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Vol 56 No. 12 | Oct. 2004
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Anthropology Professor Named to Academy of Geography and History

By Richard Manly

Hector Neff, associate professor of anthropology at CSULB, was named to Guatemala's Academy of Geography and History, a rare honor in recognition of his 25 years of research in the Central American nation.

"I was thrilled," said Neff. "It's a great honor to be recognized for work that I've been doing and contributions I hope I've made to archeology in Guatemala." The Academy membership enables Neff to use the institute's library and network with the Guatemalan academic community.

Neff's research interests include application of chemical analytical techniques to archaeological problems, the origins of agriculture, and cultural evolution in Mesoamerica.

As a founding member of CSULB's Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environments, and Society (IIRMES), Neff uses such high technology as IIRMES' new time-of-flight inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) to analyze ceramics and ceramic raw materials as a way of learning about prehistoric interaction patterns along the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

"The ceramic samples I've analyzed come from throughout Central America, from northwest Mexico to Nicaragua," he said. "By finding out where ceramics came from, I can learn how far-flung Central America's trade empire was. I've matched ceramics from central Mexico and northern Yucatan to samples of raw clay from the Mexican-Guatemalan border and specifically to a pair of locations within 20 kilometers of each other. There is nowhere else in Mesoamerica where these particular ceramics are made. They traveled all over Mesoamerica and were highly valued."

Neff worked on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for four years before spending 12 year at the University of Missouri as a senior research scientist. He received his A.B. from Stanford and his M.A. and Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara.

His interest in the Central American nation dates back to 1965 when a 12-year-old Neff accompanied his father on a business trip to Guatemala and Honduras.

"That really impressed me but I didn't realize how profoundly until years later when I decided to specialize in Mesoamerica as an anthropologist," he recalled. "I ended up going back to Guatemala to do field work and I've continued to do field work there for the last 25 years."

Another focus of his research is the nature of environmental change and how humans have responded to that change.

"This was the topic of my lecture to the academy when I received my membership," he said. "I don't think many of us appreciate how variable environment can be. Once you look at ice core records or ocean drill cores, climate changes not only profoundly but abruptly.

"For instance, on the coast of Guatemala where I have done much of my paleo-environmental research reconstructing past climates, I have looked at mangrove-sediment cores that date back 6,500 years," Neff noted. "Between 800 B.C. and 800 A.D., there was a long period of favorable times when the population grew. Yet within 50 years after 800 A.D., things turned sour in the environment and population plummeted."

Neff plans to visit southern Mexico near the Guatemalan border in January 2005 and returns to Guatemala in the summer.

"I wouldn't compare what I do to Indiana Jones," he laughed. "My main interest is the pre-history of the region. I want to know how the people interacted with the environment and how the environment affected the people. That theme underlies all my research."

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