ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Emily Jones makes no bones about the fact that when she enrolled at Vassar College in 1992, she was clueless regarding anthropology.
“I don’t think I even knew what anthropology was,” Jones said. “I should have known because I’ve always been interested in history and other cultures and languages and biology. But at the time, I had no idea.”
It’s a surprising thing to hear, because I am visiting with Jones in her office in the University of New Mexico’s Anthropology Annex building. She is an assistant professor of anthropology and has been a member of the UNM faculty for four years.
Now, she not only knows about anthropology but plenty about bones. Bones, from tiny fragments to honking, big jawbones, fill her lab, also in the Anthro Annex building.
“I am a zooarchaeologist,” she said. “I look at animal bones at archaeology sites to find out how humans changed environments and how humans changed with environments.”
In New Mexico, she is studying the effects of European contact during the early Spanish colonial period. In France and Spain, she is looking into the hunting of small prey during the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 to 10,000 years ago) and early Mesolithic periods (10,000 to 8,000 years ago). Animal bones help Jones understand what people were eating.
In her New Mexico research, she is trying to find out whether people were eating more of the wild animals native to the area or more of the domestic animals introduced by the Spanish. Her studies of prehistoric Europe are aimed at discovering whether people were eating large animals or small animals.
“The Spanish changed the landscape here when they came,” Jones said. “They brought sheep, cattle and goats.
“But in Europe, I think the change was climatic. Before the climate change, people were eating larger things – red deer (elk), reindeer, horse. After things warmed up, they were hunting smaller animals – rabbits. I actually think these smaller animals were not there before the climate change. They needed a warmer climate to live.”
Jones was born in Costa Rica during one of her father’s two tours with the Peace Corps in that country, and she grew up in Philadelphia and Connecticut. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Vassar and a master’s and doctorate in anthropology from the University of Washington.
To hear her now, you would not think she entered Vassar as a theater and English literature major.
“I thought I wanted to be an actor, but I believed I would wind up being a teacher,” she said. “I honestly think it was the literature I loved so much.”
She might not have been turned on to anthropology and archaeology at all if she had not been bored silly by a Vassar psychology class. She dropped the psych class and signed up for a class on the archaeology of Egypt that a friend was taking.
The archaeology teacher was Walter A. Fairservis, a near-legendary authority on the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. His travels had taken him to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and some of the more remote areas of the world.
“He told these amazing stories about working in the field,” Jones said. “It was a mind-blowing experience and just so much fun. Halfway through the class, I knew I was an anthropology major. I was hooked.”
Part of what hooked her was the romance of the field work, the adventure stuff. But there was more to it than that.
“It was the challenge of figuring out ancient people’s lives,” she said. “That problem solving really was true, and I loved it.”
She volunteered to help Vassar professor Anne Pike-Tay with her research about hunting habits in the Neanderthal period compared with those of early modern humans.
“That was my first hands-on experience,” Jones said. “Walter Fairservis told stories. With Anne, it was the nitty-gritty, grinding reindeer teeth in the lab.”
In the summer of 1994, Jones was in a party of 12 Vassar students and a professor who spent eight weeks on Chernabura, an island in the Aleutians.
“It was a wild experience,” she said. “To get there, we had to hire a fishing boat. At age 19, we are all wondering ‘What if he never comes back?’ It was very exciting.”
The island’s summer temperatures ranged from 40 to 50 degrees, it rained most of the time and tsunamis were a constant threat.
“We knew there had been a prehistoric site there, and we were excavating to find out the adaptations needed to live there,” she said.
Most of what the team recovered on Chernabura were stone tools. There were no bones to speak of because they decomposed in the island’s acidic soil.
“In archaeological world, people find out they have an affinity for stone or for bone,” she said. “For me, it’s bone because bone is a connection to the biological world I have always liked.” And because bones stir her imagination.
“I like trying to imagine the landscapes people lived in,” she said. “I like the idea that the world looked different then.”
UpFront is a daily page one news and opinion column. You can reach Journal reporter Ollie Reed Jr. at email@example.com.