McEwan spent his childhood all around the world, living in Germany, Iran, Panama, and Ecuador with his Army officer parents. While the family was living in Quito, Ecuador, his father took him to see the nearby archaeological sites.
“We were so intrigued that we went to see more Inca sites in Peru on our vacation,” he says. “I was 14 the first time that I went Cuzco with my dad. I fell in love with the Cuzco region and all of its spectacular Inca ruins and knew, even that early, that I wanted to do archaeology there.”
McEwan earned his bachelor’s in anthropology at Texas A&M. In graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, he specialized in the origin and development of complex societies. He focused on the Cuzco region and its pre-history, taking his first trip there to work on excavations in 1978.
That was the beginning of a decades-long collaboration with local people on excavations in that area. In 1994, McEwan became the co-director (along with a representative from the Peruvian National Institute of Culture) of the Selz Foundation Excavations at Chokepukio, Peru, in the Cuzco valley. He took Wagner students there for 12 summers to assist with the work.
“Anthropology gives us the tools necessary to learn how to avoid the collapse of our current civilization.”
McEwan’s archaeological work led to many discoveries about the ancient societies that lived in Cuzco, which he published in well-regarded academic journals and in two books, Pikillacta: The Wari Empire in Cuzco (2005) and The Incas: New Perspectives (2008).
His expertise made him a go-to specialist on the Inca Empire and its predecessor, the Wari Empire. He appeared in the documentary films Lost Mummies of the Incas on the History Channel and Climate and Civilization on the Discovery Channel. His work was featured in National Geographic magazine, in an article on the Wari and Tiwanaku empires. He served as a consultant to the National Geographic Society and Time/Life Books.
But for McEwan, teaching was the heart of his work. From that focus, Wagner students reaped long-lasting benefits.
After earning his Ph.D., he started his career in museum work, at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks and at the Denver Art Museum, where he was curator of the Pre-Columbian collection and oversaw a major reinstallation of the collection.
During that time period he also moonlighted as a teacher at the George Washington University, University of Denver, and Metropolitan State College of Denver.
“I found that I liked teaching more than museum work,” he says. “In particular, I enjoyed working with students in the field, taking them to Peru where they gained field experience.”
In 1999, he joined the faculty of Wagner College. The low student-to-faculty ratio attracted him. “I like to get to know the students,” he says. “My field courses typically had six students or less and on-campus courses anywhere from six to 29 students.”
Jennifer Ruvolo ’07 was one of those students. An anthropology major, she went on to work for the New York City Office of the Mayor. “Without exaggeration, Dr. McEwan changed my life,” she said. “He was the reason I chose to attend Wagner, and his guidance and direction helped give me the confidence to succeed both in the classroom and in the professional world. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him and know that so many others feel the same!”
Rachel Zaydek ’13 was introduced to the field of anthropology by McEwan. She went with him on two summer trips to Peru to help with the excavations, while also double majoring in English and anthropology and minoring in Spanish.
“It was incredible to be there with him and working real time, doing the things he had taught us about,” she says. “It was also great to see how much the local people respected him. He employed a lot of Quechua people [indigenous people of the Peruvian Andes] from the small neighboring town to the site, and they worked with us as excavators. He has been asked to be a godfather to a lot of children of his employees. He was always very gracious and welcoming to the customs and concerns of his local crews.”
Zaydek says that McEwan is a role model for how she approaches her work as a special distributions coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
“Working with Dr. McEwan and other professors, especially in the anthropology department, piqued my interest in learning about others in a fuller, immersive sense,” she says. “When you learn deeply about other groups of people, you get into a lot of nuances that allow you to better understand where they are coming from and what challenges they face.”
McEwan says that this understanding is why anthropology is important.
“We live on a multicultural planet,” McEwan says. “Our survival depends on an understanding of other peoples and their cultures of both the past and the present. As the Earth’s population continues to grow, we will increasingly need to work with and understand our neighbors.
“Consider that every civilization in history has eventually collapsed, except the ones we now enjoy. Also consider the fact that we have, for the first time in history, the means to study and understand what caused the rise and fall of societies. Anthropology gives us the tools necessary to learn how to avoid the collapse of our current civilization.”