Editor’s note: This part of a series of profiles of faculty and their research by Montgomery Van Wart, a professor of public administration and a CSUSB Faculty Research Fellow in Faculty Affairs and Development. In this article, he features Matthew Des Lauriers, associate professor of anthropology. 

By Montgomery Van Wart

Placing academic disciplines in clearly bounded categories in most cases is relatively easy, although the characteristics used to define clusters will vary.

Chemistry, physics and biology provide examples of how the natural sciences depend on reproducible, experimental results, and heavily quantitative methods; while the social and behavioral sciences (and associated professional disciplines) generally use a combination of quantitative and qualitative field research methods; and the humanities rely more heavily on qualitative methods such as narrative analysis. Yet some disciplines defy easy categorization because of their mix of experimental, field and qualitative research. Anthropology is one of those disciplines.

It is the emphatically holistic approach to understanding human history and behavior through such an integrated perspective that distinguishes anthropology from its adjacent disciplines. It is not possible to understand the social system of a given society, for example, without also understanding the human ecological relationships, economic orientation, religious practice, etc.

Associate Professor Matthew Des Lauriers currently serves as the director of the master’s degree in applied archaeology in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at CSUSB. He is an ardent anthropologist with a specialty in archaeology and hasResearch Faculty Promotion Feature graphic followed in the footsteps of other non-conformists in his use of unorthodox perspectives in attempting to understand the peopling of the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to over 20 years of archaeological work in the Mojave Desert, he is the leading expert on the island of Isla Cedros, México, which as it turns out, is among the handful of recently discovered archeological sites dating to the time of initial human migration into North America as migrants navigated along the Pacific coast from earlier homelands along the shores of the Western Pacific.

On the ground, empirical field research, which is the first step in acquiring data to test alternative theories in the natural environment by close examination, is a frequent method for Professor Des Lauriers.

He has excavated archaeological sites across the Western United States and México. For example, Des Lauriers’ own specialty of archaeology is famous for its “great finds,” which shift existing understandings about human histories, practices and beliefs, and which lead ultimately to narratives about how to interpret the discovery.

Some of the great finds (exploratory research) for Professor Des Lauriers include the earliest unequivocal fishhooks from the Americas, dating to the end of the last Ice Age, over 10,000 years ago; the largest archaeological village sites in Baja California with hundreds of house features; remains of indigenous boats hundreds of years old; and the earliest evidence for the use of Agave (maguey) to produce fiber for cordage and rope.

Replicated tools combined with microscopic use-wear analysis of archaeological examples was even able to identify which tools were being used in the processing of the plant fibers. Another example of an experimental study was about an empirical investigation related to arrowpoint durability. Testing projectile durability under lab conditions could then be added to the record of why prehistorical peoples might change their use of one raw material to another over several centuries.

Des Lauriers also does historical and ethnographic analysis, which employ more qualitative methods of looking at data and searching more for meaning than statistical probabilities. He has done field research with contemporary fishermen on Isla Cedros, Baja California to better understand the patterns of traditional ecological knowledge.

“No matter how long I spend researching the history of Isla Cedros, I will never understand it as well as the people who have lived there for generations and have built up such an extensive ‘fund of knowledge,’” said Des Lauriers. “They have given me so much more insight into the challenges and opportunities of living there than I could have ever imagined on my own, and I owe them a great deal.”

In his examination of the ecological role played by the contemporary Isla Cedros fishing cooperative he notes: “Far from representing a cautionary tale of excessive development and environmental degradation, Isla Cedros is one of the few places on the globe where human harvesting of marine resources has not yet resulted in an ecological collapse.”

An example of his use of older documentary evidence is found in the analysis (with C. García-Des Lauriers) of the indigenous population of Isla Cedros (the ‘Huamalguenos’ whose population collapsed in the 1700s) detailed in the 1739 account of Jesuit Padre Miguel Venegas.

“One of the more startling moments in that work was when we realized that by connecting various literary clues, we had been able to determine that the constellation that is today recognized as the Pleiades was also seen as a constellation by the indigenous people of Baja California. Such tangible, still visible connections between the past and the present can be incredibly powerful,” he said.

Although we often think of case studies in an educational context, these particular data sets are simply about a deep understanding of the decision-making trajectory of people within specific contexts.

Excellent examples of ancient case studies include Professor Des Lauriers’ analysis of indigenous warfare and his time-series analysis of the shellfish harvesting choices of islanders using radiocarbon-dating. And as a leading expert, he has also written important state-of-the-art literature reviews about the importance of recent archeological finds to the major reinterpretation of the field at large.

But he is grateful for the support and guidance he has received from indigenous groups.

It has been my privilege and honor to have been able to work with both tribal and other local people in both the U.S. and Mexico to better understand the history of the indigenous people whose land this is and whose heritage we have been allowed to engage with through archaeology,” Des Lauriers said.

So answering the question about whether Professor Des Lauriers is more of a humanist or a scientist is confounding to be sure. Perhaps the best we can do is to agree with the famous early American scholar, Ruth Benedict, who wrote that “once anthropologists include the mind of man in their subject matter, the methods of science and the methods of the humanities complement each other. … The anthropologist can use both approaches. The adequate study of culture, our own and those on the opposite side of the globe, can press on to fulfillment only as we learn today from the humanities as well as from the sciences.”