Museum of Anthropology

Permanent Exhibits

Permanent exhibits in the museum exhibit hall illustrate topics in human biological and cultural evolution, including technological developments in stone tool making. Another featured exhibit describes cultural changes of native Columbia Plateau people during the past 10,000 years.

Camas: An Ancient Cuisine

Camas (Camassia quamash), a plant in the lily family, was one of the most important foods for interior Northwest people. Blooming camas forms drifts of blue that to many early explorers looked like lakes. Each spring and summer large numbers of Columbia Plateau people would gather at major camas meadows such as the ones at Moscow and Weippe, Idaho, and near Spangle, Washington. The focus of the gathering was digging camas bulbs for eating fresh-roasted and for the winter food supply. These large gatherings were also important social occasions. Horseback and foot races, gambling, trading, renewal of alliance ties, and arrangement of marriages were all part of the festivities. Large camas grounds were also starting points for major trails, and families would join for expeditions to other areas.

Camas was a valued trade item, but it had to be cooked long and slowly in order to make it digestible. Some Native American people still gather and roast camas in traditional ways, but most of the large camas meadows have been destroyed by filling of wetlands, plowing/bulldozing, and other development.

A camas-roasting oven was discovered during the Calispell Archaeological Project in northeastern Washington (conducted by the Center for Northwest Anthropology at Washington State University). The Calispell excavations yielded valuable information about ancient land use and emphasized the importance of a rich variety of plant foods in the development of a semi-settled life pattern in the interior Pacific Northwest.

One display case has a model of a camas oven and photos illustrating the camas-roasting process. The display also examines other plants and animals used by people living in the Calispell Valley 4,000 years ago.

Anatomical Record of Human Evolution and Fossil Record of Human Evolution

Articulated skeletons of a monkey, a chimpanzee, and a human show several anatomical features shared by these primates. Physical anthropologists and biologists study changes which have taken place in these features over time. Such studies help increase our understanding of the processes of long-term changes in humans and of our relationships to other primates.

A series of skull casts illustrates the evolutionary development of humans from Australopithecus (four million years old) to Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens (forty thousand years old).

Evolution of Stone Tools in Western Old World Prehistory

This exhibit traces the development of stone tools beginning with the relatively simple chopping tools found in some of the earliest archaeological sites in Africa.  The tools are grouped in general categories assigned by archaeologists to tools having similar technological characteristics (e.g. Oldowan, Magdalenian).  These categories reflect changes in tool forms through time.  For example, during the Achulean period (1.75 million to 140,000 years ago) there were large numbers of hand axes, while spectacular willow-leaf and laurel-leaf points are present at sites representing the Soulutrean period (20,000 to 17,000 years ago).  Finely crafted harpoons have been found in deposits from between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago. All of these tools were already in use when humans first arrived in the New World.

Cradles of Potential

Traditional North American baby carriers were designed to keep babies safe and comfortable while allowing the mothers freedom to work and travel. Most groups in western North America used cradleboards carried on the mother’s back by shoulder straps or from the head. A board could also be laid flat for sleep, but the mother often hung it from a branch or propped it upright to allow the baby to observe the world around it. For travel, cradleboards were hung from a saddle or travois.

This display features several types of cradles from western North America, using mainly doll cradles.

Cultural Development along the Lower Snake River, Washington

Archaeological studies along the lower Palouse and Snake Rivers reveal particular kinds of tools and other items consistently associated with particular times in the past. Since the tools used by people reflect their relationships with their environment as well as their settlement patterns and their ways of obtaining food, changes in types of tools can indicate changing patterns of life. With the tools recovered from archaeological sites in this area, archaeologists Frank Leonhardy and David Rice developed a chronological sequence of cultural development along the lower Snake River. The sequence involves six cultural phases covering the past 10,000 years. This exhibit features artifacts characteristic of the cultural phases and information about some of the important archaeological sites.

The exhibit also presents the geologic background of the area. A 13-minute video about the catastrophic "Spokane Floods" is available for viewing.

Understanding the Past

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in southwestern Colorado has conducted many archaeological excavations, including the recent Sand Canyon Pueblo Ruins Project. This exhibit shows some of the artifacts, bones, and other natural materials that archaeologists work with in their efforts to reconstruct the past lives of the Sand Canyon inhabitants. A number of researchers from Washington State University have been associated with the work of the Crow Canyon Center.

Inuit Toys

Inuit children grow up in one of the harshest environments supporting human populations. To help them adapt to life in the climate of the Far North, Inuits treat their children as “small adults.” Young Inuits learn how to survive through their playtime activities, using child-sized versions of the gadgets and tools belonging to their parents. This exhibit features examples of these toys that are so important for learning to live in the severe environments.


Throughout human history, feathers have served important cultural functions. Feathers are used for ornamental objects and clothing, ritual and spiritual ceremonies, and utilitarian purposes such as insulation, cushioning, and writing instruments. This exhibit features examples of feather use in the Americas, Hawai’i, Australia, and Papua/New Guinea. These uses range from nose ornaments through feather textiles to the tar and feather punishment.

Tule Themes

Food, fiber, transportation, and technology: tules are plants of many uses. This exhibit features two kinds of plants called tules, bulrushes (Scirpus spp.) and cattails (Typha spp). In nearly every area of the world where they grow, tules and cattails have been valued for their special properties.

For example, the inner stem tissues of tules and inner leaf tissues of cattails are very spongy and contain a lot of air. This makes them very buoyant, good for rafts and boats, and their insulating properties make them good for roofing and sleeping mats.

This exhibit features a boat made from tules and also includes cattail basketry, archaeological tule mats, and information on many uses of these marshland plants.

Packrat Middens and Past Environments

A packrat nest may at first seem an unlikely place to study past environments. However, because of the packrat’s habit of gathering many different objects from around its home, a packrat nest or midden can be a valuable and detailed record of what plants and animals have occurred in the local area over time. In this display the packrat midden is considered in relation to packrat ecology and behavior. Techniques of studying middens are explained, and examples of midden contents illustrate what middens can tell us about environmental conditions in the past.

The Cordage Connection

Thread, string, twine, and rope--cordage is used nearly everywhere for sewing, tying, lashing, and binding. This display describes common methods of hand-making cordage as  well as plant and animal materials used for cordage. Cordage-based items in the display include fishing line, horsehair rope, basketry, a leather bag,  wind chimes, and a traditional Asian rain suit.

Anthropology at WSU

Anthropology is a multidisciplinary field, including aspects of social science, biological science, and physical science. This display discusses anthropology and its sub-disciplines, as well as the anthropological research conducted at Washington state University. For each member of the WSU anthropology faculty, one research project is highlighted. (This display currently includes three faculty members, and more will be added each semester.) Current panels are:

Fa'afafine: Transvestism in Samoa, Jeannette Mageo

Working Class Women and Higher Education at a Distance, Nancy McKee

Traditional Medicine in Nepal and Lives of Women in Nepal, Linda Stone

Styles of War Dance: Northern Traditional vs. Contemporary

The war dance was used among American Indian tribes in many parts of North America and Canada to commemorate battle. Warriors and/or societies of warriors danced to tell a story of engagement or for the mental or spiritual healing that was sometimes needed after a battle. The Today, powwows are shared among many people of different tribes, and dancers perform both traditional war dances and the new contemporary style of traditional powwow dance. This photographic display describes these two basic dance styles.


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Museum of Anthropology, PO Box 644910, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4910 • 509-335-3441 • Contact Us