John W. Hessler

Explorer, Archaeology Curator, and Linguist in Baltimore, MD

John W. Hessler

Explorer, Archaeology Curator, and Linguist in Baltimore, MD

Read my Alpinist articles

When not climbing in the Alps, searching for plants or butterflies in some jungle, or racing in the saddle of a Cerlevo, I am the curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas and a Specialist in Geographic Information Science (GIS) at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I also teach the history and structure of the Mesoamerican & Indigenous Codex at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

Formerly of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, where I studied high-altitude lepidoptera and the butterflies in the jungles around the ruined Maya city of Tikal, my current research focusses on the linguistics of the ethnobotany of the ancient Maya and Nahua and on traditional plant classification schemes in the Amazon. I am also researching the ethnobotanical language of the Cahuilla, or Iviluqaletem culture, in the deserts of southwestern California & Joshua Tree National Park, and the botanical cognates of the polysynthetic languages of the Uto-Aztecan family and throughout Mesoamerica.

Interested in the applications of phylogenetics, aDNA & eDNA, to the evolution of plants, I have participated in archaeological & paleobotantical studies of flora assemblages, including recent investigations of the remains of ancient agave and mycotrophic plants. I was recently interviewed by CityLab on the intersection of phylogenetics, GIS & biogeography to COVID-19.

The author of more than one hundred articles and books, including the New York Times best-seller, MAP: Exploring the World, my writing and work has been featured in many national media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Discover Magazine, WIRED, the Atlantic’s CITYLAB, the BBC, CBS News and most recently on NPR’s All Things Considered.

I am the author of the recent book Collecting for a New World, which outlines the provenance and history of the archaeological collections at the Library of Congress.

Inspired by the great plant explorer, Richard Evans Schultes, I am also researching the biogeography & ethnobotany of coca (genus Erythroxylum), and the fibers and plant-based dyes used in the Pre-Columbian the creation of Chuspas.

An avid mountaineer, I am a frequent contributor to Alpinist Magazine where I write on the history of mountaine

  • Work
    • Library of Congress