present.

Its 20 nationally and internationally recognized faculty utilize DNA and isotopic analysis, computer modeling and immersive first-hand investigations to explore the unwritten past that accounts for over 99 percent of all human existence. Research in the department is broadly divided into four categories: bioanthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics.


WSU Anthropology Museum display - Elwha
An exhibit in the WSU Anthropology Museum

Faculty and graduate students work all over the globe, from remote areas in Africa and Polynesia to the Indian subcontinent, Asia, and the Americas. Their interests range from modeling ancient climates in the American Southwest to studying the influence of Buddhist mindfulness in Vietnam.

The Department of Anthropology includes state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Stable Isotope Prep Laboratory, Geoarchaeology Laboratory, and Lithic Analysis Laboratory where researchers use genetic, sedimentary, and zooarcheological analysis to study ancient artifacts.

Students can gain hands-on experience though volunteer work in the Museum of Anthropology. The museum is an official repository for archaeological collections generated by federal, state, and county agencies in eastern Washington. It houses a collection of objects representative of the culture of Native American tribes in the Inland Northwest since contact with Europeans.

The department offers a weekly colloquium series and publishes an annual newsletter.

Degrees Offered

  • Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology
  • Minor in Anthropology
  • Master of Arts
    • Archaeology
    • Cultural Anthropology
    • Evolutionary Anthropology
  • PhD
    • Archaeology
    • Cultural Anthropology
    • Evolutionary Anthropology

Anthropology by the numbers (AY 2015)

  • Faculty: 20
  • Instructors: 3
  • Graduate students: 73
  • Total student credit hours: 12,610