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UW Professor Robert L. Kelly Receives Humboldt Research Award

September 11, 2017
man outside with red rock cliffs behind him
Robert L. Kelly, a UW professor of anthropology, is the recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation Award. (Todd Surovell Photo)

Robert L. Kelly, a University of Wyoming professor of anthropology, recognized internationally as a leading researcher in anthropology, has been selected to receive an Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation Award.

The award, which promotes international cultural dialogue and academic exchange, recognizes academics whose fundamental discoveries, new theories or insights have had a significant impact on their own disciplines, and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future. The Humboldt Award recognizes Kelly’s achievements to date.

Kelly received notice of his award, which totals 60,000 Euros, at the end of the 2017 spring semester. The Humboldt Award is based on a nomination from German colleagues, and recognizes Kelly for a lifetime of research and accomplishment.  

He plans to spend the 2018 spring semester at the University of Tubingen in Germany, where he will work with some archaeological colleagues there on a new research issue.

“This award will give me the opportunity to investigate a new area of research -- the origins of the human capacity for culture -- with colleagues in Germany who have expertise in that particular aspect of human evolution,” Kelly says. “Importantly, this sort of international cooperation also opens up opportunities for our students. For example, this will be an opportunity to participate in European research projects. My time in Germany also will give me the opportunity to start work on a follow-up to my recent book, ‘The Fifth Beginning,’ aimed at the general public.”

Kelly first became involved in archaeology in 1973 when, as a high school student, he participated in the excavation of Gatecliff Rockshelter in central Nevada with David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History. He continued to work in Nevada for more than a decade, eventually conducting his doctoral research there. Kelly received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1978; his master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1980; and his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1985, all in anthropology. 

Kelly previously taught at Colby College in Maine and, beginning in 1986, the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He directed that department’s Program in Archaeology and served as department head from 1992-97. He moved to Wyoming in 1997, taking a position as professor of anthropology. He served as department head from 2005-08, overseeing the planning, construction and move to the new anthropology building. He helped construct the department’s current doctoral program.

Kelly is the author of more than 100 articles, books and reviews, including “The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways,” “The Bioarchaeology of the Stillwater Marsh” (with Clark S. Larsen) and “Prehistory of the Carson Desert and Stillwater Mountains, Nevada: Environment, Mobility and Subsistence.” He also is the author, with Thomas, of the widely used textbooks “Archaeology” and “Archaeology: Down to Earth,” the pedagogical CD “Doing Fieldwork” and, with Thomas and Peter Dawson, a Canadian version of “Archaeology.”

He is a past president of the Society for American Archaeology and currently editor of the society’s flagship journal, American Antiquity. He is past secretary of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association. He has been a distinguished lecturer at UCLA, Washington State University, the University of Colorado and the University of Tennessee, as well as the University of Leiden (Netherlands) and the Universities of La Plata and Cordoba (Argentina). He has served on both the National Science Foundation and Wenner-Gren proposal review panels.

Kelly has worked on the archaeology, ethnology and ethnography of foraging peoples since 1973, participating in archaeological research projects in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Kentucky, Georgia, Wyoming and Chile for the past 13 years. He has conducted ethnographic work with part-time hunter-gatherers in Madagascar and assisted in an ethno-history project in Micronesia. After coming to Wyoming, he returned to an early interest in Paleoindian archaeology, researching the Pine Spring site in southwest Wyoming and, for the past 10 years, many of the caves and rock shelters that George Frison excavated in the 1970s in the Bighorn Mountains.

In 2010, Kelly began a project in Glacier National Park that surveyed the park’s ice and snow patches for artifacts exposed by recent global warming. The project aims to use this evidence to relate current to past climate changes. The work was completed in 2013, and a report is being finalized, he says.

He has received more than $1.3 million in research grant funding. A proponent of outreach and public education, he created the Explore Wyoming’s Cultural Heritage website ( to promote tourism to Wyoming’s historic and archaeological sites, and has given numerous public lectures around the state.

Kelly wrote the book, titled “The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of History Can Tell Us About Our Future,” which was published in 2016.

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