The following is an article excerpt from the Spring 2020 Issue of American Archaeology MagazineBecome a member to subscribe and read the full story! 

By Gayle Keck

Miriam lost her backpack. Her name was painted in white on the black fabric. It was discovered on a hillside in Arizona, less than six miles from the Mexican border. Scattered around it were canned peaches, packets of electrolyte powder, and a black bra. But the most important item may have been a list of phone numbers: family or friends in the U.S. who could help her.

What happened to Miriam? Did she discard the backpack while running from the U.S. Border Patrol? Did a human smuggler, or coyote, rip it from her body because the weight was slowing her down? And did she survive without these supplies?

Researchers with the Undocumented Migration Project recovered a child's shoe from the Sonoran Desert in 2009. The shoe is inscribed with the message "I miss your kisses." | Credit: Smithsonian
This child's sweater was found in the Sonoran Desert in 2013. | Credit: Haeden Stewart
These items were discovered at a migrant station called Centipede Wash in 2012. The stations are places where smugglers pick up migrants, who are often forced to leave all of their possessions behind. | Credit: Michael Wells
Undocumented Migration Project researchers map out the distribution of pig remains from forensic experiments on decomposition. | Credit: Michael Wells


These are the kinds of questions archaeologist Jason De León of the University of California, Los Angeles, wants us to ponder when we consider the artifacts he has collected and cataloged in Arizona’s harsh Sonoran Desert. He and his colleagues in his  Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) combed the desert between 2009 and 2014 looking for sites where migrants had paused, been picked up at clandestine transfer points by human smugglers, gotten arrested by the Border Patrol, or died. In total, they documented more than 30,000 objects at 341 sites.

De León came to what some consider unconventional archaeology through a conventional path. “For almost ten years I was doing very traditional archaeology,” he explained. “In Mexico, during my dissertation project, I got to know workers who were getting ready to migrate, or had some sort of traumatic migration experience. I found I was much more interested in those stories than what was coming out of the ground. I made the decision before I had written a word of my dissertation that I’d be working on these issues.” In 2017, De León received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which provided added funding, freedom, and legitimacy.

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