News Story

De Luna NEH Grant Unites Humanities, Archaeology

September 14, 2018 — Professor Kathryn de Luna of the Department of History has received a collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which she and two co-investigators will use to study the causes of population expansion and language change in central Africa.

De Luna will make several trips to a small village in central Zambia as part of an international research team over the next three years. Her team will work alongside Georgetown’s Africa Field School, which brings Georgetown students to take part in field research during a five-week summer session.


De Luna will seek to challenge the assumption that environmental change and other structural factors served as the primary drivers of population expansion in central Africa between the 6th and 16th centuries. Along with colleagues Jeff Fleisher of Rice University and Matt Pawlowicz of Virginia Commonwealth University, she will pioneer an interdisciplinary approach that factors cultural change into such large-scale historical analyses of the spread of populations and language families.

“Climate, disease, and subsistence were key concerns for early communities, but these instrumental explanations are overrepresented in scholarship,” de Luna said. “This masks the role of creativity, curiosity, and cultural values in shaping decisions about where to live and what languages to speak and teach your children in earlier time periods.”

De Luna provides a modern example for her theory: One Georgetown student might decide to learn Mandarin Chinese for career advancement purposes, while another makes the same decision based on cultural interest or heritage. The former student is responding to changes in technology and large-scale global trends; the latter is simply interested in learning more about the culture. Both contribute to the spread of the language, but only one is acting in response to the type of change scholars of premodern history often focus on.

“In our attempts to understand early history — where historical actors can’t speak for themselves through documents or other traditional sources — scholars tend to focus on instrumental explanations,” de Luna said. “We’re trying to get at cultural practices, which might not follow the ‘logic’ we would expect to influence choices, but that nevertheless shaped processes like population and language expansion.”


An archaeologist in the Rice Department of Anthropology, Fleisher worked with de Luna to plan a conference on interdisciplinary approaches to early African history while they were colleagues at Rice in 2012, opening a conversation about collaboration.

Following the successful conference, the two joined Pawlowicz, an archaeologist from VCU, to explore how to bring together linguistic, archaeological, and ethnographic sources in their research. In 2018, Fleisher and de Luna published a book reflecting these discussions, Speaking with Substance: Methods of Language and Materials in African History.

For de Luna, a historian by trade, working directly alongside archaeologists sparked her to pursue a longtime interest. She applied for and won a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, which helps early-to-mid-career scholars in the humanities explore a new field of interest. She begins a Master’s degree program in archaeology at Yale University this year, during which she’ll learn to conduct archaeological analysis and work with specialists on technical examination of archaeological objects.

“For me, this opens entirely new ‘archives’ for times and places where we have no documents to tell us about life in the past,” de Luna said. “Of course, archaeologists have been doing just that for decades. But as the Zambia project demonstrates, bringing a humanities perspective to the social sciences similarly changes the approaches and questions we ask of artifacts and historical objects.”


The project will directly incorporate students from Georgetown’s Africa Field School, a new study abroad program run through Georgetown’s Office of Global Education that students to conduct field research while living in Zambia for five weeks.

The highly selective program focuses on building a cohort with a diverse array of majors and backgrounds in order to further contribute to the interdisciplinary nature of the research team. Undergraduate and graduate students from any college or university are invited to apply.

“We need physics and math majors as much as we need historians and climate scientists,” de Luna said.

At the Field School, students spend five weeks in field methods — interviews, excavations, soil samples, isotope analysis, and more — while developing their own, smaller research projects to complement the larger questions that de Luna and her colleagues are tackling. The new initiative is designed to give its students a better sense of the research process.

“In class, students see the polished, final versions of research findings in articles and books,” de Luna said. “By participating here, they not only share in the thrill of discovery, they learn the iterative, uncertain process of asking questions, trying to answer them, and adjusting for new findings along the way.”

De Luna expects the field research experience to serve her students well long after they leave history and anthropology classrooms.

“What better way is there to learn critical thinking and a healthy skepticism for official information, whether it’s news reporting or peer-reviewed research?” she said.

— Patrick Curran

The five-week Africa Field School summer study abroad program is open to both undergraduate and graduate students from Georgetown or any other college or university. For more information on applying to the Field School, visit its page on the GU Study Abroad site.

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