You are here

A Career Marked by Serendipity and Pygmy Hippos

Archaeologist Alan Simmons retires after 25 years of bringing the depth of time and big perspective to UNLV.

People  |  May 1, 2018  |  By Karyn S. Hollingsworth
man at the top of a valley

Distinguished Professor Alan Simmons' work took him and cadres of students to Cyprus to study food production.

Editor's Note: 

A retirement reception for Simmons will be held May 3 at 3:30 p.m. in the Goldfield Room of the Lied Library. Please RSVP at alisa.catanzaro@unlv.edu.


At age 13, Alan Simmons was hit by a car. Thankfully, the accident wasn’t too serious, but what happened afterward was life changing.

“When I came to, I said, ‘I want to be an archaeologist,’” said Simmons, a Distinguished Professor in anthropology in the UNLV College of Liberal Arts.

As a military brat in Germany, Simmons had early exposure to different cultures and “old things” during visits to ancient castles and war sites. He often played with medieval castle toys. “I guess the germ was already planted,” he said. 

While the moment of clarity after the accident defined his career path, the location of it expanded his worldview.

“That was in the Philippines. My dad was in the Air Force, so we lived all over,” he said. “My mother was Belgian. That gave me an interest in lots of different cultures, so that set a framework.”

That career choice led him to study the origins of agriculture in exotic locales such as Jordan, Cyprus, and Israel. Eventually, his path wound its way to UNLV in 1993.

Today, amid partially packed boxes and stacks of books, Simmons is reflecting on his 25-year career at UNLV, retirement this spring, and his plans to continue the research that captured his attention as a youth. 

Portrait Alan Simmons A Little Help

Simmons says a little serendipity helped refine his research interests as a Near East scholar. Living with a Libyan roommate as a freshman at the University of Colorado played a part.

“He gave me this curiosity about the Middle East, back when Israeli-Arab wars were frequent. I always thought it would really be nice to work over there,” he said.

“If I’d had a different roommate, I might’ve been interested in Thailand archaeology or something,” he quipped.

Simmons started excavations in Canada and the Southwest. As a junior, he studied abroad in Jerusalem where he did his first Near Eastern excavations. As a doctoral student at Southern Methodist University, he completed his dissertation research in Israel and later worked in Jordan, Egypt, and Cyprus.

Coming to UNLV

Simmons brought that love of the Near East to UNLV’s department of anthropology after working at the University of Kansas Museum of Anthropology and on the research faculty of Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno.

“DRI was involved in cultural resource management, so if they were building a highway or new power plant, you had to write competitive grants to make sure the archaeology wasn’t being disturbed,” he said.

“(There) you couldn’t really choose where your research was going to be. Here (at UNLV), I could just write grants for areas I wanted to work in.”

He found the small UNLV department — just four students in the master’s program — with big aspirations to develop a Ph.D. program appealing. Today, the program boasts about 40 doctoral students.

Pygmy Hippos

Much of Simmons’ research focuses on the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution that happened about 10,000 years ago — the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from hunting and gathering to food production and village life. 

He’s studied the processes leading to food production and its consequences, including humans’ impact on the extinction of animals. In his book, Faunal Extinction in an Island Society, his research showed that humans contributed to the fall of pygmy hippos at a pre-Neolithic site in Cyprus.

“I found that people probably were responsible for causing these animals to become extinct by overhunting them. It’s been over 25 years (since the research came out), and it’s still a controversial site,” he said.

He considers this, combined with some of his Neolithic research on early food production in Jordan and Cyprus, to be his seminal works. “We’ve made amazing discoveries that told us a lot about social life,” he said.

Though his work is noted for its contribution to ecological and behavioral data on the hippos, he’s tongue-in-cheek about it. “It’s still hard to keep a straight face when talking about this project. It’s kind of hard to talk seriously about something as funny-looking as a pygmy hippo.”

Professor Alan Simmons at dig site His Footprint

At UNLV, Simmons has written three books, including The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East, which won the 2009 G. Ernest Wright book award, and Stone Age Sailors: Paleolithic Seafaring in the Mediterranean, winner of the 2015 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title award. He’s published more than 200 articles, chapters, reviews, and monographs in his career.

Simmons has won numerous university teaching and research awards, including a Barrick Research Award, Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award, Barrick Distinguished Scholar, and Black Mountain Fellowship. His national honors include the P.E. MacAllister Field Archaeology Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research.

One award stands out among many — he was named a Distinguished Professor in 2010, a career highlight that continues a strong tradition in the anthropology department and the College of Liberal Arts, he said.

“It’s a real culmination of experiences and nice recognition of achievements. The first Distinguished Professor at UNLV, Sheilagh Brooks, was in anthropology. Then Martha Knack received it, and now Debra Martin’s getting it,” he said.

Simmons secured competitive grants totaling more than $850,000 from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, and National Endowment for the Humanities, and more than $1.1 million in contract awards. He also took on leadership roles at UNLV as associate dean of the Graduate College from 2001 to 2002 and chair of anthropology from 2004 to 2008.

As chair, Simmons amplified the department’s research emphasis and productivity through his own scholarship and by recruiting like-minded faculty, said Barbara Roth, current chair and professor of anthropology.

“Dr. Simmons was instrumental in shifting to a focus on research — exemplified by his own grant-funded, field-based research, his extensive publication record, and the success of his many graduate students. He oversaw the hiring of researchers he thought would bring this kind of dedicated research focus to the department and university,” she said.

Simmons was committed to high research activity long before the university’s push for Top Tier status, said Liam Frink, executive director of undergraduate research and professor of anthropology.

“Even as an administrator and chair, he received federal funding and consistently published. Alan was an exemplar of UNLV Top Tier before it was in fashion,” he said.

The Future

Asked what he’ll miss most about UNLV, Simmons joked, “Not the faculty meetings!”

He added, “Probably working with students — the teaching aspect and getting them involved in research projects, especially in fieldwork.”

He and his wife, Renee, also an archaeologist, will relocate to Reno to be closer to family, and he’ll embark on his “prolonged sabbatical.”

Simmons will continue to take a global look at food production. Also, he’s interested in working with professionals seeking to stem the illegal global antiquities trade. His ultimate project is examining long-term human impacts on the environment.

“We’re not managing the environment very well today. We can show that human impacts, especially in the form of increased populations, started a long time ago,” he said. “Archaeology gives us some of the time depth to look at it from the big perspective.”

Simmons is excited and a little daunted, he said. “You get so used to 25 years of ‘life by semester,’ but I’ll adapt.”