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Siren Song of Digs, Dust and Discovery

by Mardy Fones No Comment

Tom Dillehay fell in love with a continent and uncovered new truths about the Americas.

Dillehay atop an early pyramid in the desert of Peru.

The seeds of his career started when Tom Dillehay was a child living on the same street as a professor of archeology at Southern Methodist University.

“I’d be walking by and see him in his garage where he had some doors set up on sawhorses and things laying on them,” says Dillehay, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Science. “One day, he called me over and asked me if I wanted to see what he was doing. The next year, he took me on my first dig.”

That experience started Dillehay on a career that has changed the way the world thinks about settlement of the Americas and has earned him innumerable National Science Foundation grants, Fulbright lectureships and teaching stints at 19 universities around the world. He has published 16 books, including three award-winning volumes, and more than 125 journal articles. In 2007, Dillehay was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With academic interests that include human migration, archaeology, and the transformative processes leading to state-level political and economic change, Dillehay is essentially a seeker of the small truths that alter understanding of people and their relationship to their world.

That’s an intriguing raison d’être for the man whose undergraduate degree in international relations led to a brief stint in law school before he succumbed to the siren song of digs, dust and discovery. “Even while I was in law school, I was still involved in archeology. Finally, I decided to go into anthropology. My dad, a petroleum engineer said, ‘What the hell are you doing that for?’” Dillehay says, adding with a smile. “He got over it.”

Anthropology Under Dictatorship

Armed with a Spanish fluency from growing up in Texas and taking trips to Mexico, Dillehay set his sights on South America. “Too many gringos in Mexico,” he quips. “I wanted to be more embedded in the local culture, which meant living with the local people and learning Quechua.” Through a graduate school mentor, he first went to the Peruvian highlands where he combined archeology, ethnology and ethnohistory in his doctoral study of Inca and early colonial sites.

In 1976, at the behest of the InterAmerican Development Bank, he went to Chile to build anthropology departments at the Pontificia Universidad de Chile and the Universidad Austral de Chile.

Two years earlier, Chilean President Augusto Pinochet had taken power. His dictatorship killed or drove many Chilean intellectuals out of the country, including anthropologists. Dillehay was charged with recruiting faculty to fill and rebuild the gutted programs.

“My work in Chile is one of the prouder parts of my career,” Dillehay says. They were difficult years as Dillehay worked on his thesis, advocated for indigenous people and often lived in fear. “Every time we went into the field, we had to leave our ID cards with the military police and tell them where we were going and what we were doing,” he says. “Then they’d come and hassle us.”

In Pinochet’s efforts to suppress leftists, thousands of people were reportedly killed, tortured or exiled. “There were killings in the indigenous populations and I reported them to international organizations,” Dillehay says grimly. “Because I was an American, the military thought I was working for the U.S. government and everyone else thought I was a leftist because I had long hair and a beard and I worked with the indigenous people.”

Excavation crews at Huaca Prieta, a temple pyramid on Peru’s north coast  dating between 4,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Excavation crews at Huaca Prieta, a temple pyramid on Peru’s north coast dating between 4,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Evidence of Earlier Habitation

While in Chile, Dillehay and others worked at Monte Verde, an archeological site in south-central Chile. There they made a discovery that challenged established archeological beliefs by uncovering evidence of human habitation predating the Clovis culture. The accepted benchmark for settlement of the Americas, Clovis culture is believed to have begun approximately 13,200 years ago. At Monte Verde, evidence of human habitation dates earlier, from around 14,500 years ago. This finding changed long-accepted understanding of human migration in the Western Hemisphere.

A deep trench excavation at Paredones, a site dating back about 6,500 years.

In 1981, Dillehay returned to the U.S. to a position at the University of Kentucky. The job provided the flexibility to travel, consult and research.

“Chile taught me the value of taking risks,” says Dillehay, who still holds a Chilean residency visa. He returns yearly to continue his work and to other locations in South America to do research, teach and consult. The two Chilean anthropology departments he fostered in the late 1970s are thriving, he reports with satisfaction. “South America is ethnically and culturally a tremendously diverse place to work and live,” he says of his passion for the region. “It’s a vast, constantly changing frontier.”

Writing the Unwritten Record

Change is a theme in Dillehay’s life. In 2004, Dillehay’s wife, Dana D. Nelson, came to Vanderbilt as Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English. Dillehay also made the move, joining the College of Arts and Science as Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and professor of anthropology.

“Vanderbilt has been a good match for me,” says Dillehay, who spent his first three years at Vanderbilt chairing the Department of Anthropology. “I have very good colleagues, the academics are strong, and university-wide, there’s a strong focus on Latin America.”

Dillehay has been on research leave for the past 18 months, teaching in Argentina and Peru plus doing fieldwork in Peru and Chile. He returns to the classroom in fall 2010. “Teaching undergraduates and graduates is equally stimulating,” he says. “It challenges me to stay up on the reading and thinking. I can bring to them research and information that is more current than what’s in textbooks.

“It’s exciting to talk to students who have never heard this information,” he says. “At Vanderbilt, the undergrads come to class prepared and enthusiastic. That environment can lead to new ideas and critical thinking.”

Whether he’s traveling in India for pleasure or sitting on a White House panel on human responsibility and climate change, Dillehay finds links to anthropology everywhere. “Humans and pre-humans have been on this planet for 4 million years,” Dillehay says. “Only anthropologists will write the unwritten record of 99.9 percent of humanity on this planet. No other discipline can do that.”

photo credit: Tom Dillehay, John Russell

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