Lawrence Straus
Lawrence Straus in El Miron Cave in Spain.
Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Straus

University of New Mexico Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Lawrence Guy Straus found his life’s work as a young boy allowed into the study of his long-deceased French grandfather where he alone could look in the cabinet drawers, at the stone tools collected by Guy Magnant, a professor of classics who was also an amateur prehistorian. Straus’ relentless curiosity about the world of Stone Age humans has lasted a lifetime.

Straus will deliver the 61st Annual Research Lecture at 7 p.m. on April 21 in the Anthropology Lecture Hall, Room 163. A reception will follow at 8 p.m. in the Maxwell Museum.

The Annual Research Lecture is the highest honor UNM bestows on active faculty members. The selection is made by the UNM Research Policy Committee from among nominations that are supported by external letters from peers across the United States and abroad.

Straus is known internationally for his research. The title of his lecture is “Life and Death in the Last Ice Age: Paleolithic Human Adaptions in El Mirón Cave, Cantabrian Spain and Beyond.” His long career focused on Neanderthals and early modern humans has given him time to think about how our evolving species managed to survive in extremely harsh climatic conditions of the last ice age. This will be the subject of the Annual Research Lecture.

Straus has taught at all levels for 41 years at the UNM, coming in 1975 as a visiting assistant professor and then as the permanent replacement for Frank Hibben, a prominent faculty member in the anthropology department. Straus had worked in the Eastern U.S., the Middle West and Southwest as a student, but his primary interest has always been the humans who struggled to survive the last great ice age on the European Continent.

Over the years, he has seen immense changes in his field as scholars became more specialized, and better techniques were developed to help them more clearly understand the complex record of he and his collaborators have excavated in Spain, France, Portugal and Belgium since 1972.

For example, Straus said that when he began teaching, it was impossible to imagine that he would one day be able to know with some precision the diet of a woman, “The Red Lady” of El Mirón Cave in northern Spain, who lived 19,000 years ago by working with specialists who found microscopic remains of mushrooms embedded in the calculus of her teeth. Others, who studied dental striations and researchers who analyzed stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes preserved in her bones found a diet overall made up of about 80 percent meat from elk and ibex and 20 percent from fish, probably salmon.

He said no one would have imagined just a few years ago that archaeologists now know the genetic makeup not only of the elk and salmon, but also of the “Red Lady” herself and thus the role her group played in the resettlement of Northern Europe after the height of the Last Glacial Maximum. The site, dated by 84 radiocarbon assays, spans the period from the late Mousterian to the early Bronze Age: 41,000 – 3,000 years ago.

Lawrence Straus excavating in El Miron cave in Spain in 2010.
Lawrence Straus excavating in El Miron cave in Spain in 2010

Straus and Professor Manuel Gonzalez Morales from the Universidad de Cantabria, his Spanish collaborator are famous for their excavation of El Mirón Cave in Spain, where they uncovered the remains of “The Red Lady” who had been buried with great care and ritual near the end of the last ice age. It is the only Magdalenian burial that has ever been found on the Iberian Peninsula.  

Straus and Gonzalez Morales have worked with generations of undergraduate and graduate anthropology students from UNM, the Universidad de Cantabria and many other universities throughout the Americas and Europe digging at the cave since 1996. They were supported by a series of grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, Fundación M. Botín, Stone Age Research Fund, the University of New Mexico and the governments of Cantabria & Spain.

Since 1995 Straus has been the Editor-in-Chief of UNM’s internationally respected Journal of Anthropological Research. He sponsors two JAR Distinguished Lectures each year to support public interest in the field of anthropology in New Mexico. He is currently overseeing the transfer of production and distribution (but not ownership or editorship) of JAR to the University of Chicago Press.

Straus has held a wide variety of offices in professional organizations, notably the international Uniions for Quaternary Research (INQUA) and Prehistoric Sciences (UISPPI) and has served as a member of the editorial board of ten professional journals and monograph series in Europe.

His list of 22 books, monographs and edited volumes includes two 2015 special journal issues: Studies of the Solutrean: Human Adaptations to the Last Glacial Maximum in Southwest Europe and The Red Lady of El Mirón Cave: Magdalenian Human Burial in Cantabrian Spain.

Other books include The Magdalenian Settlement of Europe; El Mirón Cave, Cantabrian, Spain; Humans and Younger Dryas; Le Trou Magrite: Resurrection d’un Site Classique en Wallonie; Les Derniers Chasseurs de Rennes du Monde Pyrénéen; Un Gisement Tardiglaciaire  en Gascogne; Iberia before the Iberians: The Stone Age Prehistory of Cantabrian Spain; A Quarter Century of Paleoanthropology: Views from the USA; The End of the Paleolithic in the Old World; La Riera Cava: Stone Age Hunter Gather Adaptations in Northern Spain and El Solutrense Vasco-Cantábrico: Una Nueva Perspectiva among others.

In addition, he has published about 600 journal articles, chapters in edited books, reviews and comments and has participated in or organized many conferences and symposiums, both in the U.S. and abroad. He writes in French and Spanish, as well as in English.

Lawrence Straus in El Miron Cave
Lawrence Straus in El Miron Cave

Straus has worked with many of the well-known anthropologists throughout the 20th century, from his earliest days as a student at the University of Chicago studying under F. Clark Howell, Karl Butzer and Leslie Freeman, to his years as a young professor at UNM working out ideas in an office next door to Lewis Binford.

He said he has always worked as a generalist field-worker in Paleolithic archeology. Straus has spent much of his time organizing field work, mentoring students, handling the complexities of applying for grants and permits, running excavations and publishing the results. Many of his students are working in specialized areas of archology as members of larger collaborative groups, a reflection of the way the field itself is changing.

He said the Annual Research Lecture is a special honor he treasures. After all, the university’s first Annual Research lecture was given by Leslie Spier, a “four fields” anthropologist and the founding editor of JAR, originally called the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology and for whom the honorific Leslie Spier Distinguished Professorship in Anthropology (currently held by Straus) is named. Straus is married to Mari Carmen Rapado of Santander, Spain. They have a daughter, Evita, also born in Santander. They always travel together as a family in Europe for Straus’ archeological research.

There lecture is free and the public is welcome.