Meet the Vegan Anthropologist Changing Academia

Dan Sayers is changing the way we view anthropology—and those who follow vegan lifestyles.


As an energy-drink addicted, beer-guzzling chain-smoker who sometimes goes an entire day without eating, Dan Sayers doesn’t fit the profile of a typical vegan. “I just don’t think about eating when I’m doing fieldwork,” Sayers says. “My mind is occupied.” The work to which Sayers—a respected historical archaeologist and associate professor and chair of the anthropology department at American University in Washington, DC—is referring is his decade-long excavation of escaped-slave communities in North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp.

The new anthropologist
Sayers went vegetarian in 1991, and two years later, he discovered the book Diet for a New America by animal-rights activist John Robbins. After reading the book, Sayers went vegan. “Before reading Robbins’ book,” Sayers says, “I thought it was okay to eat cheese and drink milk because I was thinking somehow dairy animals were exempt from cruelty. This book showed me I was wrong in that assumption. I have now been a vegan for 24 years.”

Recently, Sayers contributed a chapter to a new book called Critical Animal Studies Towards Trans-Species Social Justice, which illustrates some of the newest developments in the rapidly-growing field of Critical Animal Studies.

“Critical Animal Studies ia a relatively new area of academic activism,” Sayers says, “and when (editors) Atsuko Matsuoka and John Sorenson contacted me to contribute a chapter on archaeology and animal emancipation, I immediately realized the potential for helping my profession of historical archaeology engage in a bigger conversation about animal rights, human agency and choice, environment, and social critique.”

One of Sayers’ doctoral students, Justin Uehlein, co-authored (with Sayers) a chapter titled “Animal Emancipation and Historical Archaeology: A Pairing Long Overdue” that examines how historical archaeology and critical animal-studies conversations and partnerships can be mutually beneficial. In the chapter, Sayers and Uehlein use the Great Dismal Swamp to theorize interpretations on how swamp-resistance communities developed relatively humane relations with animals.

A kinder way to live
Between the mid-1600s to the Civil War, several types of hidden communities existed in the Great Dismal Swamp, where enslaved and escaped African Americans lived. The first site—an exterior community near the water’s edge where approximately 40–50 enslaved people lived and worked as lumbermen—is where Sayers and his team uncovered relics. From this settlement, they found nails, bits of irons, a French pistol flint, glass bottles, and a dark blue ceramic bowl that dates back to 1850 with a “Made in England” stamp imprinted on the bottom.

Miles into the Great Dismal Swamp, where the vegetation thickens, Sayers and his team used machetes to cut through the overgrowth. A 20-acre island was excavated, and evidence of a multi-generational community was found. Cabin remnants were uprooted, as was a 400-year-old fire pit. At this location, Sayers and his team discovered many differences between this community and the nearby exterior community. First, this community was comprised of people who had fled their previous lives of abuse and neglect in the outside world and didn’t want to be found.

“They didn’t want to use tools that reminded them of their old lives,” Sayers says, “so when they unearthed ancient Native American tools, like arrowheads, they used those to create baskets, other tools, and sheltered structures.

Next, Sayers and his team realized that animal consumption was minimal—at most—for this group of people.

“Oddly enough, in the interior community, we found less than 30 tiny fragments of animal bone,” Sayers says. “There wasn’t really an area where animal bones were disposed of after they’d been consumed. I would have to go out there (to the swamp) again and do more digging to be fully convinced that this particular community was not meat eaters, but I have a feeling, in regard to diet, that the habit of eating animal flesh dissipated over time.”

Sayers attributes this shift in lifestyle to the community’s deliberate choice to recreate a world that was far less oppressive and brutal. He suggests that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that perhaps the escaped slaves considered the parallels of their lives with non-human beings and that they understood and could relate to suffering.

Sayers considers himself a “developing expert” on the topic but believes there is much more to learn.

“More time is necessary to have this perspective impact how I interpret sites and our social history,” Sayers says.

Erin Goldmeier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Virgin Atlantic Airways Blog, Culture Trip, and others.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Smithsonian

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