In 1960 Anderson graduated in Anthropology (major) and Geology (minor) from the University of Washington before going to Brown University as the first graduate student in the field of anthropology thee, with a focus in Arctic anthropology. After his MA in 1962 he spent a Fulbright year in Denmark studying Arctic collections at the Nationalmuseet and excavating in Godthaab Fjord, Greenland. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his Ph.D. 1967. He began teaching at Brown University in 1965, and in 1973 developed the department's Laboratory for Circumpolar Studies, located at the university's Haffenreffer Museum of anthropology, Bristol Rhode Island.
In the 1970's he expanded his research interests to include Southeast Asia, with a focus on Pleistocene and Early-Middle Holocene archaeology.