John W. Hessler

Archaeology Curator, Ethnobotanist, and Professor in Baltimore, MD

John W. Hessler

Archaeology Curator, Ethnobotanist, and Professor in Baltimore, MD

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When not climbing in the Alps, searching for rare plants in a distant desert, or mountain biking through some jungle, I am the curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress, and a faculty member of the Rare Book School, at the University of Virginia, teaching the ethnobotany of the Mesoamerican Codex.

I am also a lecturer in bioarchaeology & archaeobotany in the Odyssey Program at Johns Hopkins University where, in Fall 2021, I am teaching the seminar, Archaeology and the Science of Climate Change.

Formerly of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, my research has focused on the ethnobotany of the Cahuilla, in the deserts of southwestern California & Joshua Tree National Park and on the botanical cognates in the Uto-Aztecan language family. For the last few years I have been making my way through the massive amounts of linguistic and botanical data on the Cahuilla collected by John Peabody Harrington, along with his notes on the little known Kitanemuk Serrano.

Recently, I have also participated in archaeobotanical studies of flora, including an investigation of ancient agave. My work on Maya and Nahuatl ethnobotany is currently a featured project at Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks Plant Humanities Initiative.

Interested in computational plant morphology and morphometrics, I am currently trying to turn a mess of mathematical lecture notes on Elliptic Fourier and Eigenshape analysis into a book on computational botany.

The author of more than one hundred articles and books, including the New York Times bestseller, MAP: Exploring the World, my work has been featured in many media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, the BBC, CBS News and NPR’s All Things Considered.

My most recent book, Collecting for a New World, examines the history of the archaeological collections at the Library of Congress where I also write the blog series Excavating Archaeology.

An avid mountaineer, I am a frequent contributor to Alpinist Magazine, where I write about climate change & the history of mountaineering.

I often find myself pondering Arbor’s Natural History of Plant Form, wondering about the mysteries of contained in ancient DNA, and marveling at the complexity to be found in Darwin’s tangled bank.