Betty J. Meggers: Pioneer in Environmental Archaeology

Clifford Evans and Betty Meggers Leaning Over DiagramAnthropologist Betty J. Meggers published her first scientific paper, entitled “The Beal-Steere Collection of Pottery from Marajó Island, Brazil,” in 1945.  It would be the first of more than 300 books, journal articles, monographs, and translations Meggers would author.  The primary focus of her career, which spanned more than six decades, was the history and people of the Amazon River Basin.

Betty J. Meggers was born in Washington, DC, on December 5, 1921.  Her father, William Frederick Meggers, was a physicist who held an enthusiasm for archeology.  Native American archaeological sites were of particular interest, including a visit to the Serpent Mound in Ohio when Betty was child.  Betty’s first association with the Smithsonian occurred when, as the age of sixteen, she volunteered with the Department of Anthropology to mend pots excavated from the Anasazi village of Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico.  This experience must have unearthed a calling in Betty, as she studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1943. Betty later pursued a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, focusing her studies on pottery and ceramics collected from Marajó Island in 1870, and producing the aforementioned 1945 publication.

While working toward her PhD at Columbia University, Meggers met Clifford Evans, who also was pursuing a PhD in anthropology, and had conducted field work in the southwestern United States and Peru.  Clifford Evans received his PhD in 1950 and soon after received an appointment as Instructor in Anthropology at the University of Virginia.  Betty Meggers received her PhD in 1952, at which time women were candidates for a mere 10 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States.

Dr. Clifford Evans and Dr. Betty J. Meggers, anthropologists at Museum of Natural History, 1968.Dr. Clifford Evans and Dr. Betty J. Meggers, anthropologists at Museum of Natural History, 1968.

Evans and Meggers married in 1946, and went on to become two of the most influential archeologists of the twentieth century.  The majority of their collective work focused on the people and culture of the Amazon River Basin, including Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Guyana.  Together, they became the first archaeologists to focus their research on how the sultry rainforest environment affected the daily lives of ancient Amazonians.  Through the examination of soil, which was found to be thin and lacking nutrients, Meggers and Evans concluded the intense climate of the rainforest could not have nurtured the levels of agricultural production necessary to sustain permanent settlements, and proposed residents of the highland areas created only temporary, seasonal habitations on the rainforest floor.  In 1957, Meggers and Evans published Archeological Investigations at the Mouth of the Amazon.  Although this research was received with considerable skepticism, Meggers continued to review evidence and related data for more than 50 years.

Clifford Evans and Betty MeggersThe examination of pottery, a human craft, can reveal a wealth of information about the peoples that occupied an archaeological site.  In the early 1960s, Meggers examined stratified ceramics unearthed in Valdivia Ecuador.  Employing a system of pottery analysis that she and Evans developed, incorporating radiocarbon dating, thermoluminescence, and stratified excavation, the Valdivian specimens dated to approximately 2700 BC.  Surprisingly, she found many similarities with pottery excavated in Kyushu, Japan, attributed to the ancient Jōmon period.  Meggers and Evans concluded that there may have been contact between the two cultures, despite being separated by more than 9,000 miles of Pacific Ocean.  However, the Jōmon period is a rather broad range, 14,000 – 300 BC.  This wide range of time, and the lack of evidence suggesting robust sailing techniques, once again led to skepticism throughout the archaeological profession. 

Clifford Evans was hired by the Smithsonian in 1951 as an associate curator in the Department of Anthropology, was promoted to Curator of the Division of Archaeology in 1962, and became Supervising Curator of the Office of Anthropological Research in 1964.  He suffered a fatal heart attack in 1981.  Betty Meggers became a research associate in the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology in 1954, and held this appointment for 58 years.  She was also Director of the Latin American Archaeology Program at National Museum of Natural History at the time of her passing in 2012.  The legacy of Betty Meggers lies in her prolific writings, her tireless analysis of data, and her collaboration with archaeologists and students around the world.  The Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans Papers are held by the National Anthropological Archives.

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