In an office crammed with books which evoke this country's past, Dame Anne Salmond hops up to get just one. The book is by historian Judith Binney but there on the cover is a famous photo of Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana.

It just so happens the image was taken by Dame Anne's great grandfather, James MacDonald. MacDonald was an artist, photographer and film-maker. He hung out with the likes of Kenana and early ethnographer Elsdon Best. So perhaps the writing was always on the wall for this silver-haired lady who has become New Zealand's foremost anthropologist.

We have come to see Dame Anne, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, because she has just found out she is the recipient of yet another honour, one which carves her name among the world's elite scientists. As honours go, this one is fabulous and she says she was pretty choked up when she heard the news.

Last year she was elected a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, for the humanities and social sciences, and is one of just 307 such fellows worldwide. That was honour enough, but now she has been elected a foreign associate in the American National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for excellence in scientific research.

There are only about 350 foreign associate members and she is the only New Zealander known to have received both caps.

It's giddy stuff but Dame Anne is a warm and humble sort who insists she simply never would have succeeded in her long and adventurous career had it not been her good fortune to meet six key mentors in her first year of university when she was not much more than a slip of a girl.

One of those mentors is retired anthropology Professor Roger Green, now in his 80s.

Green doesn't give interviews but he made an exception for Dame Anne.

On the phone, he confesses he thinks she is pretty wonderful.

Green is an American with New Zealand citizenship and a member of the NAS. He nominated her for this honour but is quick to point out the process of selection of foreign associates is soon taken over by the academy's finest minds.

So hard to get is this honour, Green explains it thus: "It comes close to impossibility for somebody from New Zealand."

He reads an email sent to Dame Anne by acclaimed American anthropologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery which says it all: "Let us congratulate you on being a foreign associate in the National Academy of Sciences - the highest honour you can earn in the USA. Your brilliant work on the Maori did it. We are thrilled, Dr Salmond, for you and for us."

Professor Green has known Dame Anne since she was a vibrant, guitar-playing student in the 70s. He says she was full of life, with a mind to match.

"She just stood out. You know, there are A-class students and then every so often there's one that's A-Class - world class."

Dame Anne, who had no idea she was being considered for the honour, would no doubt brush this aside and attempt to thank her mentors again, because this is the first thing she wants to do when we sit down.

Since she found out, she has been thinking a lot about how very lucky she has been, she says.

Three of her mentors came from academia - Professor Green, the late Professor Bruce Biggs and the late Professor Ralph Bulmer.

The other three were from the Maori world, one of whom overlapped both worlds - Dr Meremere Penfold, and the late Eruera and Amiria Stirling, elders of Te Whanau-a-Apanui and Ngati Porou, who became her teachers and her family.

All were extraordinarily generous to her, she says. In the days when a young woman might so easily collide with the glass ceiling, in one year she met so many people who opened so many doors for her and led her down so many paths. Dame Anne thinks her passion for knowledge and understanding of all things human, which still burns strong at 63, began when she grew up in Gisborne in the 1940s and 50s.

Her mum used to talk to her about her great-grandfather and his expeditions with Elsdon Best and Sir Peter Buck (the pioneering Maori scholar) where they recorded Maori life on film.

She diverts for a while, talking about her great-grandfather, and jumps up to get the book with the photo. "Not bad eh," she says, "he did these beautiful, beautiful photos and the movies were really early as well."

She says when the Te Maori exhibition came home in the 1970s her great-grandfather's films were shown at a theatre in Auckland.

"They were screening all these movies that he shot and that was a really strange feeling because they're silent movies and they include things like a tohunga performing a karakia and this leaf scooting along the forest floor as he chants at it..."

This story is a hint as to how Dame Anne lives her life. Though she married a Pakeha architect - Jeremy Salmond, with whom she has three children - and lives in Devonport, her life is also steeped in Maoridom.

I tell her that I have read that the concept of tapu is very real for her and she replies, how could it not be.

"I spent 20 years with Eruera and Amiria, going into marae with them and moving round with people, and he used to live by dreams and signs; he was really a bit of a matakite, one of those people who looks into the past and the future.

"He was like that and I was really pretty close to him and so you spend a lot of time with someone like that and things start to happen around you and you think 'well, this can't really be happening'." But this is intensely personal and she says, actually, these are things you probably don't talk about.

DESPITE her family credentials, her real fascination with anthropology did not come into full force until she won an AFS scholarship at 16 and went to America.

She had to give talks there and people would ask her about Maori and she would think "oh, my ignorance is sublime".

When in America, there were some defining moments. One was being taken to the White House with the other 16 and 17-year-olds from around the world and "sort of" meeting JFK.

"There were a lot of us, but I mean, I could always see why people thought he was so amazing because he was just inspiring." He made the students feel they could go out there and do anything, "you know, change it, make a better world".

This was part of a bus tour of the States for a month where she made friends with people from around the world, staying with American families.

"I used to play the guitar and sing a lot. There was always singing - we were away having this wonderful time on this bus and I thought, 'I love this, you know, this is for me, I like all these people from different places and trying to figure out, learn about them."'

She decided then and there she would learn Maori when she got home which, despite raised eyebrows at the time, was exactly what she did.

SHE is still great friends with Dr Meremere Penfold, another of her mentors from her university days.

Dr Penfold remembers seeing this "young blonde kid and there she was learning Maori and very competently. She was a very bright student and at the time I landed there the geography department was vying for her, anthropology was vying for her, the English department..."

It is clear from those who talk about Dame Anne that people, and Maori in particular, have always fallen under her spell.

Dr Penfold thinks for Maori this was because she was so bright and so determined to pick up the language.

She could frequently be found at the Ngati Whatua Marae at Orakei, working in the kitchen where the language was spoken.

She joined the Maori Club and was accepted by and socialised with the activists of the day, people such as Syd and Hana Jackson and Donna Awatere, in the days of land marches and the renaissance of Te Reo.

Dame Anne was living the dream. Early in her career she was sent by the late Bruce Biggs, a professor who was influential in the lives of many others who also excelled in Maori studies, to a remote Polynesian atoll to record the Luangiua language.

Along the way, in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, she was kicked out of the Honiara Hotel for attempting to dine with one Pita Sharples, then also a student of anthropology, because he was brown and she was white.

It was a very racist place back then, she says. She was also chucked off a beach for sitting with locals to learn seashell terms.

But she loved the people and she wrote the grammar, but then thought what a waste of the experience to write something hardly anyone in the world would read.

So she decided to start writing, to share the experiences.

Since then she has become a writer of books which have won awards. They range from the study of ceremonial gatherings to the teachings and lives of Eruera and Amiria Stirling, to the Trial of the Cannibal Dog about Captain Cook in the South Seas, which aside from the historical research was a ripping yarn and won a Montana Medal for non-fiction in 2004. She has a book coming out soon called Aphrodite's Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti and is nearing completion of another about William Bligh.

In among the scholarly studies there are other achievements - she was on the founding board of Te Papa and, as chairwoman for six years of the Historic Places Trust, supported world heritage status for the Kororipo-Kerikeri Basin.

Dame Anne is no cloistered academic. The appointment as Pro Vice-Chancellor of equal opportunity at Auckland University, which she held for nine years, was very important for her. She spoke her mind after Don Brash's 2004 Orewa speech, writing then that he had tapped into a deep vein of unease about how we understand ourselves as Kiwis.

Today, she says, the good thing was his speech provoked a lot of discussion, which is always better than people "sitting around grinding their gums, and there's a lot of that in New Zealand."

Dame Anne cares deeply about inequality and making sure Maori and Pacific children, and children from low income backgrounds, get a chance to participate in what she calls the big wide world of knowledge.

After she spoke at the Knowledge Wave leadership forum in 2003 she helped set up a project called Star Path, which is still going and which tries to figure out where and why children start to fail. "You see so many bright kids that just the light goes out in their eyes and I can't bear that."

Membership of the NAS is the highest honour given to a scientist or engineer in the United States; even fewer scientists around the world are elected as foreign associates. Anne Salmond will be inducted into the Academy next April in Washington.

Among the NAS' renowned members have been Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, and Alexander Graham Bell. There are now just over 400 foreign associate NAS members. More than 180 living members have won Nobel Prizes.

Other New Zealanders elected to the NAS include:

Alan MacDiarmid

Awarded a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2000 and elected to the NAS in 2002. He taught for 45 years at the University of Pennsylvania. His best-known research was into conductive polymers, plastic materials that conduct electricity. Died aged 79 in 2007.

Ian Axford
An astrophysicist and space scientist closely involved in the planning of several space missions. A pioneer in solar-terrestrial and interstellar sciences, making significant contributions on planetary science, comets, the heliosphere, the magnetosphere, solar physics, supernova remnants, and cosmic rays. Became director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy and was elected a foreign associate of NAS in 1983.

Douglas Coombs
Professor of geology at the University of Otago from 1956 to 1990 and has continued active research in retirement. Represented NZ on International Mineralogical Association; the mineral coombsite was named in his honour.

Douglas Yen
Former DSIR scientist whose research in the 1950s and 60s saved the kumara. He went on to research the origins of oceanic agriculture in Hawaii and Australia. Now retired.