College of Liberal Arts

The Chronicle

A Newsletter of Research & Creative Activity, Scholarship, Teaching, & Service  |  Spring 2012

Anthropologist explores the past with Berry Family CLA Faculty Excellence award

By Phyllis Shier, College of Liberal Arts


For a more in-depth video, please click here.

If Brian Kemp were writing a travel brochure about Mexico City, he would describe it as Los Angeles with the volume turned up.

"It's bigger, louder, and dirtier—it's the craziest place!" he says with deep admiration.

But Kemp is not a travel writer. He is a WSU anthropologist and scientist, eager to further his research in Mexico City reconstructing a puzzle of Native American prehistory that dates back 2,000 years.

His eyes light up as he discusses the region and its rich prehistory that he will re-investigate in the summer of 2013, thanks to a $25,000 Berry Family CLA Faculty Excellence Fellows award.

Reconstructing the past

"Mexico has one of the richest archeological records in the world!" Kemp says.

That makes it a puzzle well worth reconstructing as results may provide insight to inform a multitude of research efforts, from cultural and historical to genetic—results that could have myriad implications for human health.

In addition to funding his travel next summer to study samples at the Museo Templo Mayor, a museum associated with the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, the Berry award will allow Kemp to bring a colleague and graduate student from the National Autonomous University of Mexico to Pullman in the summer of 2014 for follow-up experiments in his state-of-the-art laboratory on the WSU campus.

Mexico City first captured Kemp's heart when he was a graduate student taking part in the UC–Mexus program at the University of California, Davis. His research focused on the genetic relationships between indigenous populations and on the interactions and movements of these populations between Mexico and the American Southwest in prehistory, given that there were no borders between the two regions then.

In 2005 he published a book chapter, one of his first publications, on the collaborative work he conducted.

"The (UC–Mexus) program fostered this great interchange and cross-border investigation and collaboration," Kemp says.

The experience for him was also a personal one, allowing him to appreciate other people's cultures, customs, and conditions through travel.

"Mexico is a very different place than Pullman or anywhere in the United States, and until you see it, you can't really understand."

DNA: The ultimate archival tool

Since arriving at WSU, Kemp's research on the relationship between genes, language, and culture has helped to provide possible answers about how ancient people lived, what languages they spoke, and what cultural beliefs they held. His current research program includes projects that extend from the American Southwest to North America.

He has also received two grants from the National Institute of Justice that have led to better methods of DNA analysis in bone samples, improving the way modern-day analysts approach forensic science.

"In my lab we are continually working on methods for improving our ability to look at 2,000-year-old DNA," Kemp says.

The better researchers can do that, he says, the better they will be able to answer questions about degraded DNA, whether it's from prehistory or a modern crime scene.

Some of the methods he is working on now should help him obtain better data in Mexico City next summer.

"The Berry grant funding is exactly what I need to get another major research project going," he says. "This nice grant will take me down to Mexico, get my colleagues up here, and generate some exciting data."

Accounting for ancient human behavior

Just as we inherit our genes from our parents, we also adopt their language and culture as we grow up with them, a process known as vertical transmission.

When other languages or cultures are adopted from outside of one's original cultural practices, these adaptations can dissolve vertical correlations such as language and culture, supplanting them with language or cultural practices from outside of one's natal cultural group, a process known as horizontal transmission.

"Because of the strict vertical transmission of DNA, we can sample someone from 2,000 years ago and we can directly assess who descends from that person today," Kemp says.

He equates this research with time travel in which bone samples have travelled forward through time to us, instead of us, say, using a time machine to go back.

The expectation that culture, language, and genes would correlate tightly in prehistory, as people wouldn't have moved around as much then, isn't always accurate. Researchers have found evidence that vertical transmission has dissolved multiple times in prehistory.

For example, Nahuatl, the language of the elite Aztec empire, was also the language of trade, Kemp says. "Many people spoke their own language and Nahuatl as well, as it was the language of the elite culture."

Using data provided by the historical record, genetic sampling, and cultural artifacts to make educated predictions, researchers are able to reconstruct prehistory. Well, almost.

"We'll never know what happened in the past, but the pursuit of trying to figure it out is worthwhile," Kemp says, only in part because of the possible implications for future human existence. "It's the most exciting thing to try to reconstruct something that you just have very scant clues about."

Bridging borders through research

Kemp hopes the Berry-funded research will allow him to secure a major grant in the future, one that will sustain ongoing collaboration with his colleagues in Mexico, expanding and benefitting cross-cultural collaboration between the two countries.

"They have great ideas, they have the spirit and intellectual curiosity to do these types of things," he says of his colleagues in Mexico. "Everything's there except the resources."

The Berry Family CLA Faculty Excellence Fellows award was established in 2008 to enhance the recruitment and retention of the highest quality faculty in the College of Liberal Arts by supporting initiatives that significantly advance innovative work.

It awards up to $25,000 for interdisciplinary projects, innovative student engagement, and work that creates models or foundations for future activities that will contribute to and grow CLA's identified areas of excellence: developing cultural understanding and enhancing international and intercultural relations; building just and sustainable societies, policies, and practices; and advancing the social, cultural, and psychological resources that have an impact on human health.



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