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GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
JUNE 2003
Volume 95, Issue 5

GRAPHIC:  About AlumniC. Vitae

Cave crawler
Finding human and plant remains in southeastern U.S. caves, Patty Jo Watson trekked from archaeology’s fringes to prominence.

Human feces may not seem like an exciting find, but to archaeologist Patty Jo Watson, AM’56, PhD’59, it ranks pretty high. Well-preserved fecal specimens she found in the dry, upper passages of Kentucky’s Salts Cave date to 1000–300 B.C., in the early Woodland period. More important, sunflower-seed shells found in the paleofeces provide evidence that early American Indians in that region farmed the plants before they were brought from Mexico—and thus had formed their own, previously unknown agricultural system.

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Illustration by Richard Thompson

That 1960s finding, along with Watson’s other cave work on plant remains, received little attention at the time: she was a woman, and in North America there was a “pretty strong bias,” she says, that the “prototypical archaeologist was a man.” Moreover, while she dug in caves, most sites were open and stratified. Few archaeologists would spend up to 14 hours a day in cool, dark, claustrophobic caves with minimal food. Fewer considered paleofeces a serious find.

But by the 1980s mainstream archaeologists recognized the importance of plant remains and what they revealed about early southeastern U.S. agriculture. With years’ worth of data, Watson—now the Edward Mallinckrodt distinguished university professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis—became a leading figure in the field.

It was her husband, Richard A. Watson, her high-school sweetheart from Sheffield, Iowa, who diverted her focus from Old World archaeology—Iran, Iraq, Turkey—to the New World and caves. In 1963 his cave group wanted a social scientist to join their trips. “I was the one they could get their hands on,” Patty Jo Watson says. The private Illinois State Museum Society granted the cave researchers $300—“a lot in the early Sixties”—to explore Salts Cave, determine the age of the remains inside, and learn caves’ appeal to early humans—a prehistoric 9-year-old boy had been found in Salts Cave in 1873, and a 45-year-old man was found in Mammoth Cave in 1935, both undecayed, as if they’d been mummified. “I got deeper and deeper in it,” Watson says, “and pretty soon gave up my Near Eastern work.”

Although crawling through the twisting nether regions of Salts Cave and others in the 350-mile Mammoth Cave National Park—the world’s longest cave system—put Watson and her students and colleagues at U.S. archaeology’s fringes, she trudged onward. “It was so much fun finding out where [the Indians] went and why.”

She learned that they explored in caves. Some caves were used as cemeteries, others as mines for medicinal minerals like mirabilite and epsomite or ceremonial or trade-worthy minerals like mica, copper, selenite, and gypsum. At first Watson was convinced that mining was the primary cave activity. But in recent years she’s seen charcoal drawings and engravings of turtles, lizards, geometric shapes, and latticeworks—all images linked to early Indians’ spiritual beliefs—and she has come to agree with other researchers that the caves often were used as “places that you could communicate with the spirits of the underworld.” Some ethnographers, she says, believe that prehistoric peoples “had a layered universe conception.” Caves were part of the lower world.

Watson’s own studies focused on the Indians’ diet. She and her colleagues analyzed charred plant remains from Salts Caves’ wet vestibule, where the bottom layer revealed squash and gourd remains. To get samples buried even deeper—“the beginning of the story”—they turned to Shell Mound, an open, stratified site about 40 miles west of Mammoth Cave. There they found older layers showing sunflower, sumpweed, maygrass, chenopod, and oily seeded plants.

Back in the caves, the deeper, dryer regions are like time standing still. That’s where the two undecayed humans were found and where Watson has collected about a dozen distinct fecal samples. Intestinal tissue taken from the two bodies in the late 1960s and mid-1970s showed contents that matched Watson’s fecal specimens. Radio-carbon and later accelerator-mass-spectrometer dating told the samples’ ages, and biochemistry testing showed that all of her paleofeces came from males. DNA tests will show how closely the men were related.

Watson’s interdisciplinary inklings—bringing in a paleoethnobotanist to identify plant remains and seeds in fecal matter, a zoologist to identify footprints—is a lesson learned from the late Oriental Institute professor Robert Braidwood, PhD’43. After transferring as a junior from Iowa State in 1952 to begin a three-year master’s program in anthropology, Watson learned about Braidwood’s work. “Very quickly,” she says, “I gravitated to the Iraq-Jarmo project”—his dig at the time. She had never left the Midwest, but at Braidwood’s invitation she joined him in the Middle East.

Watson’s master’s project was on Banahilk, a prehistoric site north of Jarmo, “way above the Rowanduz gorge up toward the Persian [Iranian] border,” she says. “Braidwood took me up there with a sort of caravan, a couple of cars with all the gear we needed, and his dig supervisor, Abdullah.” Although she had gone to field school in Arizona to learn how to find and dig a site, this was her first real fieldwork. “I was turned loose on this site up in North Iraq with just Abdullah and some workmen to keep me on the straight and narrow,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have survived without them.”

By the time she began to look for a Ph.D. dissertation project, Iraq had gone through a revolution, and a nationalist government—Saddam Hussein’s Baath predecessors—had taken over. The Arabs and Kurds were still fighting, and Jarmo sat between the conflict. Watson ended up writing a “library dissertation.”

A few years later Richard Watson took a position in Washington University’s philosophy department, and in 1968 Pat joined the anthropology department. Although she keeps up with Middle East research, since 1963 most of her work has been in the Kentucky caves. She knew her cave research had reached mainstream U.S. archaeology when she and her colleagues wrote a chapter in the The Woodland Southeast (University of Alabama Press, 2002). But her contributions had already been recognized: elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988, Watson edited the journal American Antiquity for four years and Anthropology Today for three. One of only 28 people with honorary lifetime memberships in the National Speleological Society, in November 2002 she was named one of Discover magazine’s “50 Most Important Women in Science,” cited for “establishing the best qualitative and quantitative data for an early agricultural complex in North America.”

Planning to retire from teaching next June, Watson, now 71, still goes caving two or three times a year. She also explores the open sites at Shell Mound—hoping to learn what preceded the early Woodland people’s planting and caving. “The more you learn,” she says, “the more you want to learn, and the more you see that you really haven’t gotten very far.” From a woman who’s traveled upward of 100 cave miles, that may be an understatement.



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