< Back

STEM Careers: Archaeologist Seeks Answers to Migration Stories

Islands often evoke a sense of wonder and isolation, but to millions around the world, islands are home. Many islands were first reached by people who traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles across open water to reach their destination.
As an archaeologist, I’m interested in studying people and culture from a deep time perspective, and I am particularly interested in understanding what happened when people first reach uninhabited islands. Who were they and where did they come from? How did they adapt to living in new and sometimes unfamiliar environments?
IMG-1370-(4).JPGI conduct my research on Yap, a group of four small islands in Micronesia, a vast expanse in the Pacific Ocean dotted with thousands of small islands. People have lived on Yap for thousands of years, but it’s still unclear when and from where Yapese people first originated from before reaching the islands. Some clues suggest that people came from Island Southeast Asia, which would be similar to what we see on neighboring island groups. Other clues point to an area around New Guinea, which was inhabited by a very different group of people and culture. My research shows that people were living in southern Yap at least 2,200 years ago, but I hope to find evidence for even older settlements as I continue working there.
My path to becoming an archaeologist was inspired by a love of history, science, being outside and the desire to know what was just beyond the pages of my history books. I remember wondering how much there was left to discover about people in the past and wanting to learn about those untold stories. In high school, some of my favorite teachers supported my interest in history and encouraged me to pursue archaeology, even though I didn’t know exactly how to do that.
When I was in college, I was advised to take classes in the anthropology department, and those classes cemented my decision to become an archaeologist. I have since learned that people all over the world engage with their histories in many ways other than just reading about it in school. On the islands where I work, history, tradition and culture are still important aspects of everyday life. As an archaeologist, I consider it a privilege to work with other cultures and help shed new light and details about their past.

Archaeologist's Comic Book 
One of my biggest responsibilities is making the results of my research available to the communities where I work. The approach I use is making a comic book that describes my research. Comics are an extremely effective tool that can be used to convey how scientific research is conducted, results and interpretations without simplifying the research questions. I teamed up with John Swogger, an archaeological illustrator, to develop “Footprints of the Ancestors,” a 32-page comic that describes my fieldwork on Yap in 2018. The comic is available to download for free, and you can read it to learn more about an archaeologist’s work.

Matthew Napolitano is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. 

NMSI highlights STEM careers to help students think about different pathways to pursue. Are you working in a STEM field? You can encourage students to learn about what you do by sharing your story with us at marketing@nms.org