‘What It Means to Be Human’: Anthropologist and Fulbright Fellow Evan Mann Looks for Clues in Quebec’s Prehistoric Pottery

Evan Mann (Photo courtesy of Mann)

By Lida Tunesi

When he’s doing research in the field, Ph.D. student Evan Mann’s morning commute looks a little different than most. As an anthropology student studying the ceramic vessels and pottery of hunter-gatherers who lived in what is now Quebec, Mann stays with his collaborators either in lakeside cabins or camping alongside rivers while they’re in Canada.

“We get up in the morning around 7:00 and have breakfast, then we get in our canoes and paddle down the river to our site,” Mann said in an interview with The Graduate Center. “It’s not a bad way to commute to work.” 

A group of people in a canoe on a river
Evan Mann and his colleagues canoe to work. (Photo courtesy of Mann)

Mann recently received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant, which will facilitate his return to Quebec in the fall.

“The Fulbright will allow me to have access to my research for this dissertation in a way that would be very difficult otherwise,” Mann said. “The award will provide funding for nine months of living in Canada, as well as support for immigration processes and foreign taxes. I should be able to collect all the data I need for my analyses, and that goes along with the ability to get in and understand the local culture better.”

Ceramic vessels can give a more detailed picture of cultures of the past than one might expect. A piece of pottery might have been used as a status symbol as well as a utilitarian item, and ceramics have always been a form of artistic expression, too. Using laboratory methods like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, Mann is also able to deduce what was stored or cooked inside a vessel.

“When you get your Ph.D. in anthropology you have to also know a little bit of chemistry,” Mann said, “you have to understand culture, you have to understand some sociology, psychology, and economics. You’re studying what it means to be a human.” 

Mann’s dissertation research focuses on an area of lake and river systems north of the Ottawa River called the High Laurentians. Compared to other areas of Quebec, not much archaeological work has been done in the region, so he hopes to help build up knowledge of local history. The CUNY team works alongside people of indigenous ancestry in the field, and stays in contact with people from the local Kitigan Zibi Anishanabeg First Nation. At the end of every year, Mann and his collaborators present their findings and any excavated artifacts at a community fair. 

Mann came upon his passion for the subject almost by accident. As an undergraduate at the University of Miami, he set out to major in accounting and economics. But when he realized he wasn’t attracted to the idea of a desk job, an elective course in anthropology presented a solution.

“I fell in love with the idea of anthropology,” Mann said. “I always liked studying economics, so I kept that, but I dropped accounting and started diving hard into archaeology. Archaeology is the study of material culture in the past, and what is material culture except a part of our broad economic model?”

At The Graduate Center, Mann started working with Professor Karine Taché, who has since moved to Université Laval in Quebec City, and now studies with Professor Cameron McNeil (GC/Lehman, Anthropology).

“Between the two of them I couldn’t ask for better people to work with and to support me,” Mann said. “Grad school has been the most rewarding experience of my life, the most enriching by far. The anthropology program at the GC has a longstanding history of excellence.”

To other students applying for similar fellowships, Mann recommends focusing on the personal statement portion of the application. For programs with a focus on international outreach, he said, it is important to be clear about what the research means to you and how it is going to help others.

“A professor once said to me, you’re representing not only your school, but the U.S.,” Mann recalled. “How can you help this area? How can this exchange of culture help the two countries understand each other better? If you ask me, there’s no one better than an anthropologist to answer those questions.”

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Submitted on: MAY 12, 2021

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