GEORGETOWN, D.C. — Nearly 100 students cross the Rawlins High School stage to accept their diploma every May, but what happens after they leave their well-worn paths? For one graduate, it took him all the way to the Smithsonian.
Dennis Stanford left Rawlins High School in 1961 to pursue his love for the earliest of America’s inhabitants. Stanford stated in a 2008 interview for a Nobel Conference, his love for the subject was fostered by a childhood spent roaming the sagebrush covered hills and valleys of Carbon County for Native American artifacts.
Though born in Cherokee, Iowa, Stanford grew up in Rawlins, the son of a JC Penny employee. From the age of 10, he was enthralled by the artifacts left by Wyoming’s earliest humans and how they had lived in a vast ocean of windswept hills.
In the same 2008 interview, Stanford said one of his most exciting finds while living in Rawlins was a collection mammoth bones, uncovered during construction work. Upon seeing the bones, Stanford contacted the University of Wyoming to report the find. The University dispatched a paleontologist and an archeologist who confirmed the importance of the discovery, a nearly complete and well-preserved mammoth.
Later, a Harvard archeologist team began a full excavation of the area, with Stanford assisting in the dig. This experience only fueled his drive to join the profession that would provide an outlet for his childhood passion.
Stanford enrolled at the University of Wyoming in 1961, where he was taken under the wing of the college’s anthropologist, who saw potential in the Rawlins High School graduate. According to Stanford’s 2008 interview, his professor would give him several books every week to read, with an oral exam at the end of the week. While not an easy feat to juggle with the rest of his studies, Stanford credited his professor’s attention and advice as giving him an edge once taking the next step to grad school.
Upon graduation of UW studies with a degree in anthropology in 1965, Stanford traveled to the University of New Mexico to continue his anthropological interests. He received his Master’s in 1967 and his PhD in 1973, also in anthropology.
With his formal education complete, Stanford entered the profession of anthropology. His search for employment was short lived; however, as the Smithsonian Institute offered him a position soon after graduation, according to the 2008 interview.
Once in D.C., Stanford continued his research into the earliest American inhabitants, continuing his love born from his time spent among the hills of Rawlins.
It was during this time that Stanford became convinced the earliest inhabitants of America originated from Europe, rather than the traditionally held belief of Asian settlement across the Bering Strait. Stanford’s faith in the theory, known as the Solutean Hypothesis, stemmed from his extensive work on arrow and spearheads left by early North Americans and their strong resemblance to their European counterparts of similar ages.
While not the first to propose the idea, Stanford was one of its most famous supporters in recent years. The theory is widely disputed by anthropologists and hotly debated by geneticists, but Stanford remained a firm believer in theory.
Stanford’s other major impact in the field of anthropology was joining seven other anthropologists in suing the U.S. government over their right to study a 9,000-year-old skeleton, known as the “Kennewick Man” or the “Ancient One.”
The Kennewick Man stirred intense scrutiny by both the media and Native American groups, as the argument over who had a right to the ancient remains was brought before the U.S. court system multiple times.
The eight anthropologists, including Stanford, argued Native American oral history, stating they had lived in the area since the dawn of time, was not enough to establish connection to remains dating to nearly 9,000 years ago. A strong connection to a Native American tribe would have forced the U.S. government to return the remains by law.
The group further argued that the find was important beyond words in understanding how humans entered the New World, a subject dear to many anthropologists. The find also had the potential to lend credence to Stanford’s personal belief of European migration.
Stanford and his fellow anthropologists eventually won the right to examine the remains in 2012, yielding a clearer picture of early North American settlers. This data eventually served as further evidence against Stanford’s belief in the Solutean Hypothesis.
The Smithsonian Institute eventually promoted Stanford to the head of the Anthropology Department for his years of dedicated and excellent research.
After a nearly 45-year career in anthropology that saw more 100 books, articles, and book chapters, Dennis Stanford passed away on April 24, 2019 in Georgetown, Washington D.C. at the age of 75.