This story appears in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Jason De León began his career as a traditional archaeologist. He excavated ancient sites in Mexico, uncovering artifacts that were centuries—if not millennia—old. But as he was finishing his dissertation on stone tools, he found himself increasingly drawn to the digs’ laborers, who told him harrowing tales of crossing the border into the United States, only to be deported.
Although he grew up near the border in Texas and California, “I realized I didn’t know anything” about immigration, De León says now. But he thought archaeology could be used to understand the contentious issue.
More than five million people have attempted to cross the Sonoran Desert since 2000. De León’s research reveals how that migration has changed over time. For instance, in 2009 he began finding black plastic bottles. White jugs were too visible to Border Patrol agents; now migrants carried bottles decorated with pictures of the patron saints of migrants or maps of important landmarks—products of a new industry based on undocumented migration.
De León describes his fieldwork as “eclectic.” Some days he walks the trails. On others he might interview migrants at a shelter, safe house, or courthouse—or launch a drone to search for dead bodies. Archaeology is about “trying to understand human behavior in the past through the study of what people leave behind,” he says. “Nobody ever said the past had to be a thousand years ago.”