Anthropology professor researches the first Americans

It almost sounds like the beginning of a joke: What could the Texas heat and the Alaskan chill possibly have in common? The answer to that question is Department of Anthropology professor and Associate Department Head Ted Goebel, who found his home at Texas A&M University because it allowed him to conduct field work in Alaska. 

Goebel completed his undergraduate studies at Washington & Lee University in Virginia.  Before college, Goebel said, he was not even aware of anthropology.  Early in his college career, he was torn between history and geology.  

“I loved to read about the past, and I loved geology because I could go out in the field,” Goebel said. “I discovered with anthropology that I could do both.” 

Goebel’s interest in the people of the Ice Age and spread of humans to the New World happened while he was an upperclassman at Washington & Lee.  At the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Goebel received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in anthropology.  Professors at the University of Alaska allowed Goebel to participate in their research. 

After spending about a decade at the University of Nevada, where he was able to research the Great Basin, Goebel learned of an endowment program at Texas A&M University and an open faculty position.  He relocated to Texas to be an associate director of a better-funded program, The Center for the Study of the First Americans (CSFA).

CSFA has endowments of at least $2.5 million that help support research.  Every summer Texas A&M undergraduate students get the opportunity to travel to Alaska to attend field school, which is taught by doctoral students. Goebel is one of the professors that takes students on these trips. 

“It’s fun to see new places and to explore new landscapes.  I like the hard work, and I think the students do, too.  I always remind them at the end of a bad, rainy, windy, cold day that in six months when they are back in Texas they will wish that they were back in Alaska doing it again,” said Goebel. 

Between bear encounters and keeping warm while camping for weeks at a time, Goebel and his students face interesting challenges at the field school. 

Currently, Goebel is working near Fairbanks on a site that is believed to be about 13,500 years old.  Goebel believes that the site will give researchers a good idea as to how the first Alaskans lived and how they relate to the people that occupy the region today.

He was recently part of a research team including CSFA colleagues Mike Waters and Jessi Halligan, whose findings on America’s first human inhabitants were featured on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine.

For students, Goebel advised, “No matter what class it is, any anthropology class can be an eye-opening experience.” 

When asked about his favorite artifact, Goebel replied, “We’re not here to find things, we’re here to find things out.  That is what makes us archaeologists rather than collectors.  We value information from the project.”