John W. Hessler, FRGS

Archaeology Curator, Bioarchaeologist, and Professor in Baltimore, MD

John W. Hessler, FRGS

Archaeology Curator, Bioarchaeologist, and Professor in Baltimore, MD

Read my Alpinist articles

When not climbing in the Alps, looking for bats in a dark cave, or searching for rare plants in a distant desert, I am the curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress, and a lecturer in bioarchaeology and biogeography in the Odyssey Program and at the Osher Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where in Spring 2022, I will be teaching ‘Archaeology & the Science of Pandemics’ and the ‘Archaeology of Writing in the Ancient Americas’.

Formerly of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, my research has focused on the archaeo- and ethnobotany of the Cahuilla, in the deserts of southwestern California 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 journals on the little known Kitanemuk Serrano, especially his ‘notes on plants,’ from 1917.

Interested in the earliest plant use in the Americas, I have participated in archaeobotanical studies of flora, including a recent investigation of ancient agave and a field study of Monotropa uniflora. My research on Maya and Nahuatl ethnobotany is a featured project at Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks Plant Humanities Initiative.

Currently, I am investigating the large corpus of botanical notes left by C. Hart Merriam, and collected from the cultures of the Uto-Aztecan language group--mapping the biogeography of cognate names of the genera and species to shed light on the spatial distribution and evolution of Proto-Uto-Aztecan.

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, I am the author of more than one hundred articles and books, including the New York Times bestseller, MAP: Exploring the World. My writing and research has also 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 Excavating Archaeology Series for the blog, Worlds Revealed.

I find pondering Voynich manuscript, wondering about the biological and philosophical mysteries of contained in ancient DNA, and marveling at the complexity to be found in Darwin’s tangled bank, strangely comforting.