Anna Browne Ribeiro: Anthropological Archaeology in the Amazon

by Ted Jou '99

Anna Browne Ribeiro remembers having a fascination with archaeology when she was a kid, but she never thought it could be a career. Coming out of the Blair Magnet Program in 1999, she considered pre-med or computer science before developing an interest in anthropology. At Columbia University, she began designing her own interdisciplinary major combining anthropology with ancient history and language classes, before turning to a page in the course catalog describing an interdisciplinary major in archaeology.

As a junior archaeology major, Browne Ribeiro had the opportunity to spend a semester abroad, participating in archaeological field work at two Maya sites in Belize. She loved working in the field, participating in investigative work and solving puzzles, and was eager to do more. Browne Ribeiro spent her senior year at the University of Reading, where she worked on the excavation of the Roman town of Silchester in southern England. After graduating from college, she continued working in England as an instructor at excavation sites and then in contract archaeology. She then went to Guatemala and to Brazil, doing both volunteer and contract archaeology before applying to graduate school during a year of teaching. Browne Ribeiro describes archaeology as "time travel," and she still loves the thrill of going hundreds and thousands of years into the past as layers of dirt are removed.

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Browne Ribeiro decided to focus her studies on the history of Amazonian cultures. Her adviser, Rosemary Joyce, did not have any active research in the Amazon, but she encouraged Browne Ribeiro to follow her passions, pointing her in the direction of existing scholarship and making sure she was asking the right questions. Browne Ribeiro was also fortunate to have her own fellowship funding her graduate studies, allowing her more freedom to pursue her own research. As she reviewed the literature, she found the historical record on pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations to be relatively sparse, as many anthropologists focused on studying contemporary Indigenous populations, assuming that they had always been living in the same way. She came across a particularly interesting phenomenon that would become the focus of her dissertation: a human-made dark earth soil found in the Amazon, known in Portuguese as the "Terra Preta de Índio."

The terra preta is especially fertile soil, and researchers have determined that it is not naturally occurring but was created by humans living in the Amazon over two thousand years ago. Many researchers have developed theories for how terra preta was created, but there is still no straightforward answer. Browne Ribeiro sought to study terra preta as an artifact - invisible evidence of past human activity that she could use to understand the characteristics of ancient human settlements. Her dissertation was entitled "Acts, practices, and the creation of place: Geoarchaeology of a Terra Preta de Índio site in the Central Amazon" (pdf). Browne Ribeiro focused on the terra preta at a site called Antônio Galo in the central Amazon, where a circular arrangement of mounds had been discovered as evidence of an ancient village. She collected samples from the site and analyzed the soil's physical and chemical characteristics, identifying distinct layers as evidence of different stages of human settlement when vegetation or debris was cleared and burned, when houses were built, and where across the site cultivation may have occurred. She was also able to track the growth, or life-history of the village, using this approach.

Browne Ribeiro finished her PhD in 2011 and took a post-doctoral fellowship at the Ohio State University, continuing her Amazonian work and applying some of her soil research methods in other areas. She then found a position at a museum in Brazil, Museu Parense Emílio Goeld, where researchers of the burgeoning Origens, Cultura e Ambiente (OCA) project were assembling an environmental history of the Xingu-Amazon confluence region. As part of that project, Browne Ribeiro worked on recoding and building an archive of oral histories and also published journal articles in Portuguese, including a bilingual publication in Latin American Antiquity. She also received a grant from the National Geographic Society to support the OCA project as well as a grant from the Brazilian ministry for the oral history work. This would later culminate in an appearance in a NatGeo TV series, Lost Cities of the Amazon, in 2018.

Browne Ribeiro returned to the United States in 2015 as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, and she then joined the faculty at the University of Louisville as an assistant professor of Anthropology in 2016. She continues to study Amazonia while teaching classes and mentoring students. She has written a chapter on terra preta formation in the scholarly book, The Archaeology of Human-Environment Interactions. She also recently co-edited an issue of the University of Chicago's Signs and Society: When Time Matters, in which she also published an article on her experiences at the Xingu-Amazon confluence.

When Browne Ribeiro looks back on her high school education, she credits the Magnet Program's "rigorous grounding" in scientific methods. Particularly in archaeology, where it is easy to grasp on to anecdotal data, she finds herself leaning on the foundation she got in high school to help her think about data and evidence in a scientific way. Her experience in R&E is still useful in the field today, as she often needs to improvise with equipment and design her own experiments at dig sites.

Browne Ribeiro also has a passion for teaching, which she nurtured since the second grade. She is still inspired by the pedagogical methods of Ms. Counihan at Takoma Park Middle School, and she also remembers the diagrams and sound effects employed by Mr. Donaldson when teaching freshman physics. Origins of Science with Mr. Donaldson may qualify as Browne Ribeiro's first archaeology course, setting her up for a career traveling back in time.