Digging into the past

Prehistory, meet Professor Donald Grayson. As featured speaker for this year’s University Faculty Lecture, he digs into the mystery surrounding mass extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age.

Passion never rests

What does an apple-sized hunk of poop from an ancient ground sloth have in common with a 7.5-inch spear tip used by prehistoric humans?

They’re both 13,000 years old, and UW anthropology professor Donald Grayson shows them both off with palpable enthusiasm in his Condon Hall office.

These artifacts never crossed paths in their prior lives. The former was found in a cave in the Grand Canyon, the latter in a cache in East Wenatchee. But together, they serve as a fitting reminder of Grayson’s career-long research interest: the relationship between people and their environment.

“Whether it’s late-Pleistocene extinctions or Neanderthals in France, my research has always been focused on the relationship between humans and the landscapes they inhabit,” says Grayson. “I didn’t think about it — my focus just kind of emerged.”

An anthropology professor at the University of Washington since 1975, Grayson has cut a wide swath in his field. In addition to his prolific research and publication history — from papers on ancient elk in the American West to Neanderthals in southwest France — he has served on numerous editorial boards and professional societies, both nationally and internationally.

Among the many awards and honors he holds, Grayson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Washington State Academy of Sciences. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in revitalizing archaeological research in the Great Basin of the American West.

In recognition of the impact he has had on his profession, UW faculty members and the Office of the Provost have selected Grayson to give the 2016 University Faculty Lecture. Established in 1976, it is the highest honor faculty can bestow upon a member of their own ranks.

Deep impact

Highlights of a fruitful career

Though his work often covers extinct animals that are so remarkable they approach mythic status — sabertooth cats, woolly mammoths — Grayson grounds his fascination in his fierce allegiance to scientific rigor. It’s a defining theme that’s driven his career and helped shape his discipline for more than four decades, covering thousands of miles and peering thousands more years into the past.




In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Grayson was among a handful of numbers-minded scientists who applied statistical techniques to the analysis of animal bones from archaeological sites. Their approach led to the establishment of the sub-discipline of zooarchaeology — the study of animal remains from archaeological settings.

In his words: “Back then, archaeology was a largely descriptive discipline. People were getting tired of just describing the past and wanted to understand how it actually worked.”


Cro-Magnon vs. Neanderthal


Grayson spent many years analyzing animal remains as old as 175,000 years — from reindeer to horses to chamois — found in caves in southwest France. He and a fellow researcher found convincing evidence that Neanderthals had the same diet as prehistoric humans, also known as Cro-Magnon. The implication? Neanderthals were much more adept at hunting than previously thought.

In his words: “The idea that Neanderthals were big, dumb brutes is hard for some people to drop.”


Late-Pleistocene extinctions


Grayson has argued persuasively in numerous scientific publications that humans did not cause the massive wave of extinctions that swept the Americas between about 30,000 and 10,000 years ago. Along with other details, he cites lack of evidence that humans even hunted most of the animals that went extinct.

In his words: “I just think it’s sloppy science, and sloppy science drives me nuts.”


Researching the past, looking to the future


Grayson has mentored 22 Ph.D. students over the course of his career. The best part? All mentees have found career success across the country, from professorships to major roles in the public and private sectors.

In his words: “Once I realized how rewarding it is to work with students, to help people become what they want to become, it became the most rewarding part of my career. Getting to know students, getting to interact with them, getting to help them — it’s just totally cool.”

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University Faculty Lecture

The extinct Ice Age mammals of North America

Donald GraysonDonald Grayson
Professor of Anthropology

April 28, 2016
7–8 p.m.
Kane Hall
Room 130

Words to know

Anthropology: The study of humans, past and present.

Archaeology: The study of past human life and culture through the excavation and analysis of artifacts.

Zooarchaeology: The study of animal remains from archaeological sites.

Cro-Magnon: A prehistoric type of modern human that lived in Ice Age Europe. Put simply, us!

Neanderthal: An early form of human beings that either went extinct about 35,000 years ago or were absorbed through interbreeding with modern humans.

Pleistocene Epoch: A time when glaciers periodically advanced and retreated, covering vast areas of the earth. Frequently referred to as the Ice Age, the Pleistocene spanned about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago.