back to news Oct. 12, 2018

Undergraduate’s love of nature and history fuels research in environmental archaeology

When fourth-year anthropology student Catherine Mendel was young, she would flip through her parents’ encyclopedia collection to the sections on world archaeology. She would read the pages over and over, dreaming of one day becoming an archaeologist herself. Years later, after getting her start at Columbus State, Mendel is achieving her dream at Ohio State in the Department of Anthropology.

Mendel’s area of study is environmental archaeology, which examines how ancient civilizations interacted with their environments. She chose the field because it combines her passion for anthropology with her lifelong love of nature.

“Growing up, nature was always really important to me, and I’ve always kind of gravitated toward classes on the environment,” she explained. “It just seemed like a natural marriage, combining what I loved doing outside of academia with my academic interest.”

According to Mendel, although there has been a longstanding tradition in archaeology of examining how past peoples interacted with and changed their environments, developments in other fields now allow for both a more nuanced and more complete picture of past systems – a perspective that can greatly inform efforts for protecting our current environment.  

“We can learn so much about how people interacted with their environment in the past to help inform our interactions with our environment today,” she said. “We can find out where we might be going wrong.”

Finding Her Place in the Department

Mendel also feels grateful that Ohio State’s Department of Anthropology has so many faculty members devoted to environmental archaeology, as this allowed her to get involved with meaningful research as soon as she got to campus. As a transfer student, Mendel remembers feeling nervous initially, but immediately felt welcomed by the department and in awe of all the opportunities available.

She advises new students take advantage of every opportunity they can and to not be too intimidated.

“Put yourself out there a little bit and you’ll be rewarded for it in this department,” Mendel said.

According to Mendel, this advice can be applied to everything from joining student organizations to interactions with faculty.

“Professors in the anthropology department are really great about reaching out to people who seem interested in research,” she said. “If you express interest to them, they will try to find the appropriate fit for you. They’re always encouraging you to find the right path for you.”

Mendel in the field image
Mendel conducting field work in Arizona

Forging a Path

One of the research experiences Mendel became involved with is a computer modeling project with Deanna Grimstead, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, that examines the domestication of wild turkeys in the American Southwest. By looking at the ecology of turkeys alongside ethno-historical accounts of tribes in the area, the team hopes to paint a picture of how this domestication happened over time.

Since Mendel is also a student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Grimstead entrusted her with the ecology research side of the project, which allowed Mendel to further hone her research interests.

Mendel feels that the cross-over she sees in her research illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology.

“I feel like anthropology at its best is interdisciplinary,” she said.  “If you look at people in isolation, it’s not going to answer much, because that’s not how we live.”

Mendel believes looking to the past can provide a lot of insight for the future of our civilization.

“We’re never going to learn from our past mistakes if we don’t understand how people functioned in the past,” she said. “We’re never going to be able to grow as a species morally, intellectually or cohesively if we don’t understand where we came from. It’s important.”