Skip to main content

Departmental History

The University of New Mexico was founded in 1889, twenty-three years before the territory became the forty-seventh state in 1912. Its seventh president, James F. Zimmerman, for whom the library is named, was responsible for initiating the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1928, early in the history of anthropology in the United States.  The first academic anthropology programs in the United States were offered at the University of Pennsylvania (1886), Harvard (1887), Clark University (1889), which conferred the first doctorate in 1892, and the University of Chicago (1892). In the West and Southwest, programs at the University of California Berkeley (1901), the University of Arizona (1915), and the University of Utah (1926) preceded UNM’s, which initially concentrated on Southwest archaeology and ethnology.

The Department’s first faculty member and chair was southwest archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, the first director of the School of American Research (1907), the Museum of New Mexico (1909), and the San Diego Museum of Man (1916), who had taught the territory’s first anthropology courses in 1900 while president of New Mexico Normal School (now Highlands University) in Las Vegas. Hewett and Zimmerman launched successful efforts to acquire important archaeological sites for UNM, including the Salinas missions, Coronado Monument, Pa'ako Ruins, and part of Chaco Canyon.  Annual summer field schools, a program begun by Hewett in 1928, have continued at various sites in the Southwest and elsewhere.

The Department’s Museum of Anthropology became Albuquerque’s first public museum in 1932. Both Department and Museum moved into the new Administration-Laboratory Building on the UNM campus (now Scholes Hall) when it opened in 1936, the department occupying the east wing and the museum the center of the first floor. In 1961, after the current Student Union Building was completed in 1959, both Department and Museum moved into their present quarters in the old student union building that had opened in 1938.

In 1945 Professor Leslie Spier founded the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, renamed the Journal of Anthropological Research in 1973. As of January 2016, the journal is published by the University of Chicago Press, and Distinguished Leslie Spier Professor Dr. Lawrence Straus serves as Editor. Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective has been edited by Distinguished Professor Jane Lancaster since its founding in 1990 and is published by Springer International Publishing AG.

After the 1961 move to its present location, the Department entered a period of expansion and diversification. A long-term commitment to Latin American Studies developed. Four subfields with associated undergraduate and graduate programs (Archaeology, Biological Anthropology, Ethnology, Linguistic Anthropology) were formed in 1975, with a fifth, Human Evolutionary Ecology, added in 1992. Linguistic Anthropology merged into Ethnology in 1996. Biological Anthropology and Human Evolutionary Ecology merged as Evolutionary Anthropology in 2007, creating three subfields: Archaeology, Ethnology, and Evolutionary Anthropology.

A museum annex was opened in 1962, when the first museum professional was hired. Additional museum space and a patio wing of faculty offices were finished in 1972, when the museum was renamed Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in honor of philanthropists Dorothy and Gilbert Maxwell. It was accredited by the American Association of Museums the following year. The Anthropology Annex was remodeled in 1982 for archaeology faculty and the Office of Contract Archaeology, which was founded in 1973 as a semi-autonomous unit of the Department and is now a research division of Maxwell Museum. The Hibben Center for Archaeological Research, with collections, curation and classroom space, opened in 2002, thanks to a major donation from archaeologist, former museum director, and long-time UNM faculty member Frank C. Hibben. The National Park Service’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park Museum opened in the Hibben Center in 2007.

During the 1980s graduate study became more theoretical in focus, while the undergraduate program was reorganized around a core curriculum and a series of introductory courses that serve the entire university. The 1990s brought increased attention to biological and forensic anthropology, cultural resource management, collaborative research, policy, and public anthropology. Anthropology enrollments have increased substantially, and the Department now offers a variety of its courses in an on-line format.

In December 1999 the Department and Maxwell Museum received a Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish and endow the Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, named in honor of Professor Alfonso Ortiz, a faculty member from 1974 until his death in 1997, and winner of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship known as the "Genius Award." The Ortiz Center is now supported by university allocation and a substantial endowment. Sponsored programs bring together community scholars and cultural specialists with their academic counterparts for mutual teaching, learning, interaction, performance, and outreach. Recently, field schools have returned to Chaco Canyon and been offered at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains and in Hawai’i. There is field training in southern Belize, Spain, Peru, and Chile. Ethnology and Evolutionary Anthropology training programs operate in Bolivia, Palestine, Mexico, and Uganda at the Kibale National Park.

The expansion of the department’s faculty, its growing student success, as well as its far-reaching reputation have been noteworthy over the many decades.  Six faculty members taught anthropology in 1945, twenty-three in 1972. In 2014 the department has some thirty tenure-track positions, including several shared with Maxwell Museum. Faculty have conducted research throughout the Americas and in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The department’s first three baccalaureate and two master’s degrees were conferred in 1931-32, the first doctorate in 1948. By 2003-04, the Department’s 75th Diamond Jubilee year, more than 2000 baccalaureate and master’s degrees and 234 doctorates had been awarded, a number that exceeds 340 in 2014.  

Since its establishment in 1928 the Anthropology Department has enjoyed an excellent national and international reputation. Numbered among its past and present faculty are 10 members of the National Academy of Sciences (Lewis Binford, Jane Buikstra, Linda Cordell, Patricia Crown, Eugene Hammel, Henry Harpending, Clyde Kluckhohn, Jeremy Sabloff, Leslie Spier, Erik Trinkaus), 2 MacArthur Foundation fellows (Steven Feld, Alfonso Ortiz), 6 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Linda Cordell, Steven Feld, Clyde Kluckholn, Jeremy Sabloff, Leslie Spier, and Loa Traxler), 9 UNM distinguished professors (Keith Basso, Lewis Binford, Jane Buikstra, Patricia Crown, Steven Feld, Louise Lamphere, Jane Lancaster, James Spuhler, Lawrence G. Straus), one UNM presidential professor (Philip K. Bock), 4 University Regents professors (Keith Basso, Louise Lamphere, Erik Trinkaus, Marta Weigle), 6 UNM Annual Research Lecturers (Lewis Binford, Jane Buikstra, Louise Lamphere, Stanley Newman, Leslie Spier, Lawrence G. Straus), 4 University Regents lecturers (Carole Nagengast, Osbjorn Pearson, Beverly Singer, W. H. Wills), 3 recipients of UNM honorary degrees (John Martin Campbell, Florence Hawley Ellis, Edgar Lee Hewett), and 9 former presidents of the American Anthropological Association (Jane Buikstra, Clyde Kluckhohn, Louise Lamphere, Leslie Spier), the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (Jane Buikstra, James Spuhler), the American Ethnological Society (Keith Basso, Louise Lamphere), and the Society for American Archaeology (Jeremy Sabloff).

In 2018, the department will celebrate it's 90th anniversary.  For news, events, and information please be sure to check our website.