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Vol 57 No. 5 | Mar. 2005
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Vol 57 No. 5 | Mar. 2005
Anthropology's Hector Neff Has Research Published in Science

CSULB anthropology Professor Hector Neff saw his research paper on Olmec pottery published in the February issue of the prestigious Science journal.

Titled "Olmec Pottery Production and Export in Ancient Mexico Determined Through Elemental Analysis," the article presents new evidence that the fabled Olmec sculptors of Mexico's colossal stone heads were the region's first dominant civilization, a "mother culture" that set the pace for emerging cultural complexity in the region over three millennia ago.

Neff's article, written in cooperation with George Washington University's Jeffrey R. Blomster and the University of Missouri's Michael D. Glascock, is his first in Science. "It's great," he said. "Science is the cream of the crop in terms of scientific publishing and certainly for archaeological publishing."  The journal is published by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

For decades, a debate has raged in anthropological circles between the mother-culture hypothesis and the theory that the Olmec were just one of several "sister" cultures that developed at the same time. The article by Neff and his colleagues demonstrates that, while other ancient settlements made pottery with symbols and designs in the Olmec style, only the early Olmec themselves at San Lorenzo on Mexico's Gulf Coast exported pottery with the distinctive carved designs.

"It turns out, to my complete astonishment, that there is quite a bit of pottery with Olmec designs outside that heartland that comes from the heartland," he said. "San Lorenzo imports appear on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, in the basin of Mexico, and in the highlands of Oaxaca. But there isn't a single example out of the 800 or so ceramic samples we analyzed that went back in the other direction, from the Pacific coast or the Mexican highlands to San Lorenzo."

Moreover, there is no evidence that the highland centers traded pottery among themselves.

Neff suspects that proponents of the "mother culture" idea will welcome the new findings. "This is a fairly straightforward ceramic provenance investigation. We used concrete chemical-fingerprint data to establish patterns of interaction, but the patterns we found are strikingly one-sided. If the Olmec were not colonizing, they were certainly exporting ceramic pots with their distinctive iconography. Mother-culture proponents will view this as evidence that the Olmec were also exporting ideas about how to organize society to the rest of Mesoamerica."

Neff points with pride to his association with CSULB's Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environments and Society (IIRMES), which seeks to embrace and extend existing interdisciplinary research collaborations between the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Liberal Arts using state-of-the-art technology.

"Thanks to technology such as the laser ablation system and our time-of-flight ICP-MS, we can ask questions that wouldn't have been possible even 10 years ago. For instance, we plan to expand the Olmec study by investigating whether the Gulf Coast Olmec might also have been exporting pigments used to decorate vessels with Olmec symbols made outside the heartland," he said.

Neff, who was named in July 2004 as a member of Guatemala's Academy of Geography and History, worked on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for four years before joining the University of Missouri for 12 years as a senior research assistant. He received his A.B. from Stanford and his M.A. and Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara.

"I hope this recognition reinforces the perception we are doing good research at CSULB," said Neff. "This recognition is not just for me but for my colleagues in anthropology and IIRMES. These are high-powered scientists who are doing work the equal of any other institution."

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