An honorable archaeologist
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Tue Jan 30 12:19:31 MST 2001
NY Times, January 30, 2001
Richard MacNeish, Agricultural Archaeologist, Dies at 82
By CARMEL McCOUBREY
Richard S. MacNeish, a tireless archaeologist renowned for his
investigations into the origins of corn and rice and for his provocative
conclusions, died on Jan. 16 in Belize. He was 82 and lived in Andover,
Mass., during the brief periods when he was not on an expedition.
He died of injuries he received when he lost control of his car while
traveling between two Mayan sites, Lamanai and Caracol, in the mountains of
Belize, said James W. Bradley, director of the Robert S. Peabody Museum of
Archaeology at Phillips Academy, with which Dr. MacNeish was long associated.
Dr. MacNeish's most celebrated discovery occurred in 1962, when he
announced that he had found tiny ears of corn, the ancestor of today's
domesticated crop, in a cave in the Tehuacán Valley in Mexico. The ears, no
bigger than a cigarette butt, were originally said to be as much as 7,000
years old. More refined dating technologies have since lowered estimates to
5,500 years, but the find remains a landmark in agricultural archaeology
because it awakened interest in the field, said Kent V. Flannery, an
anthropology professor at the University of Michigan.
"Before he came along, we knew nothing about the origins of agriculture in
the New World," Dr. Flannery said, adding that Dr. MacNeish had also found
very early specimens of squash, pumpkins, beans, chilies and avocados.
In the 1990's, Dr. MacNeish discovered remains of cultivated rice perhaps
9,000 years old along the middle Yangtze. That finding led him to conclude
that rice was first domesticated in China, not Southeast Asia as was long
Further, his work in the Ayacucho Valley of Peru in the 1970's established
the outline of human habitation there from the earliest hunter- gathering
culture to the complex society of the Incan empire, said Gerard Piel,
former publisher and editor of Scientific American. He was also noted for
his research into early Mayan civilization.
But the expedition that stirred perhaps the loudest debate was his dig at
the Pendejo cave in New Mexico, where Dr. MacNeish said in 1992 that he had
found human palm and finger prints on clay from a 28,000-year-old layer and
man-made hearths dating back perhaps 38,000 years. Confirmation of such a
finding would upset the widely held theory that humans first entered the
Americas 12,000 years ago by crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia, a
belief that Dr. MacNeish had long sought to disprove.
"This is the one that's going to finish off the skeptics," Dr. MacNeish
declared in a newspaper interview after a meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science. In another interview, he said,
"The whole significance of the early-man debate is to allow the American
Indians to have a respectable history, as good as the white man."
Dr. Bradley, director of the Peabody Museum, said the Pendejo findings
remained much in dispute, a circumstance relished by Dr. MacNeish, who was
known to all as Scotty.
"Scotty loved to push the controversial edge," Dr. Bradley said. "Someone
needs to be a provocateur, and Scotty loved to play that role. And he was
right more than he was wrong."
Richard Stockton MacNeish was born in Harlem on April 29, 1918, to Harris
Franklin MacNeish, a math professor, and the former Elizabeth Stockton. He
grew up in Eastchester, N.Y., and attended Colgate for a time. In 1936, he
took part in his first dig, at an Iroquois site in central New York.
He went on to earn bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in archaeology
at the University of Chicago, and became senior archaeologist at the
National Museum of Canada in 1949. He was chairman of the archaeology
department at the University of Calgary from 1964 to 1968, and director of
the Peabody Museum at Phillips from 1968 to 1980. He was elected to the
National Academy of Sciences in 1974. After teaching at Boston University
in the early 1980's, he established the Andover Foundation for
Archaeological Research, under whose auspices he conducted his later
His first marriage, to June Helm, ended in divorce. He is survived by his
wife, the former Phyllis Diana Walter of Kitchener, Ontario; two sons,
Roderick, of Kitchener, and Alexander, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; and a
Able to pursue almost uninterrupted field work supported by generous
donors, Dr. MacNeish led a life that was the envy of archaeologists tied to
academic schedules. For many years, he spent summers in the Yukon -
searching for signs of the first migrants from Asia and surviving on
canisters of food dropped off by bush pilots, Dr. Flannery said - and
winters in Mexico. When he died, he was planning an expedition to Turkey,
in search of the origin of wheat.
"I've spent 7,200 days in the field since '36," Dr. MacNeish told The
Washington Post in 1993. "It keeps me alive. I'm still just a kid when I
dig up something nobody's ever seen before."
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