Mark Aldenderfer: A Modern Day Indiana Jones


Mark Aldenderfer, photo by Elena Zhukova for National Geographic

In a remote part of Western Ethiopia, Mark Aldenderfer and his team examine the area for an archeological survey. It is uncommon in such areas for locals to see foreigners, and with long flowy white hair, and an easygoing smile, Aldenderfer stands out. Rather than expressing fear and alarm at the sight of these strangers, the locals seem surprised and curious. In a gesture of kindness and good faith, Aldenderfer and his teammate Mike Diblasio are invited back to a local man’s home to share a cup of beer. Their friend escorts them to his home and seats them on straw mats in the courtyard. He returns with two large ceramic cups. Thoughts of dysentery cross Aldenderfer and Diblasios’ mind, however they both accept the beverage, not wanting to offend their host. Halfway across the world, at a home in rural Ethiopia, there is no distinction between foreigner and Ethiopian. There is only a host and his guests.  

What distinguishes Aldenderfer as an archeologist is his resistance against conformity and his commitment to the local people he has interacted with over the years. In 2012, approximately one billion people traveled overseas, according to the World Tourism Organization. Meaning that one billion people became foreigners to customs, traditions, and languages of countries that are different from their own. Aldenderfer has spent most of his life traveling to remote corners of the globe, teaching him that the degree of separation between humans is much smaller than we think.

Born in 1950 in the rust belt town of Canton, Ohio, Aldenderfer developed what would become a lifelong passion for the past at an early age. Raised by his working class grandparents—his grandmother was a homemaker and his grandfather a Pennsylvania Railroad conductor—there was not initially much of an outlet for the young Aldenderfer to study what was beyond his present surroundings. However his grandparents were fond of mentioning his uncle’s academic achievements, having graduated from Harvard Medical School. Growing up in a household without either parent present, Aldenderfer spent a lot of time going through family heirlooms in the attic. “When I lived with my grandparents, I was a boy scout and went camping frequently, I had friends in the neighborhood and I played soldier, baseball, you know kid stuff,” Aldenderfer said. “I played alone a lot too, I suppose playing alone was a kind of sanctuary,” he said.

However Aldenderfer’s adolescent life was marred by parental neglect. Mark’s mother became pregnant with him out of wedlock, and when she gave birth to him Mark’s father made her choose between him and his infant son. Mark’s mother chose her husband, abandoning Mark to be raised by his grandparents. When Aldenderfer was eight years old his mother returned to his grandparents home to reclaim him. Taken from the only home and family he had ever known, to live in a wholly different part of town, Mark spent the rest of his teen years with his mother and new husband in a state of relative despondency. “I enjoy my family, but it seems that work has been my true solace,” Aldenderfer said. “That’s probably a mistake but my sense is that my odd upbringing made family life something to escape—there was little refuge there,” he said. The attic had been young Aldenderfer’s special place. In the attic he found his escape in the paleontology books left behind by his uncle. In these books he could escape, and over time a genuine curiosity of the past was instilled in Aldenderfer.

When it was time to apply to colleges, Aldenderfer was more than ready to leave for Wake Forest University in the fall. As he describes it, the people who are born in Canton die in Canton, or move 20 miles at most. Aldenderfer’s aspirations extended further. He wanted to see the world, to examine something bigger than the surroundings he had known all his life. Aldenderfer is no stranger to adapting to new environments, and his genuine curiosity in what lies ahead has served him through his 40 years of field research.

At 64, Aldenderfer’s long white mane and Buddhist tattoos give him the look of an aging hippy. When he smiles you can see the effect the elements have had in the crinkles of his skin. Driven by a sense of the unknown and a romance with the past, Aldenderfer said that he would continue to do field research until he was not physically able. Primarily traveling to the remote mountainous regions of the Andes in Peru, and the Himalayas in Nepal, Aldenderfer’s research on the origins of settled village life, human adaptation to high altitude environments, hunting and gathering, and early plant and animal domestication have been featured in PBS documentaries, as well as in National Geographic. In addition to his field research, Aldenderfer serves as dean of the University of California at Merced’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Don Rice, a fellow archeologist who has known Aldenderfer for over twenty years described him as the type of person who “can be challenging without offending and humorous without forcing the moment,” Rice said. “Mark has always been far better versed in archaeology and in the broader discipline of anthropology than me, and it’s particularly the case since he became editor of Latin American Antiquity and then Current Anthropology. His consumption and critique of literatures has undoubtedly contributed to the sophistication of his field research,” he said.

However Aldenderfer’s persona is not tied to his theoretical knowledge, his success as an academic, or his material possessions. Aldenderfer said that his sense of self comes from his resistance to conformity: “I have always seen myself as an outsider, in the sense that I chafe under authority; I thus find subtle ways of opposing it,” he said. Originating with a side comment made by a university colleague who advised him to wait until he received tenure to grow his hair out, Aldenderfer has done the opposite. “This expresses my sense of frustration with conformity while still operating within some level of it as an academic and researcher,” Aldenderfer said. “So the hair, the tats, the attitude are my way of being an outsider on the inside,” he said.

What inspires and motivates Aldenderfer about the field is the human element behind all of his research: “I’m sitting around this fire hearth in the Andes that is over 10,000 years old and I think to myself who were these people, what was their life like? It’s about the sense of discovery, fundamentally the rush of finding something new and different that nobody has seen in the last 5, 10, 20,000 years.”

Another aspect of Aldenderfer’s work in the field is mediating conflict between the scientific community and the local community. “When you go to a new place and you hear about all the religious and ethnic conflicts going on it’s easy to stigmatize people and the place they live, but that makes it really hard to cultivate empathy,” said Aldenderfer. “Fundamentally we should try to understand people for themselves, not just in groups,” he said.

In 1974 as Ethiopia was experiencing civil unrest and famine, Mark Aldenderfer and a member of his team were taken hostage while conducting field research. Even in the rural areas the tension was palpable driving to and from the work site everyday, Aldenderfer said. One day when they were driving through a town to get to the site where they would be working for the day, Aldenderfer drove past people who were trying to wave him down, however the team did not heed these warnings. When they reached the town square they were surrounded by an armed mob. A member of the group told them that they were liberating their vehicle and taking them hostage in the name of the Ethiopian people.

“Some folks wanted to hold us hostage for money, some people wanted to execute us either by shooting us or hanging us as an example of removing western oppressors from the Ethiopian world,” Aldenderfer said. “We were surprised, and scared, but these guys were mostly students, they were our age, so they weren’t pros about keeping the door locked. They even left us unguarded to go flag down some buses that were heading out to the main highway, so we took that opportunity to sneak out of a window and head back to where we were living at that point,” he said.

Despite the act of being captured and held hostage, Aldenderfer does not think of the incident with bitterness, but rather a sense of understanding that for the Ethiopian people this fight was about more than capturing two American grad students. The indigenous people of the area have an enormous amount of local pride because they were one of the first to fight off the Italian army that came to conquer the territory. They let everyone go eventually from what I remember,” Aldenderfer said. “They burned some vehicles and the drivers who were with us came back to us eventually, but I don’t think they really knew what they were doing. However they were definitely part of the movement that was taking place in the country to rid them of the current government,” he said.  

Aldenderfer has also spent much of his career working in the Himalayas. An example of Aldenderfer’s moral sensitivity was his choice to get two Tibetan Buddhist symbols tattooed on his forearms. The first was the infinite knot symbol, which represents limitless compassion, and the wheel of Dharma, which is an appreciation for the life cycles of human life. Essentially Aldenderfer wanted to express his support of the Free Tibet movement without being overtly political. After spending many years in Tibet, watching the culture slowly erode because of the rapidly modernizing Chinese influence, he said that he thought it was time to express how he felt. The effects of one culture on another is what convinced Aldenderfer that the role of the archeologist is changing to encompass the ethical repercussions of a researcher’s influence in these remote areas.

“The image of the archeologist in a lot of people’s minds is Indiana Jones, and that idea that you show up, you grab something and then you haul it off to a museum for everyone to see,” said Aldenderfer. “That might have been the case in the past, but today you can’t do that,” he said.

When Aldenderfer travels to these remote areas he and his team do not live in hotels, or even in their own base camp, they live side by side with the families that inhabit the region. “You’ll be living in a place for weeks on end with people who are very different from you, and this really gives you some sense of their lives,” Aldenderfer said. Over the course of their stay, Aldenderfer and his team work primarily at the site they are researching, but they are also exposed to the culture and social framework of the towns and villages they stay in.

“You learn about how children grow up, opportunities that people do and don’t have, for lives which are different from Americans, and even just how people feel on a day to day basis,” Aldenderfer said.

For Aldenderfer, these are not just one-sided relationships built on give and take they are genuine and longstanding. “These people become your friends and even in some ways they become your family,” Aldenderfer said. “We go back to the same sites and some of these people I’ve known for over 25 years, so as a team we’ve helped their children, and provided them with resources for them to buy a house,” he said.

One of Aldenderfer’s best friends in Peru is a peasant named Albino. Nicknaming him the “MacGyver of the Andes” Aldenderfer fondly recalls how Albino could fix anything. On a research trip through the mountains, the roads became rough and rocky to the point that the steering wheel would not pull left or right and started vibrating violently back and forth. After the team gets out of the truck they realize that both tires are pointing in opposite directions, ruining the alignment. Without any tools or way of towing the truck out of the mountains, the team is in dire straights.

With just a knife, hammer, and rock, Aldenderfer said that Albino was able to realign the front end all by himself so that the team could limp back to the camp. “He’s just incredibly practical and the nicest person that you could imagine,” Aldenderfer said.

However Aldenderfer somberly recalled how overconfident the team was in Albino’s abilities, and the effect that this had on his health. Albino sustained a serious back injury, but he initially did not tell the team. At the end of the day Albino finally said to Aldenderfer, “El doctore just because we live here doesn’t mean that we don’t hurt just like you do.”

The team as well as Aldenderfer were used to seeing Albino and his campacino brethren as “super humans” because of their ability to carry immense loads, and perform complicated tasks, in the instance of the truck, with dexterity. However Aldenderfer realized that, “people just saw him as part of the background in many cases, and he wasn’t part of the background, he had something just as simple as aches and pains, and it was really a touching moment because he seemed invincible to many people on our team when he had to tell us he really wasn’t,” Aldenderfer said.

The emotional attachment in conjunction with scientific obligations is not something that Aldenderfer was taught in grad school. However he said that in his field experience it is incredibly difficult not to become somewhat integrated into the community. He was trained to be a scientist, and many of the emotional aspects of these trips were never part of the discipline at the time. Throughout his field experiences Aldenderfer said that his approach to activism is subtle in the sense that he will not but heads with a government or agency but will work with locals to help them get as much of what they want within the constraints of the context in which they live.

“You go to a place in the field and you really are a disruptive influence,” Aldenderfer said. “You have sets of demands and ideas that you want to employ while digging at a site—you pay people well and you pay people for a period of time–then you pick up and leave, but you’ve created a new set of tensions within that community that you have to try to lessen when you finally walk out the door,” he said.

These trips across the globe have taught Aldenderfer the value of the life he has, as well as the privileged view he has going back and forth between cultures. For travelers who are venturing to foreign lands, the differences that separate us also make us aware of everything we take for granted back home. In Aldenderfer’s case, while he was working in Ethiopia as a grad student, a friend’s wife had a stillbirth. Rare in the United States, but frequent in Ethiopia, Aldenderfer said that he is often conflicted by the disparity in essential services that the two countries have. In another situation Aldenderfer recalled a hardworking man on his team who was caught in a dust storm and suffocated later that night without any medical assistance.

“You see all the aspects of life in a place like that that you never really get to see at home,” Aldenderfer said. “For many people in our world these life threatening events are commonplace, and it makes you realize the privilege that we live with here,” he said.

What lies in store for Aldenderfer is still a mystery, but retirement is certainly not on the near horizon. “I have a small part of me that says Thailand. I know, too many old geezers go there for their child brides and every time I get on a plane alone to Bangkok I wonder if I’m being typecast, but there is something peaceful in the south near the beach communities,” Aldenderfer said. “But it’s getting expensive and full of said geezers, a different kind of conformity to avoid,” he said.

By: Kara Norton


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