Anthropology Prof Publishes Groundbreaking Research

Warren Lail

Las Vegas, N.M. — New Mexico Highlands University anthropology professor Warren Lail published groundbreaking research that is the first to find evidence of human occupation of the Cimarron Archaeological District of northeastern New Mexico between A.D. 1415 and 1495.

Lail used cutting-edge luminescent dating technology to analyze soil compacted in an ancient human cranium, providing key information that allows the remains to be repatriated with the Southern Ute Indian tribe.

The Ute Mouache Band of the Ute was nomadic and once traversed the southern Rocky Mountains and western edges of the Great Plains in Northern New Mexico.

Lail was the lead author for a scholarly article, “A Non-Destructive Method for Dating Human Remains,” published in Advances in Archaeological Practice, a journal of the Society for American Archaeology.

Optical luminescent dating (OSL) is a form of geochronology — earth material dating — that measures the energy of photons being released. Simply put, the OSL instrumentation measures the amount of energy stored in a sample and how long it took to accumulate the energy, which determines how old the sample is — whether it’s a rock or a pottery shard.

While radiocarbon dating of bone from archaeological sites is common, the use of luminescent dating is still relatively rare in the United States.

“The primary purpose of this research was to determine a date for the skull so we could repatriate the remains with the appropriate Native American tribe,” Lail said. “We opted to use luminescent dating to place the remains in a cultural-chronological context because unlike carbon dating, OSL is a non-destructive method.

“This research allows us to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge because previously archaeologists believed that the Cimarron District was abandoned between A.D. 1300 and 1550,” Lail said.

The human remains were found in 1973 on the banks of Cimarroncito Creek in Colfax County, New Mexico on the eastern edge of the historical 186,000-acre UU Bar Ranch. The remains were stored in the Philmont Musem for 36 years until the curator asked Lail to examine them at the Anthropology Research Laboratory at Highlands.

Lail also used traditional research methods such as anthroposcopic and osteometric — measuring bones — to analyze the skeletal remains and assess sex, age at death, and ancestral origins. These methods indicate a male of approximately 40 years. 

Lail collaborated with Highlands University chemistry professor David Sammeth on the research paper, along with Jason Nevins, who earned an M.A. in anthropology from Highlands, and Shannon Mahan, who directs the U.S. Geological Survey’s Luminescence Dating Laboratory in Denver.

Earlier this year, Sammeth was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to purchase state-of-the-art instrumentation to establish a Luminescence Dating Laboratory at Highlands — making it the first university in the state to offer this research capability onsite.

“With this new lab, all future archaeological sediments and artifacts for our anthropology faculty and student research will be dated onsite. This type of time-dating equipment is rare even at the largest research institutions across the country. Having it will open up many new avenues of research,” Laid said.

He added that Sammeth opened the door for archaeological research opportunities that employ luminescent dating in novel ways.

Lail’s study was partially funded through a National Science Foundation Partnership for Research and Education Materials (PREM) grant that Highlands chemistry professor Tatiana Timofeeva secured.

Lail joined the Highlands faculty in 2008. He earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma. He also earned a J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and practiced law for a number of years.

At Highlands, Lail teaches courses such as archaeological method and theory, forensic anthropology, archaeology of the American Southwest, cultural resources management, and comparative legal systems. Each summer, he teaches an archaeological field school at a several northeastern New Mexico sites.

Lail has several books in progress. The titles include Cultural Resources Archaeology: Law and Practice; Archaeology of the American Southwest, with co-writers Victoria Evans and Carroll Riley; The Archaeology Lab Manual, with co-writer Victoria Evans, and Identity Lost: the Forensic Analysis of Urraca Man, with co-writers Victoria Evans and Aaron Roth.

Lail presents his research at annual meetings for the American Anthropological Association, Society for American Archaeology, and more.