Last week, the Peabody had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Paulette Steeves as she examined portions of the MacNeish collection. Dr. Steeves is currently a Lecturer of Indigenous archaeology and anthropology and the Interim Director of the certificate program in Native American Studies at UMass Amherst. Her research focuses on the peopling of the Western hemisphere, but not through the traditional Bering Strait theory.
Dr. Steeves uses indigenous theory and methodology to explore sites in the Americas that date back as far as 60,000 years ago. This is actually a big deal and an anti-establishment approach to the subject. Dr. Steeves is looking into the materials collected by Scotty MacNeish during his work in the 1960s in Peru and Mexico for additional evidence. MacNeish was also a proponent of the idea of early colonization and much of his collection has remained unanalyzed for decades.
Dr. Steeves was thrilled to see the collection and to meet MacNeish himself on her visit. We look forward to hosting her again for many research visits to come!
Archaeologist Richard S. MacNeish—known as Scotty—devoted his career to untangling two of the biggest questions of archaeology: when did people begin domesticating plants and how did that act impact and influence the development of civilization? During his tenure at Phillips Academy’s Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology MacNeish led multidisciplinary expeditions to Mexico and Peru to search for the heartland of domesticated maize or corn. Before his death in 2001 MacNeish had searched for the origins of rice cultivation in China, studied early cultures of Belize, and planned to look at wheat domestication in Turkey. Evidence for domestication often could be found in dry caves, where ancient plant remains were preserved. Speaking of his research in China, MacNeish quipped, “I’ve crawled in and out of more caves than a Neanderthal caveman.”
Despite MacNeish’s indefatigable quest for the origins of the world’s most important crops, answers remained elusive. In Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley, near modern-day Puebla, MacNeish and his team reconstructed ancient environments, devised chronologies, and documented a sequence of corn domestication from tiny, primitive cobs to those that look much like the corn that was growing in the area during the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. MacNeish’s suggestion of an early date for corn domestication, however, was met with skepticism, as many archaeologists believed that these crops were developed after significant strides in social organization, urbanism, and the other hallmarks of civilization. A debate ensued, but much of MacNeish’s Tehuacán research was sidelined as other scientists found evidence for even earlier sites of corn domestication in the Mexican lowlands, pushing the dates back to at least 8,700 years ago.
MacNeish’s collections, preserved since the 1960s at Phillips Academy’s tiny Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, have continued to attract the interests of scientists. A November 21, 2016 article in the journal Current Biology reconstructs for the first time ever the complete genome of an early domesticated plant, based on a tiny, 5,310 year old cob from MacNeish’s Tehuacán project (Catalog number 90.184.36). The specimen was removed from an old exhibit case several years ago and loaned to the Smithsonian Institution’s Bruce Smith, a co-author of the new study. Statistical analyses of the DNA data indicate that the study specimen, dubbed Tehuacan162, is “a step that links modern maize with its wild ancestor.” Of particular interest were genetic markers for domestication—some of which were already exhibited in this early specimen—while others were not. This challenges previous models for corn domestication that focus on two major steps, countering that the history of domestication is more gradual and complex than currently believed. In conclusion, the study finds that Tehuacan162 is an ancient form of maize that is closely related to the ancestor of all modern maize, yet distinct from teosinte, a wild grass that is the closest living relative to maize.
MacNeish’s Tehuacán exhibit featured hand painted images like these of early plant domesticates.
Part of Scotty MacNeish’s 1970s era exhibit about his work in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico–note the corn cobs and kernels.
The tiny corn specimen 90.184.36, also dubbed Tehuacán162, used in the recent study.
Corn cobs from Scotty MacNeish’s projects in Tamaulipas and Tehuacán Valley, Mexico.
Today the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology provides educational programming to the high school students of Phillips Academy, ranging from classes to work behind-the-scenes with our significant collections. Researchers also are encouraged to use the Museum’s holdings and often share their results with students.
Since October, I’ve been focusing on the largest collection at the Peabody, the Richard S. MacNeish papers. MacNeish donated about 220 linear feet of his papers and books to the museum in 2000, soon before he died. These papers span the length of his life and career, from childhood scrapbooks on the Maya to his MA and PhD theses, to field records and administrative files from his Tamaulipas, Ayacucho, Pendejo Cave and China projects, to research files on a variety of geographical regions and subjects, to records from his positions at Boston University, as head of the Andover Foundation for Archaeological Research (AFAR), and as director of the Peabody Museum itself. MacNeish, known as Scotty, was such a significant figure in American Archaeology in the 20th century that his papers are likely to have a high research value.
An extensive amount of work was already carried out on this collection since it arrived at the museum. An item-level inventory was done, and about half of the boxes had their contents rehoused into acid-free folders (papers) and mylar sleeves (photographs). More recently, the museum decided to separate out the large number of books from the papers, many of which will be added to the Peabody library. Volumes that were annotated by MacNeish or bear a personalized dedication to him are being retained in the archives. After separating books from the archival materials the remaining papers now measure only 90 linear feet – a huge difference in terms of storage space.
Boxes of MacNeish papers
A typical box before sorting out the books
I’m now working on a few remaining steps: foldering loose items in boxes, determining date ranges for folders, updating the inventory to reflect those changes as well as the removal of the books, rearranging the materials into logical groupings, and rehousing contents into acid-free record cartons. Lastly, I’ll integrate within the guide to this collection the other Scotty MacNeish materials we have at the museum, his director’s records. MacNeish left about 20 linear feet of material at the museum at the end of his directorship in 1983. To preserve the provenance of these two groups of material, we decided to process them as separate collections – even though there is a lot of overlap between the two. I’m looking forward to having all of this material be easily accessible to researchers soon, and anticipate that this work will be completed and the collection guide available by mid to late January 2017.
The Temporary Archivist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. to improve the intellectual and physical control of the museum’s collections. We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs, and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978 749 4493.