Thank an archaeologist for human history on International Archaeology Day!

On Oct. 17, we celebrate International Archaeology Day. Last year, the Houston Museum of Natural Science participated on a large scale for the first time in a long time. This year, we will have our “Second Annual” version of the same. So what is archaeology and who are these characters that practice the art of archaeology anyway?

Ask anyone and they will answer “Indiana Jones!” when asked to name a famous archaeologist. Hollywood and the media in general tend to gravitate to this entertaining, but totally off the mark, representation of what it is to be an archaeologist.


Archaeologists are people who study the past. They do so with one goal in mind: reconstructing what our ancestors were up to. In the end, while we might find broken pottery, stone tools, or more sophisticated or larger artifacts, what really counts is the answer to questions like these: Who made this? Why? How? How long ago was this?

It takes a special person to be an archaeologist. Patience truly is a virtue. Doggedness comes to mind as well. It won’t hurt to be lucky, but having knowledge will guide you to that breakthrough you’ve been looking for. You’ll need willingness to continue learning, going hand-in-hand with the admission that you really don’t know all that much. All of these are good traits to have.

Luck is part of all this, but the insights archaeologists come up with and share with all of us can be a whole lot more interesting and head-scratching than any Indiana Jones movie. In that regard, archaeologists are like time travelers, our contemporaries who bring ancient cultures back to life, sometimes so much so that you can almost feel it and smell it.

Recently, I’ve been reading up on the presence of early humans in what is now called the Amazon rainforest. My perception of the prehistory of this huge area is changing quickly. Yes, there were early settlers in this part of the world. Paleoindians did reach Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and the Guyanas. Our knowledge of these early immigrants in this part of the world is so small compared to what we know of North American Paleoindians. But… all that is changing, thanks to the determined efforts of a handful of archaeologists, the very same people whose work and insights we celebrate on Oct. 17.

Take Dr. Anna Roosevelt, for example. A professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a curator at the Field Museum in the same city, Dr. Roosevelt has been investigating early human presence in the Amazon for decades now. The information she and her team have uncovered now point to an Amazon region that was very different thousands of years ago — well before the arrival of the Europeans. It was so different that these Amazonian Paleoindians would have a hard time recognizing the current landscape, just as much as we have a hard time coming to grips with the existence of large, densely populated settlements in many portions of the Amazon.

Marajo Island - location (2)

Map of Brazil, with the location of Marajó Island.

To get to this point, Dr. Roosevelt and her colleagues worked for years in the Amazon, in places like Marajó Island as well as rivers further inland. Marajó, an island the size of Switzerland located at the mouth of the Amazon River, yielded evidence of densely-populated settlements, occupied for centuries. This research took years to complete in circumstances where creature comfort was sometimes a distant notion. It took perseverance as well, as the new data and new interpretations ran counter to older, more established explanations of the prehistory of the region. Research in the interior relied on the willingness of non-archaeologists to share news of interesting finds on private properties. Sadly such willingness is not always forthcoming, resulting in the loss of an unknown quantity of materials all over the world.

Building trust among the locals and upholding that reputation is not easy. One has to be determined, focused and dogged in the pursuit of knowledge. Dr. Roosevelt’s team checked off all these boxes, and came up with cool finds, some on land, some underwater.

Diving in the Xingu River, 2001

Archaeologist Dr. Anna Roosevelt diving in the Xingu River, 2001.

On International Archaeology Day, we pay homage to the work done by people like Dr. Roosevelt. Local archaeologists, professional and avocational, physical anthropologists, and artists who work on facial reconstructions will all be at HMNS. Museum docents will share their insights and enthusiasm about archaeology with hands-on experiences, pointing to the various halls in the museum where archaeology is covered. These include the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the section of human evolution in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. The event starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Dig it!

Next stop: BRAZIL! Jet-setting at home with World Trekkers this Friday

Think Brazil is all Carnival and beaches? Think again. Here are three things you probably didn’t know about Brazil:


When Portugal started to colonize Brazil, they named it Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross) in their official manuscripts. However, as sailors and merchants began to exploit the plentiful natural resources, a new name took hold, Terra do Brasil (Land of Brazilwood). They also called it Terra di Papaga (Land of the Parrots), but luckily that name didn’t stick.


That’s not just 20 percent of South America’s water; that’s 20 percent of the river water in the world that empties into the ocean! The Amazon river basin is crazy huge — largely located in Brazil, but covering 40% of South America. It’s no wonder then that the Amazon Rainforest is one of the major areas in the world for plant and animal life.



Ranging from pre-Colombian monolithic structures to Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Modern … you name it, they’ve got it.

Wish you could be in Brazil now? We’ve got something better — we’re bringing Brazil to YOU with World Trekkers this Friday, June 27!

Brazil is known worldwide for its vibrancy, love of life and endless beauty. Now, you can experience it all at HMNS.

Featuring Brazilian dancers courtesy of LD Dance Company, animals from Brazil and South America with Pacodu Exotics, crafts, balloon art, face painting and a screening of the animated hit Rio 2 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, we’ve got fun for the whole family!

Don’t miss this chance to travel the world right in your hometown. Come to World Trekkers at HMNS on June 27 and get a taste of Brazil.

Viva Brasil!


Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Seventh Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on – we won’t tell).

Many of the exhibits we host here – like Genghis Khan or the Terra Cotta Warriors – present objects from long-dead cultures, and the wonder comes from the experience of coming face-to-face with artifacts that were created so long ago. And when you walk through our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, and contemplate the absolute beauty of the vibrant, intricate feather art and objects on display, it’s easy to forget that the cultures that created these works are very much alive – though also fast disappearing.

Learn more from Adam Mekler, associate curator for Amazonia, who believes, “When a culture disappears, I think an aspect of all humanity disappears.”

Click play to explore the exhibit and discover these vanishing worlds.

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: Happy Holidays!

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.17.08)

Creative Commons License photo credit: watercolors08

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

National Geographic has beautiful photos of the Abrolhos Reef, off the coast of Brazil – which scientists have recently discovered is twice as large as previously thought.

Molecular hula hoops: very tiny fun!

The Maker Faire is coming to Austin. According to the organizers, it’s “a newfangled fair that brings together science, art, craft and engineering plus green, food and music in a fun, energized, and exciting public forum.” Will you enter? Tell us what you’re making!

Ohhh…I see. When you said “lucky” what you really meant was “carcinogenic.”

Stephen Hobley plays a harp made of lasers – that also functions as a controller for Guitar Hero. Best of all – you can build one, too! (Love Guitar Hero – but not DIY enough to make your own laser version? Check out Rockfest in the Grand Hall this Saturday.)

SciGuy‘s got a list of Houston’s most generous science philanthropists – it’s a chronicle not just of their generosity, but also the cutting-edge science facilities we have here in Houston. He’s posting them one at a time, so check back.