Jason De León

Director, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies

Lab website 


Ph.D., Anthropology, Penn State University, 2008

M.A.. Anthropology, Penn State University, 2004

B.A., Anthropology, UCLA, 2001

Areas of Interest

Undocumented Migration, Violence, Materiality, taphonomy and site
formation processes, archaeology of the contemporary, forensic
science, photoethnography, Latin America, US/Mexico border


I am an anthropologist whose research interests include theories of violence, materiality, Latin American migration, photoethnography, forensic science, and archaeology of the contemporary. I direct the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a long-term study of clandestine border crossing that uses a combination of archaeological, ethnographic, visual, and forensic approaches to understand this phenomenon in a variety of geographic contexts including the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and the southern Mexico/Guatemala border. My recent book "Soldiers and Kings: Survival and Hope in the World of Human Smuggling" is a long-term ethnographic examination of the daily lives of Honduran smugglers moving migrants across Mexico. I am currently developing several new projects including one focused on the role of stable-isotopes in understanding ancient and modern migration in Latin America and a study of the production, use, and materiality of guitar pedals.



2024 J. De León Soldiers and Kings: Survival and Hope in the World of Human Smuggling, Viking Press.

2015 J. De León The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Sonoran Desert Migrant Trail. University of California Press, Berkeley.

In Prep J. De León and M. Wells In the House of Pakal: Photos from the Undocumented Migration Project 2009-2023.


2023 J. De León Exposure. In Solarities: Elemental Encounters and Refractions, edited by C. Howe, J. Diamanti, and A. Moore, pps. 105-115. Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Theorizing the Contemporary series, Punctum Books.

2023 N. Smith, G. Canter, A. Shipman, C. Gokee, H. Stewart, and J. De León “Hostile Terrain 94: Using an Archaeological Sensibility to Raise Awareness about Migrant Death along the U.S.-Mexico Border,” in Archaeology Outside-the-Box, ed. H. Barnard, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles, California.

2021 S. Campbell-Staton, R. Walker, S. Rogers, J. De León, H. Landecker, W. Porter, P. Mathewson, and R. Long. Quantifying Thermohydric Costs of Undocumented Human Migration Across the Southern United States Border. Science 374(6574):1496-1500.

2021 H. Stewart, C. Gokee, and J. De León. Counter-Infrastructures in the US-Mexico Borderlands (1848-Present): An Archaeological Perspective. World Archaeology 53(3):469-485.

2020 C. Gokee, H. Stewart, and J. De León. Scales of Suffering in the U.S./Mexico Borderlands. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 24(2): 823-851.

2019 J. De León “Como Me Duele”: Central American Bodies and the Moral Economy of Undocumented Migration. In The Border and Its Bodies: The Corporeality of Risk in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, pp. 99-123, edited by T. Sheridan and R. McGuire. University of Arizona Press.

2019 Barnes, R., J. De León, and A. Krugliak State of Exception, EMISFÉRICA:EXPULSION, 14.1 (Online exhibition catalog).

2019 J. De León and C. Gokee. Lasting Value? Engaging with the Material Traces of America’s Undocumented Migration “Problem,” In Cultural Heritage, Ethics and Contemporary Migrations, eds. C. Holtorf, A. Pantazatos and G. Scarre, pp. 70-86, Routledge Press.


  • 2023 Ahmanson Field Research Grant, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA ($5000).
  • 2022 Best Translated Book of the Year, The Land of Open Graves Complex Chinese Edition, Open Book, Taiwan.
  • 2022 Ahmanson Field Research Grant, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA ($4924).
  • 2022 MacArthur Foundation X-Grant for Youth Photo Camp in Chiapas, Mexico with Wendy Ewald ($15,000).
  • 2022 “Hostile Terrain 94: Policy Reflections on Public Facing Participatory Exhibitions.” UCLA Latino Applied Policy Research Award. ($25,000).
  • 2021 Ill-Health, Climate Change, and Migration in Honduras, Mexico, and the United States.” Programa de Investigacion en Migracion y Salud (PIMSA) ($15,000).
  • 2021 Arts for Justice Non-Profit Grant to Support Research and Public Outreach on Migrant Detention centers($50,000).
  • 2020 Transdisciplinary Research Acceleration Grant, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research & Creative Activities, UCLA ($36,800).
  • 2020 Arts for Justice Non-Profit Grant to Support the Hostile Terrain 94 Exhibition ($100,000).
  • 2020 Arts for Justice Non-Profit COVID-19 Relief Grant to Support the Hostile Terrain 94 Exhibition ($25,000).
  • 2020 Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Scholars, Center for Community Learning, UCLA ($10,000).
  • 2018 J.I. Staley Book Prize, School for Advanced Research.
  • 2018 Outstanding Research Mentor, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program Award. University of Michigan.
  • 2017-2022 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
  • 2017 Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharf Memorial Prize for the Critical Study of North America. Society for the Anthropology of North America.
  • 2017 Individual Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education in Race & Ethnicity Instruction. College of Literature, Arts, and Sciences, University of Michigan.
  • 2017 Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award. College of Literature, Arts, and Sciences, University of Michigan.
  • 2016 Margaret Mead Award. American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology.
  • 2016 Book Prize. The Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, American Anthropological Association.
  • 2016 “Documenting the Dead: Border Politics and the Forensic Work Behind Identifying Migrant and Refugee Bodies.” New Directions Fellowship, Mellon Foundation ($234,000).
  • 2016 Honorable Mention. Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists Book Award, American Anthropological Association.
  • 2015 Artista Latina Award for the State of Exception Exhibit, ArtPrize, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • 2013 Weatherhead Fellowship, School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  • 2013 Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (declined).
  • 2013 Emerging Explorer Award. National Geographic Society ($10,000).
  • 2013 Rackham Spring/Summer Research Grant. University of Michigan.
  • 2010 Allen Foundation American Music Partnership of Seattle Grant: Development Grant for “Anthropology of Rock and Roll” Course ($6,000) (declined).
  • 2009 National Science Foundation (Cultural Anthropology Division) RAPID Grant: Migrant Material Culture Project: An Ethnographic and Ethnoarchaeological Analysis of Undocumented Migration in Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico ($31,860).
  • 2009 University of Washington Royalty Research Fund Grant: Migrant Material Culture Project-An Ethnographic and Ethnoarchaeological Analysis of Undocumented Migration in Southern Arizona ($19,520).