Meng Zhang, a second year Ph.D. student in anthropology, is learning the scientific research techniques of an anthropologist under the mentorship of UNM Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Lawrence Straus. Zhang, who recently won the “Chinese Government Award for Outstanding Self-Financed Students Abroad,” says hearing the news was like magic "because this kind of scholarship is always going to the students who have the hardest studies in engineering." He will receive the award at the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles on Sunday, June 1.
Zhang is interested in the middle to upper Paleolithic transition in China, but says he was advised to come to the U.S. to learn current research techniques. “For me, the most intriguing part is something we don’t know because it’s part of the prehistory,” Zhang said. He notes that there is evidence of early humans throughout China, but so far there is no narrative that explains how they might have come to East Asia or even where they might have come from. One day he would like to excavate in the desert of northwest China to try to learn more.
Zhang has already done field work at Blackwater Draw, the site in eastern New Mexico of the original discovery of the paleoindian Clovis culture. He worked with Eastern New Mexico University professor David Kilby, a former UNM anthropology student. Zhang has also worked at Healy Lake in Alaska with professors from Texas A&M University. He says the award came to him partly as a result of the strong recommendation that Straus wrote.
Shengqian Chen, a Chinese anthropologist was a strong influence on Zhang, who attended Jilin University where he received his B.A. degree. He received his M.A. from Peking University and a Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University under the direct of Fred Wendorf and Lewis Binford, a former UNM professor. Binford is credited with helping to originate ethnoarcheology, something that resonated with Zhang and he was thrilled to find that Straus occupies Binford’s old office at UNM.
Zhang is considering two topics for his dissertation. He would like to do analysis of the hunting and subsistence life of the early anatomically modern humans in northern China as compared to more recent groups, or he might try to do something on the origins of Americans. He thinks that might require him to learn Russian and other languages so he can examine original documents. Either path would commit him to years of serious research.
Eventually Zhang would like to return to China and teach at a university. His mother was a teacher and has always strongly encouraged him to continue with his education. He thinks his work to understand how the earliest modern humans came to East Asia will keep him and his students busy working for a lifetime.