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Meet the Teaching Scholar: Dr. Joseph Gingerich

We pride ourselves on the research coming out of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Our faculty have contributed to the breadth and depth of the discourse in their research areas. Ranging from political economy to craniofacial growth, those research areas are as diverse as the complex human endeavor our faculty strive to analyze and understand. Ultimately, their fine research aids us in understanding human behavior and relationships, the foundations of culture and society, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.

Today, we meet Dr. Joseph Gingerich, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 2013-2014 academic year as postdoctoral teaching scholar specializing in prehistoric archaeology.


Personal History


Current Research

Further Questions

Personal History
Could you begin by giving us a little information on where you’re from?

I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It takes me about four-and-a-half to five hours to get home from Raleigh. I have a sister who lives on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but the rest of my family is still in Virginia.

Where did you attend college and what did you study?

I earned my undergraduate degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, studying anthropology.

How did you discover your chosen field and when did you know it was what you wanted to pursue?

I had an interesting start when I was in high school. The summer of my junior year, I got hired by an archaeology professor at Catholic University in DC. He owned a cultural resource management firm (CRM). CRM deals with protecting archaeological sites from destruction in coordination with environmental laws. Initially, I was hired to do lab work, but he thought I’d be good at field work so he sent me into the field where I was trained by him and others. He was the person that made me interested in archaeology again. I had started going to school for law enforcement but in working with him I realized that archaeology was what I wanted to do. He had trained one of the professors at Temple University and strongly suggested that I go there.

Where did the interest in archaeology come from?

I was interested in Archaeology when I was younger. I’m sure you had to do the same thing in school, teachers ask you to write a paper about your career and the steps you have to take to get there. Well, when you’re in middle school or high school and you realize that you have to get a PhD to be an archaeologist or to do the things in archaeology that were interesting, you think: Wow, do I really want to spend another eight years in school? At the time, it was a little bit of a turn off and I had others things that I was interested in. When the CRM job came up, I was looking for a job and had a friend who worked for the professor. The professor from Catholic University kind of brought me back into archaeology and, in some ways, took me under his wing. My friend and the professor gave me a lot of opportunities that not only made me renew my interest archaeology but also made this career seem a little more achievable than, say, doing a paper about it in ninth grade.

What about archaeology was appealing to you?

I think part of it was being outside and doing field work. In my position, I was actively doing field work and working with some of the specialists in the field. I also think it was the thrill of discovery to some degree. I remember working in northern Virginia on a floodplain of the Potomac River and I was working with this well-respected soil scientist. We were digging in this trench about six to seven feet below ground surface and we were pulling out these fragments of a soapstone bowl, which is a kind of vessel that they made throughout the mid-Atlantic region and parts of the east from about 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. It was really interesting and I think that spark of discovery was part of it. Over time, I became more interested in the intellectual side of it, in asking bigger questions and trying to go out and answer them or finding creative ways to approach the archaeological record, especially prehistoric archaeology. I found it really fun to try to piece together a puzzle without written records to work with, without anything except lots of data (artifacts), and turning to the ethnographic record or doing experiments to understand the patterns you see in the archaeological record.

A soapstone bowl made throughout the mid-Atlantic region 3,000 - 5,000 years ago.
A soapstone bowl made throughout the mid-Atlantic region 3,000 – 5,000 years ago.

Did you do any research as part of your undergraduate studies at Temple?

I ended up doing a lot of research. By the time I got to Temple and started focusing on anthropology, I had about three to four years of field experience accumulated over those summers in high school and a few years when I was getting a degree in Administration of Justice. I ended up going to Japan one semester to do paid fieldwork. As a junior or senior in college, I was one of the teaching assistants at an archaeological field school. And towards the end of my academic career at Temple I started working with a collector on a site that would end up being a part of master’s degree research.

Let’s talk about your master’s degree…

By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I was very focused on paleoindian cultures in North America. Paleoindian is a general term for the first Native American populations in the Americas. These are the people that initially settled North and South America. We have widespread evidence of people here 13,000 years ago. The more research we do, we see evidence of people being here at least 15,000 years ago. So, somewhere between 13,000-16,000 years ago, it looks like people settled North America either by way of the Bering Land Bridge or by some sort of coastal route. There have been ideas proposed of people coming across from the Pacific, moving along island chains in the Aleutian Islands and then moving down the West coast. Others have proposed that people came across the north Atlantic when ice sheets were down really low. When I started looking for PhD programs, I was looking for schools that focused on the Paleoindian period in North America. There were only a handful of really established programs and the program at the University of Wyoming was really attractive with several professors focusing on both Paleoindians and hunter-gatherer cultures. During the Paleoindian period all groups were pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. Most of my work deals with hunter-gatherer populations, whether it’s been in France, Japan, or parts of North America.

My master’s thesis was a project I’d started back east. I had been excavating a 13,000 year old site in Pennsylvania, and my master’s thesis continued looking at this site. I was looking at artifact spatial patterning at site and what it could tell us about general patterns of Paleoindian behavior and whether or not that site was reoccupied. One of the papers I published after my master’s thesis related to plant remains we recovered at the site. During excavation we found some of the oldest plant remains in North America that are interpreted to be subsistence items. So, not the oldest plant remains in general but the oldest plant remains interpreted to be used as food by people in North America. For a long time researchers have viewed these early populations 13,000 years ago as big-game hunters, focusing on species such as mammoths, mastodons, bison, caribou, and deer. This one site stood out and had been cited in the archaeological literature as showing something different because of the use of plant remains. One of my research items for my master’s thesis was trying to explain how these plants remains fit into the broader picture of human foraging during the last Ice Age in America.

Did you stay at Wyoming for your PhD?

Yes, I did. I kind of shifted gears then. I still focused on the east but was dealing with bigger questions. My dissertation focused mostly on the initial colonization of eastern North America but looked at whether or not there was evidence for more regional adaptations versus more continental-wide adaptations. This has been a controversial issue in American archaeology because by 13,000 years ago we have a widespread culture called Clovis, and for many years it was thought that this group either colonized North America or spread through an existing population. Clovis technology spread across North America in as little as 200-500 years. We see these Clovis groups from the southernmost part of California all the way to Maine and they share the same technology with all sites dating within a few hundred years one another.

There are a lot of scenarios to explain this rapid spread, one of which focused on their subsistence strategies. If they were really focusing on the hunting of big game, it may have been this hunting focus that allowed them to move across the continent so quickly. Because hunting technology and skill is something that it is geographically transferrable, populations could have moved quickly through new environments/regions while following and hunting game. This is contrary to a view where hunter-gatherers adapt to different environments and resources. Some researchers think that these more regional adaptations would have resulted in a slower colonization process or spread of people as people spent time learning new resources. So, for my dissertation I looked at the evidence for these more regional vs. continental-wide adaptations and what this could tell us about human mobility and possible strategies of landscape learning.

I finished my dissertation in 2012. My first position after that was with the Smithsonian Institution at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. I was a research fellow for 18 months right up to the point that I came to North Carolina State University. That was a pure research position. I’ve kept my association with them and I am currently a research associate there until 2016. I still have a lot of projects that I’m working on at the museum, many of which are now jointly run through both the Smithsonian and NC State.

What courses do you currently teach?

I did a little bit of teaching during my PhD. I taught an Intro to Archaeology course and one section of World Archaeology, which is similar to the course that I’m teaching in the Fall of 2014, which is Unearthing the Past: World Archaeology. This fall, I’ve also offered a new graduate and undergraduate level special topics course: Hunter-Gatherers. Next semester I will teach Native Peoples and Cultures of North America.

Could you describe your teaching style or philosophy?

When I was a student I always enjoyed having professors who were experts in the field lecture and share as much material as they knew with me. In the larger courses, I take a lecture style. I have a lot of knowledge and feel it is my job to give the students as much of that knowledge as possible. However, a lot of my more enjoyable experiences in teaching come from providing students with hands-on activities. But when you’re teaching a large world archaeology class with 75 students you don’t have the opportunity to do as many of those hands-on activities. For example, I’m teaching the same class this summer with a much smaller enrollment and in that class I’m going to be taking them out on the Court of North Carolina to make stone tools and to possibly make fire. I’m also going to be taking them to the physical anthropology lab to look at hominid skulls in order to show them the attributes that anthropologists look at to explain human evolution over time.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve taken several students into the field with me to do research, mostly master’s students. As the project expands, hopefully, we’ll be taking undergraduate students as well.

Graduate students excavating at Smith Mountain.
Graduate students excavating at Smith Mountain.

What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?

I was kind of in a unique situation when I was in high school and got a job doing archaeology. I feel like it’s my obligation to give some of that back in terms of giving students opportunities. This is why I take students into the field and enjoy hands-on activities. Caring enough to meet with students outside of class is important to me. Trying to provide opportunities for them is important to me. Whoever walks through my door for office hours, I feel it’s my responsibility, regardless of their interests, to connect them with someone who does what they’re interested in.

What are some of your favorite assignments for students?

I don’t think I’ve taught long enough to develop favorites, but there are a few activities I enjoy. I really enjoy doing experimental archaeology and it is really useful to students. In my current class I’ve been talking about the first evidence of stone tools that we see in the world and how that technology changes over time and becomes more complex. I’ve also talked to them about using fire. When we go out and make stone tools, it’s not just about making stone tools but showing them the principles of it and how difficult it is sometimes. After you sit there and you try to make a stone tool, you’re left with all of this debris from making stone tools, which provides a great link for students when we talk about how we interpret the archaeological record. They can look down at their feet and see individual patterns that they’ve made, which are often different from the person next to them or the patterns that I’ve made. Usually, I’m a better stone tool maker than they are. They’re also impressed by how efficient a stone tool can be. For example, if you remove one flake from a core, if that flake is thin enough and the raw material is fine grain, that flake can be many times sharper than steel. They’re always really impressed when I take one flake and cut through a piece of leather. That flake is much sharper than the pocket knife they may own.

Also when we’re looking at different hominid skulls throughout time, starting with Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, and moving to Homo habilis, the first toolmaker, and then Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and all the way up to modern humans, I first try to see if they can arrange the skulls in the proper chronological order based on the morphological changes I’ve talked about in class. At Wyoming, I had enough stone tools in the teaching collection that I could ask them to tell me which technology went with which group. This exercise provides some feedback to me on how I’m doing with the lectures but, more importantly, it also provides them with a hands-on experience so they can better understand both morphological and technological changes overtime.

If we were to be stranded somewhere, I would definitely want you on my team.

(Laughter) My flintknapping (stone tool making) is somewhere in the Homo erectus realm in terms of large bifaces. But, I have made some very effective stone tools, though.

If you could teach your dream course, what would that be?

I’m very excited about teaching this Hunter-Gatherer course. Not only because it’s a subject that my research centers around but it’s been great to look at the enrollment and see that I’m attracting students from other disciplines, disciplines that make sense such as ecology and zoology. The models that archaeologists use to model human behavior are often borrowed and adapted from ecology and zoology, because they look at animal behavior. One course that would also be fun to teach is a course on experimental archaeology. In this course, I would not only be teaching students primitive skills, like fire making and stone tool making, but tying these activities to archaeology in terms of how we use experiments to understand the archaeological record and interpret the past.

Current Research
What are your current research interests?

I’m working on a lot of different projects right now. I’ve talked a little bit about my dissertation research where I looked at whether there was evidence of more regional adaptations or continental adaptations over time. In my dissertation I found evidence for more uniform or continental-wide adaptations looking at a survey of sites throughout eastern North America. While this is interesting, a more important question to answer is: When do we see that change? A lot of my research now explores when we see regional adaptations appearing. If Clovis did colonize North America or new parts of the landscape, understanding when regional adaptations begin and the colonization process stops is important. Some of my fieldwork now, especially around Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, provides an opportunity to look at a single spot on the landscape where we see a number of different prehistoric occupations and examine how populations change over time. Here, we are looking at how settlement patterns change and how people are using different resources over time. Some of this research is related to large-scale, even global, issues of how humans respond to climate change. 13,000 years ago people are living in the last Ice Age. Although we see climate warming at the end of the last ice age we know there were both warming trends and a rapid climatic reversal. Within about 1,000 years, you have people going from a time when glaciers are melting on the continent and sea waters are rising to a rapid climatic reversal, where it returns to almost Ice Age conditions for a few hundred years before climate warms again and stays that way. There is a lot variation in landscape use and technological change during this period – part of my research investigates whether these changes among prehistoric populations are related to climatic fluctuations.

The Smith Mountain research location in Virginia.
The Smith Mountain research location in Virginia.

Another project that I’m working on involves a detailed analysis of artifact spatial patterning at Paleoindian sites. This work is aimed at building models to better recognize activities and features at other mobile hunter-gatherer campsites. Recognizing features such as structures and campfires can be very difficult when you’re dealing with a 13,000 year old archaeological site. There are specific arrangements that people create around say, a campfire, or when inside of a structure. So, I’m trying to build models where we can better recognize those arrangements to better interpret the archaeological record. These patterns also inform us about social interaction, something we know very little about 13,000 years ago. If we can recognize structures and individual campfires by analyzing the spatial distribution of artifacts we may be able to learn more about social aspects. This may include identifying sharing among groups or recognizing a campsite composed of closely-related kin groups versus one of distantly-related groups. Just think about how we camp. If you are with a large group, you will usually camp close to someone you know. If you’re with a bunch of people you don’t know, you’ll set your tent farther away and have your own space. This may be an oversimplification, but similar patterns occur among modern hunter-gatherer groups so they likely also existed in the past.

I’m beginning to use some of these models with one of the researchers at the Smithsonian to look at Homo erectus sites from 1 million to 600,000 years ago. Our goal is to look at the development of modern human behavior by examining changes in spatial patterns over time. The thought is that modern humans may produce different spatial patterns from that of other hominids. This is a big question in archaeology and anthropology that asks: What are the signatures of modern human behavior and how can we recognize these in the archaeological record? If you ask any archaeologist, they’ll give you a laundry list of characteristics: art, long-distance transport of raw materials, watercraft, advanced tool making, etc.; all things that we want to see as modern human behavior. In this project we are starting with really small things, with aspects we can look at based on the spatial patterns of debris left behind at a campsite. In the end, we might only be able to say: These early hominid groups had different spatial patterns than what we see with modern humans, but identifying whether or not we see the same degree of social complexity in terms of the organization of campsites may go a long way in understanding how behavior changes over time.

Is there theoretical framework are you working out of?

A lot of my research is tied to human behavioral ecology. This is a theoretical perspective that looks at adaptive responses in human behavior from a more evolutionary standpoint. It’s basically trying to model or predict human behavior based on certain environmental or social contexts. Within this, we’re often using mathematical and graphical models to predict human behavior. Even though it’s a very scientific approach where we are out collecting data and then trying to look at ways to model behaviors and test hypotheses, a lot of experimental archaeology comes into play. For example, taking calculations of time. How long does it take to produce stone tools or collect food? What’s involved in each of these activities? We ask these questions so that we can build accurate models to predict human behavior and then test that with the archaeological and ethnographic records.

Are there any unique research tools that you’ll be using to carry out your work?

Definitely some ArcGIS. In all of my work with these Homo erectus sites, I’m using ArcGIS to analyze the data and analyze the distribution of artifacts at different sites. There are some projects where I may eventually use some remote sensing but that’s not something I commonly use. Other than that, there are no particular research tools. I’m often out doing classic excavations and collecting data. I’ve had a friend doing a lot of use-wear analysis for me on some of my projects, which helps us understand activities and site function. In doing use-wear, we are taking stone tools and looking at them under a microscope to see if we can infer what items were used and what activities they were used for. Examples include tools used to scrape animal hides, to scrape wood, or for cutting meat. We understand these activities through experimental archaeology. To recognize use-wear you have to actually go out and use stone tools and look at them under a microscope to determine what use-wear patterns are created through certain activities. Afterwards, you compare the experimental use patterns to those found on tools from the archaeological record.

Experimental archaeology using stone tools to determine use-wear.
Experimental archaeology using stone tools to determine use-wear.

Have you faced any challenges so far in building this project?

We’re facing problems all the time with the Smith Mountain Gap Project. We know about a lot of these archaeological sites because these sites are eroding out of ancient river terraces but we’re always challenged by water levels and when we can get to these sites. If the water level is too high, we can’t get to a particular site. I’ve already had to cut back and reduce one field session because of high water. It’s not your typical project in terms of planning a field date and going out whenever you want to excavate. Right now, we trying to find more areas that are less affected by the water levels and contain archaeological materials that we can work year round.

Do you have a timeline for the Smith Mountain Gap project?

Dr. Gingerich at the Smith Mountain research location with a soapstone bowl.
Dr. Gingerich at the Smith Mountain research location with a soapstone bowl.

It’s really too new to know. I am going to be applying for at least one grant this fall to do additional field work. It’s the type of project that, if I wanted it to, could go on for the rest of my life. There’s so much stuff out there and the location is a really neat archaeological landscape in that there’s every time period represented. Everything from sites that date back to 13,000 years ago to the late Woodland time period, which represents the last Indian groups in North America before they came into contact with Europeans. It really is a project that could go on for a long time, depending on answering particular questions, access to the sites, funding, etc.

I also have other projects that I’m working on that take up time, in addition to teaching. I’m working with colleagues at the Smithsonian that have developed a technique of using 3D scanning to examine changes in biface technology, this means looking at spear points, for example, and being able to identify how the spear points were flaked (crafted) and whether these techniques relate to a specific toolmaker or is consistent with a particular technology. We’ve done a couple of projects and I’ve had one paper come out in World Archaeology since I’ve been at NC State that covered this technique. We are currently working on a few more publications. It’s interesting because we’re using these 3D scanning methods and some statistical analyses to show that around 13,000 years ago in North America prehistoric artisans made spear points in such a consistent way that it almost looks like this technique was passed down from a master toolmaker to an apprentice. People who are trying to copy this technique, such as modern day flintknappers (stone tool makers), are singled out by this statistical method. These results suggest that there must have been some kind of social control, which speaks to a larger social network that enabled populations to maintain this technology across all of North America for a few hundred years. My colleagues and I are using this method to look at social interaction on the landscape and determine when social interactions change.

Further Questions
What do you feel are the biggest unanswered questions in your areas of interest?

The stuff that I’m working on right now, especially sites that date to right about 13,000 years ago, is probably among the most controversial topics in American archaeology. There are a lot questions about when people got to North America, where they came from, and what migration routes they took into the country. Did they come from Europe? Did they come from Northeast Asia? There’s also debate about whether there were multiple waves of migration into the Americas, which most of us believe. We have wide-spread evidence of people at 13,000 years ago, we just don’t know how early they got here and how they spread across the continent.

Recognizing early evidence of modern human behavior is one of the bigger questions in anthropology. I talked a little bit about my work with trying to assess change in behavior through the spatial analysis of archaeological sites, but this is just a small contribution in creating a large comparative database to examine change over time. The question of when we see “modern” human behavior? How do we define modern human behavior? And how can we recognize it in the archaeological record? Is important to our discipline, because understanding when behavioral advances occur related to better documented anatomical changes informs us about patterns of evolution and potentially the timing and spread of populations throughout the world.

Is there a subject in the field that you wish you knew more about?

That’s a hard question. I have some colleagues who are doing underwater remote sensing. I think an interesting aspect of the early colonization of the Americas is the fact that when people entered North America sea levels were 300 feet lower. This means that a lot land mass along North and South America has been lost. If people entered North America by boats, the first sites are probably under the ocean. Some of my colleagues at the Smithsonian are doing side-scanning sonar and mapping the continental shelf. I wish I had a little more background in underwater archaeology. There are a few people out there doing underwater archaeology, but besides shipwrecks, these types of investigations have only become popular in the past fifteen years or so. Researchers are just now going out and trying to dive and excavate 13,000 year old deposits on the ocean floor. It’s not something I would pursue now but if I were an undergraduate, I might try to add that to my skill set.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young scholars trying to chart a career path for themselves?

My best advice is to put yourself out there as much as possible and volunteer for as many things as you can. Most of my success in archaeology came from me being able to pursue fieldwork so young and getting out into the field. I encourage all undergraduates or anyone even remotely interested in archaeology to talk to your professors and see if there are any field opportunities. See if there are positions where you can get paid. See if there are positions or labs that you can volunteer for. When I was at Wyoming, I helped an undergraduate apply for a National Science Foundation grant that paid for field school. There are opportunities out there, but very few professors have the time to walk around and find people. Our doors are always open!

Also, a lot of people get into this mindset that it’s really hard to get a job in anthropology now. In some ways it is, but, especially with my time at the Smithsonian and being around people working in the federal government, I’ve found that there are a lot of interesting jobs that you would never think of or look for with an anthropology degree. Everything from working at the State Department to working for the World Bank to advising on commercial advertising. Anthropology teaches you to study humans. It teaches you cultural diversity. If you’re creative enough to figure out how to apply some of those skills, there are a lot of jobs out there.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

One is being able to work with students and give them opportunities to either have interesting experiences or do interesting research, and the second is being in an academic setting. I feel like I have a lot of intellectual freedom in terms of what I study and where I work in the world. It’s a good balance of being able to work with students but also having time to pursue my own research.

Would you ever work outside of academia?

Yes. I mentioned that there are a lot of interesting jobs out there, so you always have to be open-minded in the way that you apply your degree or specialty to different problems and subjects.

Do you have a favorite place? It can be anywhere in the world.

I’ve really enjoyed going to France over the past few years and I hope to do more work there with a good friend of mine that lives there. I’ve always liked this region [North Carolina] and I enjoy going out to the Outer Banks. I haven’t spent much time in the western part of the state but I’m anxious to get out there. I also enjoy visiting the west coast.


We’d like to thank Dr. Gingerich for his time and his willingness to share his research with us. If you’d like to contact him to discuss his research, you can find his information here: Faculty Listing – Dr. Joseph Gingerich.

Until next time,

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology