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A Sneak Peek at Archaeology of the Americas

Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Ph.D., curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, gives you a sneak peek at his upcoming spring course, Archaeology of the Americas. Read on for a preview of the civilizations and anthropological questions this course sets out to address.

Mar 20 , 2019
Temple I on The Great Plaza and North Acropolis seen from Temple II in Tikal, Guatemala, the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya


The Americas were the last substantial portion of our planet to be colonized by human beings. Making up slightly more than 25% of terra firma, North, Central and South America were terra incognita to humans for a very long time, until we finally arrived. The humans that eventually did cross over were people like us, Homo sapiens. Millions of years of human evolution preceded this monumental last colonizing event.

What these first settlers and their descendants achieved was spectacular. Moving quickly across the landscape, they showed their prowess as humans and adapted to ever-changing environments.  This meant crossing frozen tundra in the north, blistering hot deserts on their way south, vast mountain chains, majestic and powerful rivers, until they reached the very southern tip of South America.

These early people persisted; they undoubtedly suffered losses, yet managed to survive in numbers great enough to keep the great trek going. Effectively isolated from the rest of the world for millennia, humans in the New World went their own way and their achievements are awe-inspiring. They developed their own stone tool technologies, eventually settled and became farmers, built cities and traded with people close by and well over the horizon. In other words, they did things similar to what humans had done elsewhere in the world, but they did it with a new twist: New World pyramids look different. Maya writing, while an advanced writing system, is nothing like any of the writing systems found elsewhere in the world. Farming was based on crops we still heavily rely on, but these were crops unknown in the Old World.

This is the backdrop to a lecture series that will be presented by the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies at Rice University in collaboration with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Ph.D., curator anthropology at the museum, will take participants on a journey through time as he shares the stories and legacies of the settlers of the Americas from the earliest days of Paleo-Indian colonization. Van Tuerenhout will close the series with a guided tour through the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

Lecture Topics

The general framework will be to outline what we know, how new scientific approaches have provided new insights and better understanding of what happened. In a few cases, one can even be so bold as to predict what will happen next.

First Americans. The story of the earliest inhabitants of the New World 
April 16, 7-8:30 p.m. at Rice University

Ever since Europeans set foot in the New World, we have tried to answer the question of when and where American Indians came from. For more than five hundred years, this quest has taken us all over the continent, looking for clues, finding answers, then addressing yet more questions that came up. Genomics, excavations and the insights of living members of the American Indian community all combine to make an increasingly detailed picture, albeit it one that probably will never completely come into focus.

Cahokia Monks Mound.An 1882 illustration of Monks Mound in the Cahokia Mounds urban zone.

Pyramids in America – the story of Cahokia
April 23, 7-8:30 p.m. at Rice University

In the outskirts of St. Louis, MO. lie the silent witnesses to one of North America’s largest Precolumbian cities: Cahokia. During its heyday, it was the same size, maybe even larger than some of the European capitals. Massive earthen pyramids, huge wooden palisades, and an extensive population made up this trade center on the banks of the Mississippi River. What contributed to its rise? What caused its demise?

Maya revisited – the latest on America’s longest-lived civilization
April 30, 7-8:30 p.m. at Rice University

Shrouded in the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala, or hidden in the wind-swept mountains of Highland Guatemala, Maya cities elicited wonder from the first Europeans who saw them and reported back home about them. They all had one thing in common: they were once home to an astounding civilization: the ancient Maya. New research, including laser-based mapping, has now revealed a landscape dotted with many more communities than we ever knew existed. Who were these people? What happened to them?

The ancient Inca – The New World’s largest empire
May 7, 7-8:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

The final successor of a long line of advanced civilizations that once existed along the Pacific Coast of South America, and along the countless rivers that emanated from the long mountain chain that is the Andes, the Inca Empire was amazingly successful. It was also extraordinarily short-lived. An empire with two capitals, ruled by an emperor considered a living god, the Inca managed to transform the landscape they lived in with nothing more than stone tools. This is a civilization we should all learn more about, especially the potato lovers among us.

Tour of the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas
May 14, 7-8:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

This series will start April 16 and end May 14, 2019. All events start at 7 p.m. and end at 8:30 p.m. We hope you’ll join us for what is sure to be an exciting series.



About the Author

Dirk Van, Tuerenhout, Ph.D., is curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where he specializes in human cultures, oversees the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas and co-curates the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Dr. Van Tuerenhout organized the “Maya 2012” exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He took part in excavations of late Roman ruins in his native Belgium and of Maya ruins in Belize and Guatemala. Dr. Van Tuerenhout holds a master’s degree in ancient history and another in art history and archaeology from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, as well as a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Tulane University.


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