Mark Aldenderfer


Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Mark Aldenderfer

Photograph by Elena Zhukova

Birthplace: Canton, Ohio

Current City: Merced, California

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Early on, say when I was five or six, I got hooked on browsing my uncle's paleontology textbooks, which he had left in the attic of my grandparents' house. I quickly moved from dinosaurs to humans, and by the third grade, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist. My "class future," written in the fifth grade, faithfully records me as an archaeologist who had made an important discovery about the past. I also recall a seventh-grade science project in which I compared brain shapes and sizes of some of our hominid ancestors (having modeled them out of clay). I didn't win a prize, but it didn't matter. I was hooked on the past.

How did you get started in your field of work?

In college, I took my first anthropology course, and from there, it was a simple step to my first archaeological fieldwork experience, which was at a Woodland Period site in the Piedmont of North Carolina. I've pretty much done fieldwork every year somewhere for the past 40 years!

What inspires you to dedicate your life to anthropology?

Although we are trained as scientists, there is a deep romance to uncovering the past and learning about ancient peoples and their lives. It's not about an Indiana Jones-style adventure, but more of an exploration that engages your emotions as well as your intellect. When you excavate, you are the first person to see something—an artifact, house, painting, whatever—discarded or buried intentionally by a long-dead fellow human. I remember sitting beside a 10,000-year-old fire hearth my team discovered in Peru, thinking about the people that once sat around it so long ago. That's the emotional connection.

At the same time, your intellect is engaged. How did these people live, what led to changes in their religion, politics, and lifeways? There is great satisfaction in doing science to explain the past and the transformations our species has undergone, and thus to contribute to the story of humankind.

What's a normal day like for you?

It all depends on where I happen to be. At home, in my university role, it is that of a typical faculty member: classes, working with students, administrative tasks, and when possible, reading and writing about my own work. Preparing manuscripts and grant proposals is a big part of my life. In the field, it is all about the project—getting the crew moving, making sure the logistics of the camp are covered, consulting with locals who have a stake in our work, and keeping track of what is being done. For the larger projects, I'm the supervisor who coordinates, observes, and consults with the crew. I don't get to dig in the dirt as much as I might like, but the excitement is still there.

Do you have a hero?

I admire many people, but for me, a hero is someone truly extraordinary who has persevered despite overwhelming odds. Since I have begun working in Tibet, Nepal, and the Himalaya, I have found that hero—Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. One need not be Buddhist nor subscribe to all positions he holds to see him as a man of peace and compassion, something sorely needed in this world.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

The discovery of 4,000-year-old gold jewelry—the earliest gold jewelry discovered in the Americas to date—in the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru ranks right up there as one of my favorite field moments. It was a stormy day in November; the weather was getting worse with a cold rain and blowing wind. I was called into the unit by the excavator, who was working on uncovering a burial and who had spotted something "odd." That oddity turned out to be a gold necklace around the base of a skull of a woman. Not only was this wholly unexpected, it created a major challenge to get it out of the ground before the storm arrived and before too much attention had been drawn to the discovery. We feared that had the local villagers been made aware of the necklace, the site would have been looted overnight. We managed to get the burial out of the ground and the gold safely back to the lab before the storm hit and its existence widely known.

What are your other passions?

This may sound dull, but my work really is my passion. I am constantly amazed by the vitality of archaeology and the surprises my colleagues all over the world discover as they pursue their research.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time? Just kidding; I do have some. Reading, dining out at good restaurants, and travel are all part of the relaxation mix.

If you could have people do one thing to help preserve archaeological sites, what would it be?

I would ask people to live just for a moment in the past—that is, I would ask them to remember that the world we live in was built by countless others and those accomplishments—the sites, landscapes, and places where this past was constructed-are valuable because they are part of our common heritage as humans. By remembering, we may find it easier to preserve the fragile remains of that past.

Inside National Geographic Magazine

  • Photo: Human remains in the Himalaya

    Cliff Cave Secrets Blog

    Archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer set out last year to explore remote cliffside caves in Nepal’s Mustang district, aiming to find human remains near an ancient settlement high in the Himalaya.


  • Human remains found in high Himalayan caves (picture) suggest new death ritual

    New Death Ritual Uncovered

    In high cliffside caves, explorers find 1,500-year-old de-fleshed skeletons—clues to an unknown Himalayan rite.

In Their Words

Here is a deep romance to uncovering the past and learning about ancient peoples and their lives.

—Mark Aldenderfer

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