Gary Crawford, a professor in UTM’s anthropology department who specializes in archaeological botany and environmental archaeology, holds an interest in time and is fascinated with discovering the history behind the cultures of the world. These interests sprung from his childhood curiosity in astronomy and his family travels to Europe. Later on, as an undergraduate with an open mind and a bit of luck, Crawford stumbled upon a life altering opportunity—the chance to participate in archaeological research in Japan.
From an early age, astronomy captivated Crawford. Although the topic was not part of the conventional elementary school curriculum, Crawford was drawn towards the science and was determined to learn what made the universe work.
“I remember in elementary school my grandmother giving me a gift of an astronomy book, it was a pretty technical book, but she was confident in me,” Crawford recalls. “I started reading it and it was challenging, but I knew that some of the answers about the universe were in there.”
Around age seven, Crawford’s father, a member of the Canadian Air Force, was promoted to an officer position and the family was required to relocate to a base in France. Despite the tension of the Cold War, Crawford’s parents were determined to introduce their children to the passion and excitement of history. The family travelled across Europe, visiting locations like Rome, Venice, Spain, and landmarks such as cathedrals and Roman ruins. Crawford admits that he “[doesn’t] remember ever being bored with it.”
“I remember standing on a street in Rome and looking down from the modern street level to the excavated floor of the Roman plaza, and asking my father what was going on. He explained to me that we were essentially looking back in time to 2000 years ago,” Crawford remembers. “And at that moment, I became fascinated with going back in time.”
As a high school student in Kingston, Ontario, Crawford excelled in the sciences and eventually pursued his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto St. George campus. As an undergraduate, he enrolled in a range of courses that sparked his interest including ecology, general biology, human biology, and archaeology. By his third year, Crawford focused on the relationship between botany and archaeology, realizing that he wanted to not only study science, but human history as well.
In the fall of his final year of undergraduate studies, Crawford encountered one of his professors while walking across campus. They discussed their summer vacations and Crawford’s plans, which included graduate school at the University of North Carolina, when his professor offered him an invitation to join an archaeological research project in Japan the following summer.
“I always tell my students that if an opportunity arises, think seriously about jumping on it, even if it doesn’t fit with your plans because plans don’t often work out. You have to be prepared to grab an opportunity,” Crawford says.
Within seconds, Crawford accepted the offer, enrolled in a Japanese language class, and, by chance, found himself with the potential for an exciting topic for his graduate thesis. The next summer, he spent three to four months working on a site approximately 5,000 to 6,000 years old, and collecting data on the culture that inhabited the land. In the area, Crawford learnt that very little had changed.
“This culture in Japan lasted maybe 14,000 to 15,000 years. We’re so used to society changing. Every 6 months there’s a new piece of technology, but in Japan 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, it was ‘How do we sustain our lives?’” Crawford says. “People lived in the same types of houses, made the same kind of pottery and tools, and ate similar food. Rather than that being a failure, we have all come to realize that what that means is that these people were successful. We need to know more about these ancient success stories because they were doing something right, and we can learn from that.”
The ancient community had transformed the Japanese islands to create an environment best suited to their needs, Crawford explains. They produced their own food, planted nut trees, and used lacquer trees to paint and preserve their wood and pottery in vibrant shades of red and black.
Today, Crawford looks at plant domestication and agriculture. He also works towards identifying plant remains from archaeological sites and figuring out what kind of insights they give us about humanity’s past. Along with archaeological excavation in Ontario, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, Crawford continues his research on ancient East Asian cultures in Japan and China.
In a week, Crawford is heading to China to establish a test pit in a 9,000 year old site and for collecting sediment, plant, and pottery samples in an attempt to figure out how this site was structured. Crawford explains that the people of this region were some of the earliest rice farmers in the world, but the land is not an area where researchers would have predicted people were using rice. This is the question Crawford plans to investigate.
“It wasn’t just rice; it looks like they were growing other plants too. You begin to see Chinese cuisine flourishing over 9000 years ago. That’s just incredible to go back in time. Local indigenous people made some profound developments that affected human kind and they had no idea. This old idea that people develop agriculture because hunting and gathering was failing is over simplifying,” says Crawford.
One of the major discoveries for Crawford came in the 1980s when he explored an ancient farming complex in Hokkaido, located in northern Japan. In textbooks, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, are frequently described as primitive hunters and gatherers. However, while excavating an ancestral site on the Hokkaido University campus, Crawford realized the myth about the Ainu was far from the truth. Their population consisted of farmers with a sophisticated relationship to the land and agriculture.
“We came to a more profound understanding of indigenous people in northern Japan and to some extent the history books got it all wrong. That’s what makes [the job] worth it. We’re constantly reassessing what went on in humanity’s past,” Crawford explains.
Crawford also discovered some charred pieces of corn along the Grand River in Ontario during the 1990s that led to another significant revelation in his career. Crawford and his team were trying to determine when corn, a new world crop originating in Mexico, had come to Ontario. After radiocarbon dating the findings, the results revealed the corn to be from 600 A.D, about 500 years earlier than expected. “Our whole view of what had been happening in the prehistory of Ontario flipped,” Crawford recalls.
Alongside his research, Crawford teaches a variety of courses at UTM that range from ancient human ecology to the critical analysis of hoaxes and myths within ancient worlds.
“I think students should be willing to keep an open mind about humanity. If we can maintain some humility about our place in the world, we’re better off,” says Crawford. “Through studying the past, we can really help ourselves and our future.”