Today’s Special: Distinguished Professor Michael Waters
What are you currently researching?
My area of research focuses on the first people to enter the Americas during the last Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago or more. Currently, I’m working on a number of different projects. This summer, I excavated at a cave site in Central Texas with several undergraduate and graduate students. I am also analyzing artifacts collected from the Debra L. Friedkin site, and I am also working on several archaeological site dating projects. All of these projects, and others, are focused on understanding when the first humans entered the Americas and how they explored the continent.
Did you grow up wanting to become an archaeologist?
I was always interested in history and geography. Eventually, I became interested in geology and rocks in junior high, and then I joined a fossil hunting club where we’d go out and hunt for fossils once a month. Then I heard a lecture on archaeology when I was in high school, and I instantly became hooked on archaeology.
Where did you study?
I studied at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where I studied with Vance Haynes. I had the good fortune to work with Vance Haynes and Larry Agenbroad at a Clovis locality known as the Lehner site when I was an undergraduate student. At that point, I was an anthropology major, but I realized that I wanted to do what Vance Haynes did. He and Larry Agenbroad convinced me to switch to the geosciences, so I got all my degrees in geosciences. I am a hybrid of sorts. I am what you call a geoarchaeologist, someone who applies the methods and concepts of the geosciences to archaeological research questions.
Why did you choose to continue your career at Texas A&M University?
I came to Texas A&M University because I was offered a position here. I’d been looking for an academic position, and Vaughn Bryant was building a program that was centered around archaeology. He was interested in creating a department that was well-versed in the subfields of archaeology, so being a geoarchaeologist, I fit right in. I feel very fortunate to have spent my entire academic career at Texas A&M University.
How have your research interests changed across your career?
I’ve always been interested in the first Americans, and my dissertation was on that topic. That’s always been my focus, but I have done many other things. In Arizona, I worked a lot with fluvial, or riverine, systems and how they operate and respond to climate change. I’ve worked with late prehistoric agricultural sites in southern Arizona that were occupied by the Hohokam to understand how their culture responded to landscape changes that impacted their irrigation systems. Geoarchaeology has also been a big focus, of course. I’ve even done historical archaeology excavating and reporting on the World War II POW camp at Hearne, Texas.
How does your research impact society and the world?
I think it’s important that we know who we are and where came from. We are all modern humans, Homo sapiens, and I think it’s important to know the history of our species. Also, prehistoric peoples have faced many challenges through time, and they’ve met those challenges through adaptation. Prehistoric people have adapted to climate change, the extinction of animals, and landscape changes. By looking at how prehistoric people adapted to environmental changes, perhaps we can learn something that will help us to adapt to our changing world.
If you could meet one researcher, past or present, who would it be and why?
I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to meet a researcher from the past when it would be so much more fun to go back to the archaeological sites I’ve worked on and see what life was like in the past. I’d like to go to the Page-Ladson site in Florida and see what the landscape was like and see the mastodons roaming the terrain and the prehistoric people who were at that site. Or, I’d like to go to the Friedkin site here in Texas and see the people there 15,000 years ago to see what they were doing and how they were living. To me, that would be fascinating!
What do you think will be the next big research areas/questions in your field in the next few years?
The big research areas in my field continue to be about trying to better understand the people who were in the Americas before Clovis. In other words, studying the people who were in North and South America 15,000 or 16,000 years ago and understanding how they relate to the later complexes that appear, like Clovis. We are going to learn a lot from archaeological site excavations, but also genetic data are increasingly important. There have been many new technological breakthroughs where we can study the DNA of ancient human remains and even DNA from soil samples. So we will be able to look at things like animal extinctions and whether humans were present at sites just by looking at the DNA we find in sediments. It’s an exciting time to be in this field!
What do you like to do in your free time?
My wife and I enjoy traveling. I’m particularly interested in the histories of World War I and World War II. My dad was in the Navy during the war, and so over the years, we’ve visited different battlefields. We’ve been all over, from the trenches of the Somme to the beaches of Normandy. It’s been really interesting to not only see the ancient history of places in Europe, but I find the more recent history really fascinating.