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Agents of Change
UMaine anthropologist studies the roles humans and climate play in transforming Peru's coast
by Kristen Andresen | Art/Photography by Gregory Zaro


UMaine undergraduate Laura Labbe spent last summer conducting fieldwork on the southern coast of Peru.

Until last summer, Laura Labbe’s idea of what it meant to be an archaeologist could be summed up in two words: Indiana Jones.

That all changed when Labbe, a University of Maine junior from Biddeford, Maine, had the opportunity to research human-induced desertification in southern Peru. She spent a month working alongside anthropology professor Gregory Zaro and his colleagues from State University of New York – New Paltz.

“It was unlike anything I could get in the classroom,” says Labbe, who received a grant from the Department of Anthropology’s Getty Archaeological Study Fund for her work. “It was a really great learning experience. I got to experience what it’s like to be an archaeologist.”

Instead of raiding lost arks, Labbe’s work involved a lot of hiking up steep coastal hills and scooping up sediment with plastic utensils. She has spent the academic year analyzing the soil and water samples that she and Zaro collected.

The fieldwork wasn’t glamorous, but Zaro says such experience is invaluable, especially for undergraduate students motivated to learn.

“Fieldwork has grueling moments, but when you can tie that in to the bigger process, that’s when it becomes interesting,” Zaro says.

Zaro’s own interest was sparked during a field school in Belize that he attended before graduate school. Though he had always been interested in archaeology and anthropology, the hands-on research “matured me a great deal and it really injected me with a passion for my own work and working with others.” He encourages his own students to pursue such opportunities.

“Whether Laura or any other student continues along, I want it to slingshot them into a world where they can explore learning outside the classroom,” Zaro says. “I want them to make connections and find meaning between these worlds of anthropology, climate science and the classroom.”