Heading up Interstate 5 with a box of 2,000-year-old harpoon fragments in the back seat of his truck, Gabriel Sanchez, Class of 2014, was feeling a bit nervous. It's not every day that an undergrad studying at a university clear across the country from the Smithsonian Institution gets to borrow some of their irreplaceable artifacts.
"We had to pull some strings to make it happen," says Sanchez's advisor, Jon Erlandson, who helped arrange the loan. Erlandson, professor of archaeology and executive director of the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH), recalls plucking the promising young researcher from a potential work-study desk job in the anthropology office. "I said, 'No, give him to me!'" he says. "I'm so impressed with him. He's just extraordinary."
Sanchez was transporting the fragments, originally excavated at a coastal archaeological site near Seaside, Oregon, to a lab in Portland for blood-residue analysis. He hoped to find out if any of them had been used for whaling—a novel concept to most coastal archaeologists, who generally believe that while the region's indigenous residents hunted seals, sea lions, salmon, and more, they didn't mess with whales.
An anthropology major and member of the McNair Scholars Program (a federal program that helps students from groups underrepresented in graduate education prepare for doctoral studies), Sanchez focused his undergraduate research project on the Par-Tee archaeological site near Seaside, excavated in the 1960s and '70s. The site yielded a large trove of artifacts, now housed mainly at the Smithsonian and the MNCH.
Previously, while working with various collections at the UO and interning with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Sanchez had come upon numerous oral histories from the Tillamook and Clatsop tribes that related to hunting whales, using whale parts, and scavenging whale carcasses that had washed up on shore. "There is a large amount of oral history related to whales and other sea mammals on the Oregon Coast," Sanchez says, "but it was long stated that whale hunting was not important here."
Sanchez decided to see if he could validate the oral histories, and with Erlandson's help, he set up a trip to the Smithsonian to study the Par-Tee collection. "It's a very significant collection, numbering in the tens of thousands of pieces, from beavers and smaller mammals, to cormorants and albatross, to sea otters, elk, and whales," says Torben Rick, PhD '04, curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian. "If it swims or sits on a rock, it's probably in the collection."
With support from several UO departments, including the Office for Research, Innovation, and Graduate Education, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, and the McNair Scholars Program, Sanchez flew to Washington, D.C., staying at a hostel just a couple of blocks from the Smithsonian. "This was my first exposure to large-scale research and collections," he says. "It was a little intimidating."
Every day he packed a lunch and took a bus to Suitland, Maryland, where the Smithsonian's collections are housed, and immersed himself in his work. He explored drawer after drawer of bone fragments and other artifacts from the site, recording data from 70 harpoon points, looking at CT scans, and examining whale bones. One of the bones, a phalange with a piece of bone harpoon embedded in it, had been recently discovered by Rob Losey, PhD '02, and had caused considerable excitement. "It was a smoking gun," Rick says. "What did it mean? Were they actually whaling, or was it just a child's toy?"
Losey had analyzed DNA samples from the phalange and the harpoon, determining that the phalange was from a humpback whale, and the harpoon head was made from the bone of an elk—the same type of elk that people were eating at the site. "This showed us that opportunistic whaling might have happened on the coast," Rick says.
Sanchez was intrigued. Finding an archaeologist in Portland who could do blood-residue analysis on the harpoon fragments, he had them shipped to the UO.
While the testing did not confirm any whale blood on the fragments, it did show trout, salmon, and steelhead blood, Sanchez says. "Studies like this help us understand the human past in Oregon as well as what is happening in the present," Rick says. "It allows us to rewind the clock and see what was there a thousand years ago, as well as informing the natural history and conservation of whales today."
While the field of archaeology is full of fragmented data, each little study adds a piece to the puzzle, Rick says. "Gabriel's work is a small but important component of this larger framework," he says. "It's fantastic that he was able to take advantage of those collections. He's a pretty novel kid."
The son of a Mexican rancher who managed a vineyard in Northern California, Sanchez never dreamed his life might follow this path. "I had a humble background," he says. "My dad was an immigrant, my mom worked for the Department of Human Services, and my grandma worked in the pear sheds. Everyone I knew was a rancher, a farmer, or they worked in the mills. I would never have thought I'd be here in Oregon, let alone be a coastal archaeologist."
He credits his upbringing, and especially time spent with his very traditional Mexican grandmother, for much of his interest in cultural anthropology. "I have a different culture from most people," he says. "We have a lot of pride in our heritage." He notes wryly that anthropologists themselves tend to not be a very diverse lot. "I believe I can bring a different perspective due to my cultural background," he says.
Sanchez has been accepted into a PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he plans to become a zooarchaeologist (one who studies faunal remains). He will continue to concentrate on indigenous coastal peoples, and using an ecological approach, he will study the effects of climate change and colonization, and how humans have affected their local environments.
When he first went to college, Sanchez says, people told him that anthropology wasn't a viable field. But, with the help of the McNair Scholars program, he's proved them wrong. "I found a community of like-minded people," he says. "I had really good mentors and internships. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be where I am now."
—By Rosemary Howe Camozzi