In search of ancient hunters and gatherers

For the past 15 years, Department of Anthropology Assistant Professor Danielle Macdonald has spent her summers conducting archaeological excavations in Jordan. However, with travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, summer 2020 involved staying put in Oklahoma and relying on a completely different approach to research.

Anthropology professor Danielle Macdonald smiling and wearing a green blouse
Professor Danielle Macdonald

Currently working on a National Science Foundation-funded project, Macdonald had planned to spend the summer in Jordan’s capital Amman. She was to have been joined by anthropology master’s student Audra Whitehurse, along with collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley, analyzing artifacts recovered during previous excavation seasons at the hunter-gatherer site Kharaneh IV.

“Our research at Kharaneh IV aims to understand changing social organization and human-environment interactions at the threshold to agriculture,” explained Macdonald. “We are focused on exploring hunter-gatherer behavior during a period of immense change 20,000 years ago.”

Archaeology in a time of plague

Audra Whitehurse sitting at a desk in front of a computer monitor while wearing a COVID-19 face mask
Audra Whitehurse

Unable to travel abroad, Macdonald’s plans had to be adapted. Thankfully, two project collaborators are Jordanian archaeologists, Abd al-Hebashan and Ahmad Thaher, and are not bound by the same travel restrictions. While the U.S. project members remained at home, al-Hebashan and Thaher were able to continue working.

Project Directors Macdonald and Lisa Maher (UC Berkeley) planned a schedule of analysis, identified which archaeological contexts needed to be analyzed first and al-Hebashan and Thaher set to work on the material. “Thanks to Facebook Messenger, I have been able to keep in touch and chat with our Jordanian colleagues regularly,” Macdonald said, “learning about what they are discovering during analysis, helping to identify mystery artifacts and answering questions as they go.”

Professor Danielle Macdonald and three other people in an archaeological pit in the Jordanian desert
Fieldwork in Jordan (summer 2019)

Meanwhile, back in Tulsa, Macdonald has also spent time writing up results and working with Whitehurse to develop her MA project related to the site. “Drawing on the rich trove of artifacts uncovered at Kharaneh IV, I am undertaking a careful evaluation of the role of shell beads in the lives of the area’s hunter-gatherer population,” Whitehurse explained.

A core part of Whitehurse’s research entails making experimental beads in the Lithic Technology and Microwear Laboratory: “One of the things I love about anthropology is the way this discipline encourages us to understand the past by making objects using what we believe to have been ancient practices.”


Does uncovering the secrets of ancient civilizations fascinate you? Then you ought to consider graduate studies with TU’s Department of Anthropology.