Todd Braje’98 says he “got a little sidetracked” after leaving Beloit College. Two years working (and swimming) in the Kingdom of Tonga through the Peace Corps following graduation convinced him to stick close to the coast. Still, it was only after that experience, as well as a stint teaching middle school, that Braje obtained his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in archaeology and headed for the Bay Area.
He’s been in California since 2008, first teaching at Humboldt State and San Diego State Universities, and since July as associate curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. There, he’s been continuing his ongoing archaeological work on ancient coastal adaptations and maritime migrations, seeking insight into when and how humans arrived in the Americas. Todd and the rest of his team are looking for early settlements that have since been submerged near California’s Channel Islands, and which he said are 14,000 to 15,000 years old.
Todd belongs to a school of anthropological thought that disputes the claim that early humans were wary of water and allowed it to limit our mobility, which would mean that we must have populated the continents mostly via land. Alongside other scholars, he is pushing back the estimated dates by which humans developed sophisticated watercraft. His peers are also arguing that aquatic adaptations may have contributed to the evolution of our brains: aquatic resources are rich in Omega-3s, which help sustain healthy brains.
“It’s really exciting,” Todd said, “because others have been doing this, but we are the first large-scale efforts” along the Pacific Coast.
When Todd arrived at Beloit at the beginning of his freshman year, it was from his hometown in Northwestern Indiana – a far cry, geographically, from the Pacific coasts with which he would later fall in love. He had selected Beloit College because of its anthropology program, and he stuck with it, earning a degree in anthropology and one in elementary education four years later.
“I just loved my time at Beloit,” he says. “I look back on it really fondly.” As a student, Todd worked closely with former anthropology professors Bob Salzer and Dan Shea and attended his share of themed parties. He also ran cross country, forming a habit that he hasn’t kicked – in fact, he jogged across the cover of the Beloit College Magazine’s fall/winter issue in 2012, accompanying a story about alumni runners.
The school has stayed with him, often unexpectedly. Todd says it’s pretty shocking how often he runs into a fellow Beloiter. In September, at the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington, D.C.’s Peopling of the Americas symposium, former Beloit anthropology professor Kylie Quave suddenly realized that Todd was an alumnus of the college; she’d been following his research for years.
“I’ve been reading his work since grad school,” Kylie wrote in an email to her fellow anthropology faculty a few days later, “but I never knew he went to Beloit!”
Although Todd was often teaching in lecture halls before he landed his latest job, he said that he wanted his students to have the small liberal arts school experience that he got at Beloit; he encouraged small group discussion and got to know his students.
He misses teaching at universities, but the California Academy of Sciences boasts over a million visitors a year, which Todd considers a trade-off. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” he says, “and part of my evolution as a scholar has been wanting to reach broader and broader audiences.”