Brent Woodfill

Name: Brent Woodfill 

Position: Anthropology Professor

College: Arts and Sciences

Department: Sociology, Criminology, and Anthropology 

Brent Woodfill’s research has taken him to explore caves, cities and hilltop shrines in western Belize, central Guatemala and southeastern Mexico. 

The anthropology professor and others have used archaeological remains to reconstruct the history of the major trade route that passed through that part of Central America. Their ground breaking work was featured in fall 2023 on an episode of the popular cable show, “Expedition Unknown.”

In the episode entitled “Lost City of the White Jaguar,” Woodfill embarked on a riveting expedition to uncover the secrets of a lost Mayan city, Sak B’alam. The city was founded more than 400 years ago by the Lacandon Maya, one of several Indigenous groups in southern Mexico and Central America who resisted Spanish colonial rule for centuries.

The episode gave viewers an immersive journey into the heart of Mayan civilization as Woodfill and his teammates sought to unravel the mysteries surrounding Sak B’alam. Filming for the episode took place in late spring 2023.

Known for his passion for his field, Woodfill teaches courses in archaeology, ethnography, forensic anthropology, linguistic anthropology, environmental justice, globalization and sacred places. “My experiences and insights from my years of working in Latin America are woven into each of my courses, informing how and what I teach,” Woodfill said.

Drawn to archaeology at age 10, Woodfill said he began volunteering in the field and lab in the Upper Midwest by age 13. The Minnesota native discovered the Maya during a study abroad course through the Yucatan Peninsula in college and was immediately smitten by the combination of the size, scale and beauty of the ancient Maya cities. He spent his early career working in caves deep in the Guatemalan and Belizean jungle in order to understand the importance of ritual offerings in economics, trade, travel and politics.  

The Central American places he has studied are still sacred to the contemporary Maya who lived atop and around them today. Woodfill has began to collaborate with local leaders and spiritual guides, as well as government agencies and development specialists. The archaeological research is used to help with local development initiatives, including a national park co-managed by the Guatemalan government and the leaders of two local villages as well as multiple local ecotourism projects and access to clean water through the construction of wells.

Between 2009 and 2022, Woodfill has been working at the site of Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, a major city occupied for over 2,000 years that surrounds the only non-coastal salt source in the Maya lowlands. Nueve Cerros was a rich city with powerful merchants that was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica and was able to survive several centuries beyond the Classic collapse due to its residents' control over this rare and essential resource. 

Woodfill remains connected to his native state, and is president of the Maya Society of Minnesota which organizes lectures (mostly in Minnesota or online) about archaeology and human rights, mostly in the Maya world.  

To learn more about the research, check out Woodfill’s two books, “War in the Land of True Peace: The Fight for Maya Sacred Places” (2019) and “Ritual and Trade in the Pasión-Verapaz Region, Guatemala” (2010), or the forthcoming “Archaeology in a Living Landscape: Envisioning Nonhuman Persons in the Indigenous Americas” (2024) and “Living Between Worlds: Archaeology at the Southern Edge of the Maya Lowlands” (2024).