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David J. Meltzer

Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory, Interim Department Chair, 2016-2017

Ph.D. 1984 University of Washington
Heroy Hall 442

Biographical sketch

I began in archaeology as a 15-year old high school student excavating at the Thunderbird Paleoindian site near Front Royal (VA), and have been at it ever since. My undergraduate education was in Anthropology (with a minor in soils) at the University of Maryland (B.A. 1977). I then crossed the country for graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle, doing coursework in archaeology and Quaternary sciences (the latter through the Quaternary Research Center). After earning my M.A. (1979) in Anthropology /Archaeology, I was a Predoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution (1981-1982), then returned to the University of Washington to complete my Ph.D. (1984).

Newly-minted degree in hand, I came to SMU as Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the summer of 1984, where I am now the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory, and the Executive Director of the Quest Archaeological Research Program. In addition, I hold an extramural appointment as Affiliate Professor in Prehistory, Climate and Environment, at the Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and I am a Faculty Associate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

I am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (elected 1998), and a member of the National Academy of Sciences (2009), The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (2009), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013).


My research interests center on the origins, antiquity, and adaptations of the first Americans (Paleoindians), who colonized the North American continent at the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age). I seek to understand the origins of these populations, when and how they made their way to the Americas, and how these hunter-gatherers met the challenges of moving across and adapting to the vast, initially unknown, ecologically diverse, landscape of late Pleistocene North America, during a time of significant climate change – and how such ‘real-time’ processes might be visible archaeologically tens of thousands of years later.

I have explored those issues through archaeological field work in many areas of North America, but principally on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains of western North America, and on Clovis and especially Folsom-age archaeological sites (including the Folsom type site). My research has also expanded beyond archaeology to include collaborations with geneticists in using modern and ancient DNA to investigate Native American population history, and to work with colleagues in geology, paleoecology, vertebrate paleontology, and isotope geochemistry to investigate Pleistocene climates and environments, particularly the period of the Younger Dryas, which was the millennium-long stage on which much of the peopling process unfolded.

In the course of this work, I have found myself entangled in some of the controversies that swirl around the peopling of the Americas, including claims for purportedly ancient sites; the possible impact (if any) Pleistocene climate changes had on human foragers, and in turn what role (again, if any) humans may have played in Pleistocene faunal extinction; whether the earth was clobbered by a giant space rock that triggered the Younger Dryas and wiped out Clovis peoples and Pleistocene animals (the evidence is questionable at best); and whether the first Americans came from Iberia, not Siberia (a resounding no, on multiple lines of evidence).

Although the details change, controversies over the origins and antiquity of the first Americans are nothing new. In an effort to understand how knowledge of the past is crafted and how controversy in science is resolved, I have spent considerable time (metaphorically-speaking) in the late 19th and early 20th century examining the decades-long debate over human antiquity in North America that involved the best and brightest of several generations of archaeologists, glacial geologists, physical anthropologists and vertebrate paleontologists.

My archaeological, historical and interdisciplinary research has been supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, The Potts and Sibley Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1996, I received an extraordinarily generous research endowment from Joseph and Ruth Cramer to establish the Quest Archaeological Research Program, which will support in perpetuity at SMU research on the earliest occupations of North America and their environments.

The research results have appeared in over 170 publications, including nine books, the most recent of which are Folsom: new archaeological investigations of a classic Paleoindian bison kill (2006), First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America (2009), and The Great Paleolithic War: how science forged an understanding of America's Ice Age past (2015). A number of recent / select publications since 2002 are available below, along with a full listing of publications since 1979.

My research efforts are also routinely incorporated into my teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at SMU, and serve as the basis for talks and publications for general audiences.

Courses Taught

  • ANTH 2302 – People of the Earth: Humanity's First Five Million Years
  • ANTH 3304 – North American Archaeology
  • CF 3360 – The North American Great Plains: Land, Water, Life
  • ANTH 3399 – In search of Ice Age Americans
  • ANTH 5334 – History of Anthropology I
  • ANTH 6301 – Principles of Archaeology
  • ANTH 6332 –  Seminar in Paleoenvironments
  • ANTH 7313 – Archaeological Theory
  • ANTH 7317 – Archaeological Research Strategies
  • ANTH 7318 – Late Pleistocene Prehistory of North America

Recent/ Selected Publications

2016 Pedersen, M. et al., Postglacial viability and colonization in North America's ice-free corridor. Nature 537:45-49.  [pdf]

2015 Grayson, D.K. and D. J. Meltzer, Revisiting Paleoindian exploitation of extinct North American mammals. Journal of Archaeological Science 56:177-193.  [pdf]

2015 Jayalath, K., R.F. Gunst & D.J. Meltzer, Spatial point process identification of an apparent Ice Age house structure. Spatial Statistics 14:563-580. [pdf]

2015 Meltzer, D.J., The Great Paleolithic War: how science forged an understanding of America's Ice Age past. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

2015 Meltzer, D.J., Kennewick Man: coming to closure. Antiquity 89:1485-1493 [pdf]

2015 Meltzer, D.J., Pleistocene overkill and North American mammalian extinctions. Annual Review of Anthropology 44:33-53. [pdf]

2015 Raghavan, M. et al., Genomic evidence for the Pleistocene and Recent population history of Native Americans. Science.349:841, aab3884-1-aab3884-10. [pdf]

2015 Ramussen, M. et al., The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick man. Nature 523:455-458. [pdf]

2015 Reynard, L., D.J. Meltzer, S.D. Emslie and N. Tuross, Stable isotopes in yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) fossils reveal environmental stability in the Late Quaternary of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Quaternary Research 83:345-354. [pdf]

2014 Eren, M.I., R.J. Patten, M.J. O'Brien and D.J. Meltzer, More on the rumor of 'Intentional overshot flaking' and the purported Ice-Age Atlantic crossing. Lithic Technology 39:5-63. [pdf]

2014 Holliday, V.T., T.A. Surovell, D.J. Meltzer, D.K. Grayson and M. Boslough, The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis: a cosmic catastrophe. Journal of Quaternary Science 29:515-530. [pdf]

2014 Meltzer, D.J., Clovis at the end of the world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 12276-12277.  [pdf]

2014 Meltzer, D.J., V.T. Holliday, M.D. Cannon and D.S. Miller, Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences E2162-E2171 (doi:10.1073/pnas.1401150111). [pdf]

2014 Rasmussen, M. et al., The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana. Nature 506:225-229. [pdf]

2013 Eren, M.I., R.J. Patten, M.J. O’Brien and D.J. Meltzer, Refuting the technological cornerstone of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:2934-2941. [pdf

2012 Boslough, M. et al., Arguments and evidence against a Younger Dryas impact event. In Climates, Landscapes and Civilizations, P. Clift, ed., pp. 13-26. Geophysical Monograph Series 198, American Geophysical Union. [pdf
2012 Briles, C., C. Whitlock, and D.J. Meltzer. Last glacial-interglacial environments in the southern Rocky Mountains, USA and implications for Younger Dryas-age human occupation. Quaternary Research 77: 96-103. [pdf
2012 Meltzer, D.J. and O. Bar-Yosef, Looking for the Younger Dryas. In Hunter-gatherer behavior: human response during the Younger Dryas, M.I. Eren, editor, pp. 249-267. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California. [pdf
2011 Holliday, V.T., D.J. Meltzer, and R. Mandel, Stratigraphy of the Younger Dryas Chronozone and paleoenvironmental implications: Central and Southern Great Plains. Quaternary International 242: 520-533. [pdf]
2010 Holliday, V.T. and D.J. Meltzer, The 12.9ka ET impact hypothesis and North American Paleoindians. Current Anthropology 51: 575-607. (Named Archaeology Magazine's 2010 'Undiscovery of the Year') [pdf
2010 Meltzer, D.J., When destiny takes a turn for the worse: William Henry Holmes and, incidentally, Franz Boas in Chicago, 1892-1897. Histories of Anthropology Annual 6: 171-224.  [pdf]. 
2010 Meltzer, D.J. and V.T. Holliday, Would North American Paleoindians have noticed Younger Dryas age climate changes? Journal of World Prehistory 23: 1-41. [pdf

2009 Meltzer, D.J.,First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America (2009, University of California Press).

2009 Cooper, J.R. and D.J. Meltzer, Investigations at 5GN149, a lithic workshop in the Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado. Colorado Archaeology 2: 3-29. [pdf
2008 Cannon, M.D. and D.J. Meltzer, Explaining variability in early Paleoindian foraging. Quaternary International 191: 5-17. [pdf

2007 Mann, D.H. and D.J. Meltzer, Millennial-scale dynamics of valley fills over the past 12,000 14C years, northeastern New Mexico, USA. Geological Society of America Bulletin 119:1433-1448

2006 Meltzer, D.J., History of research on the Paleo-Indian. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 3, pp. 110-128. D.H. Ubelaker, Volume editor, W.C. Sturtevant, General editor. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C

2005 Balakrishnan, M., C. Yapp, D.J. Meltzer, and J. Theler, Paleoenvironment of the Folsom site ~10,500 14C years B.P. as inferred from the stable isotope composition of fossil land snails. Quaternary Research 63:31-44.

2005 Byerly, R.M., J.R. Cooper, D.J. Meltzer, M.E. Hill and J.M. LaBelle, On Bonfire shelter (Texas) as a Paleoindian bison jump: an assessment using GIS and zooarchaeology. American Antiquity 70:595-629.

2005 Strauss, L.G., D.J. Meltzer and T. Goebel, Ice Age Atlantis? exploring the Solutrean-Clovis “Connection.” World Archaeology 37:506-531.

2004 Cannon, M.D. and D.J. Meltzer, Early Paleoindian foraging: examining the faunal evidence for large mammal specialization and regional variability in prey choice. Quaternary Science Reviews 23:1955-1987.

2003 Grayson, D.K. and D.J. Meltzer, Requiem for North American overkill. Journal of Archaeological Science 30:585-593.

2002 Meltzer, D.J., What do you do when no one’s been there before? Thoughts on the exploration and colonization of new lands. In The First Americans: the Pleistocene colonization of the New World, edited by N. Jablonski. California Academy of Sciences Memoir 27:25-56.

For a complete listing of Dr. Meltzer's publications, please click here