Professor spotlight: Izumi Shimada


Professor of Anthropology Izumi Shimada, of Carbondale, flashes a smile for a portrait Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, at his office in Faner Hall. Shimada has been studying the Peruvian subculture, which he named the “Sicans,” for the past 38 years. “You have to learn how to take care of human remains,” Shimada said. The skull that Shimada is holding is a replica of a skull found while excavating in Peru that was 3-D printed at the Tokyo Metro Police Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

By Joe McLaughlin

The Daily Egyptian is publishing a series of Q&As to feature professors in different fields throughout the university. This is the first in that series; meet Izumi Shimada, a professor in the anthropology department.

Where are you from?

I am a permanent resident of the United States and I am still a citizen of Japan. I grew up and studied until the junior year of high school in Kyoto, Japan. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan before it moved to Tokyo, and it is known as the cultural and education center of Japan. I’ve been in the U.S. — and it’s scary to think this way — but it’s something close to 55 years, 54 years. So I’ve been in the U.S. longer than many Americans.


What brought you to the United States?

Actually, I just accompanied my father who was invited to be a professor at Princeton University.

Was he an anthropologist as well?

No, he was an art historian and he taught there for many years. He and my mother went back to Japan when he retired and just by coincidence, I think it was only two years after my father retired and left Princeton, I actually began teaching at Princeton.

Was Princeton your first teaching job?

I taught for one year [as a] visiting/assistant professorship at the University of Oregon in Eugene and the next position was at Princeton.

What was it that drew you to anthropology?


It’s not so much anthropology as [it is] archeology. As I mentioned, my father was an art historian, so there were always things that were of certain age, historical things. So I am very much used to that and I grew up surrounded by things of tradition and so on. From that perspective, from that experience, I came to sort of think of Japanese culture in a historical manner.

This is what led me to wonder, even as a fairly young child, why there is so much concern with time among Japanese. Japanese are known to this day as very punctual, very precise. I do go back, pretty much every year to spend some time with my extended family and relatives, as well as to take care of my professional work. We always agree on a meeting time. We say, “let’s meet at 12:15,” it’s not around 12:15 but we mean 12:15, exactly 12:15.

So we would say, “you should be able to get to such and such in about 10-11 minutes,” because things work in such a precise, reliable manner, whether it’s the taxi or the subway or whatever. We can say down to one minute.

So this concern for time is what led me to really think, “why is it that we are all concerned about time?” Can we actually reverse the position and say “I can just go anywhere in time?” That’s why [I chose] archeology. Archeology is one of those disciplines that allows me to decide where to go in time and place.

Professor of Anthropology Izumi Shimada, of Carbondale, holds a 3-D printed skull replica of a Peruvian nobleman Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, at his office in Faner Hall. Shimada has been studying a Peruvian subculture, which he named the “Sicans,” for the past 38 years. “In the Japanese culture people are so consumed by time,” Shimada said. “I wanted to go into a career that would put me in the driver’s seat – so I became an archaeologist.” The replica skull was printed at the Tokyo Metro Police headquarters and then carefully painted by a team of archaeologists. (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

You’ve done work in Peru — what is it that drew you there?

I was actually originally interested in central Asia — that’s what I was studying until my junior year when I was studying at Cornell. A new professor came in, a very well known scholar, and I took his seminar. Even though it was a graduate seminar, I was allowed to go in and he was a very charismatic person. He was a specialist of the Inca Empire. What he presented really fascinated me to the point where I said, “that’s what I want to study,” and not pursue the central Asian prehistory or archeology.

So, from the junior year of my undergraduate studies, I began focusing on the Andean area. Of course to study [the Andean area], Peru is the large complex to go. I wanted to get to Peru to seek some research opportunity, and in fact, that’s what happened. From the first year of graduate school, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last almost 40 years, I guess. I’ve spent a ton, at my last count, 23 or 24 seasons of fieldwork, and that would last anywhere from 12 months to one month.

What interesting things have you found in your work in Peru?

Well, probably looking back all those years, I think that most people would say the things that I’ve done that I’ve contributed to the broader view of the study.

One is the discovery and investigation into the technology of metallurgy, ancient metallurgy in the Andes. We have excavated workshops that revealed how the metals were smelted and worked for the first time, and I continue to investigate the ancient metallurgy. I’ve given lectures to various parts of the world and been involved in various exhibits featuring metallurgical technology. That’s one.

Another one is the excavation of, let’s say, the “sumptuous” royal tombs. That got a lot of public attention. While investigation into metallurgical technology is a little more low-key, when you deal with royal tombs and many many gold objects and so on, it’s inevitable that it gets a lot of attention. So, that’s probably what I am known for, those two things.

The reason why I excavate these tombs, is not that I am looking for sumptuous, impressive tombs, but I am using tombs and the way that people treat the dead, as a way of learning about the ancient beliefs, religious beliefs and how people treated the deceased in different ways depending on their social position or status and roles. What I am doing then is excavating tombs, as a means for an end — the end being studying and reconstructing ancient beliefs and social organization.

I know Machu Picchu particularly is one of those sites that people point to for the ancient astronaut theory. One, what do you think about the ancient astronaut theory and two, in your research, have you been able to disprove it?

Let me answer your first question by saying that those individuals are promoting and presenting these ideas in programs featuring this ancient astronaut theory and extraterrestrial contact. They do a great deal of disservice to human beings as a whole because essentially they negate and dismiss our own originality and creativity — that we do things in a very creative and original way and that we can resolve so many difficult things.

That is what archaeology has shown and, in a way, has disproven, by revealing how ingeniously, how originally, how creatively ancient people all over the world have dealt with challenges of all sorts.

In the case of the famous Nazca desert markings, they have been drawn so large that people can see them flying in airplanes and so on. Well, the truth of the matter is, a decade of investigation by archaeologists utilizing satellite imagery and so on have shown that there are indeed thousands of markings — literally thousands. The Nazca area is where the largest number are concentrated, but it is by no means the only place. Furthermore, it has also shown but they were made in certain, limited time periods.

We know now that initially, they were created relatively close to where people resided. In fact, they were created on sloped places, on hillsides. As they ran out of space, they began to put these drawings or markings farther and farther away and into flatter areas.

We also know that this move away from the slopes coincided with environmental and climatic change. It coincided with the gradual drying of the whole area to the point of critical drought. So, we now know in order to see things in a flat area, they actually constructed platforms at one end of the markings that you only have to elevate yourself five feet, maybe as much as 10 feet, and you can pretty much see everything.

Furthermore, we have seen from these platforms that they were also used for offerings, presumably to deities, and they all seem to be offerings related to water. in other words, it seemed to a large extent in response to the worsening drought. They were pleading for rain, for water, but the drought continued despite all the offerings and all the markings they created. People began moving away to the point where literally the whole area was deserted.

All of that information exists, and I think it is quite convincing.

The Peruvian government on at least two occasions has given you awards. What were they for?

The first one was from [President Alejandro Celestino Toledo Manrique] of Peru, and it essentially recognizes my scientific contribution to Andean prehistory and Andean archaeology. It was really triggered by a series of excavations of royal tombs I conducted. After the excavations, we did a series of exhibits in Peru that created quite a sensation.

The second one, later on, was by the Peruvian Congress. Congress passed a resolution to bestow an award on me. It was for a similar reason, for the enrichment of the knowledge of the Peruvian past and Heritage.

How did that feel?

It’s very humbling — certainly I feel really tremendously honored. But I also felt something else from very early on in my career, and this is something you would not find if you searched for it.

When I was a graduate student, I had an opportunity for two years to work with youth of your age, from somewhere around 17 to about 25-year-old Apache Indian fellows. As many as 25 of them were under my command to do work and I basically looked out for them. We lived together.

During that time, I really came to learn the tremendous and difficult circumstances under which they lived. Not only is the reservation really awful, they have no opportunities, economic opportunities. This was in Arizona, and they were actually bussed away to Oklahoma or Arkansas. That’s where they studied, completely detached from families. The point is, they have a very hard life and I worked with them and learned about their life. Archaeology, for them, is really alien. They had no interest in archaeology, so I would spend time teaching what archaeology is and what it is good for, and so on.

I learned this fact: that any scientist or anybody in the academic world has to really recognize their role, their place in the broader society. It’s our obligation to share knowledge. It is something I really learned as a young graduate student. I think they recognize what I was trying to do and they were really faithful to me. So, learning from that, when I arrived to Peru and every year I worked in Peru I made certain I did free public lectures. For local village people, I went to the local schools to give lectures.

In fact, a local town of about 15,000 people have an annual festival celebrating their cultural heritage. Kindergarten and preschool children had a costume contest where they dressed up as the culture I study, called Sicán warriors, princesses, princes and so on. I am oftentimes asked, when I am there, to serve as a judge. It’s good to see that sharing our knowledge, the insight and so on with the public.

What classes do you teach here?

Basically, I teach the whole array of courses in anthropology. Personally, each semester I try to offer one course at the undergraduate level and one course at the graduate level, mostly archeology-related.

If a student was to come into your class, what could they expect from you as a professor? What is your teaching style or philosophy?

I try to infuse my teaching with as much personal insight and information from my own research. I direct two international projects that incorporate nuclear physics to geology to botany and so on. I work cross-cutting different fields. So we are going to basically talk about my personal experience to pretty much every kind of analysis, methods and interpretive framework archeology uses today.

I think it gives a personal touch and hopefully greater depth to my presentation. Every time I teach Introduction to Archeology, the comment I usually get is they find I am very knowledgeable because I bring in this personal experience and insight. That’s my style: try to give what you can’t get out of textbooks — the personal touch, so to speak.

What would you advise to someone who is considering anthropology as a major?

I’d like people to think of anthropology as a very comprehensive discipline that can actually serve many purposes. People may think of anthropology as an exotic discipline that you don’t have much use for when looking for a job. The reality is it serves multiple purposes for anything from pre-med, studying the human body, to adaptation, where you learn about and appreciate the other cultures. That can even be within the U.S. because this is, after all, a very diverse mix of society. In many ways we are currently seeing all of these issues of different ethnicities and different racial groups and so on.

Anthropology gives you a very valuable point of view of how to appreciate, how to study, how to communicate or interact with different societies. This is why the armed forces quietly have employed many anthropologists working in different countries. They have to learn about where they are going, and anthropologists are the very first people to go there.

Archeologists can work anywhere from the museum setting to what is called “contract archeology,” which is to say they would be working with historical societies or various state and national agencies dealing with Indian groups, land management, et cetera. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, deals with cultural heritage, historical places that are found within the forest area.

All of those are positions for anthropologists. It’s really quite versatile and flexible.

Staff writer Joe McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected]m or on Twitter at @jmcl_de.

To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.