A Dialogue Between Empirical and Model-Based Agricultural Studies in Archaeology

Article (PDF Available)inJournal of Ethnobiology 37(2):167-171 · July 2017with 159 Reads
DOI: 10.2993/0278-0771-37.2.167
BioOne sees sustainable scholarly publishing as an inherently collaborative enterprise connecting authors, nonprofit
publishers, academic institutions, research libraries, and research funders in the common goal of maximizing access to
critical research.
A Dialogue Between Empirical and Model-Based Agricultural
Studies in Archaeology
Author(s): Andrew Gillreath-Brown and R. Kyle Bocinsky
Source: Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(2):167-171.
Published By: Society of Ethnobiology
URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.2993/0278-0771-37.2.167
BioOne (www.bioone.org) is a nonprofit, online aggregation of core research in the
biological, ecological, and environmental sciences. BioOne provides a sustainable online
platform for over 170 journals and books published by nonprofit societies, associations,
museums, institutions, and presses.
Your use of this PDF, the BioOne Web site, and all posted and associated content
indicates your acceptance of BioOne’s Terms of Use, available at www.bioone.org/page/
Usage of BioOne content is strictly limited to personal, educational, and non-
commercial use. Commercial inquiries or rights and permissions requests should be
directed to the individual publisher as copyright holder.
Andrew Gillreath-Brown
and R. Kyle Bocinsky
Archaeologists have been examining agricultural societies from an environ-
mental perspective since at least the early twentieth century—study that was
enhanced by the advent of new methodologies such as dendrochronology
(Douglass 1929) and, more recently, by geographic information systems (Bevan
and Lake 2013; Conolly and Lake 2006; Lock 2000) and computational modeling
(d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2016a; Gerbault et al. 2014). To date, many researchers,
particularly computational modelers, have relied upon evolutionary approaches
from human behavioral ecology (HBE) to understand agricultural systems. The
optimality assumptions inherent in many HBE models are of demonstrable
utility in seeking explanations for the origins of agriculture (Gremillion et al.
2014) and human behavior in agricultural systems (Bocinsky and Kohler 2016).
However, some scholars have been concerned with the exclusion of human
agency, thus proposing complementary approaches such as niche construction
theory (Zeder 2012, 2016). They point out that human adaptations often include
intentional and unintentional cultivation of food sources and maintenance of
ecosystem services. We agree with other scholars that niche construction theory
complements HBE models, in part, by revealing local historical trajectories
(Broughton et al. 2010; O’Brien and Laland 2012). Niche construction theory is
especially useful when applied in a comparative framework (Zeder 2014, 2016).
While scholars have debated on whether an ecological perspective (Rindos
1984) or a cultural view of agriculture (Flannery 1986) is more appropriate, most
scholars fall somewhere in between, such as studies on Prehispanic Pueblo
societies (Kohler et al. 2012; also see Turner 1993 for development in Mayan
archaeology). Agricultural niche models, such as those for maize (Zea mays)
(Bocinsky and Kohler 2014); rice (Oryza sativa) (d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2015); and
millet (Setaria italica and Panicum miliaceum), wheat (Triticum aestivum), and
barley (Hordeum vulgare) (d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2016b), have been used to
understand social, political, and cultural change (Bocinsky et al. 2016; Boyd and
Richerson 1985; Gintis et al. 2015; Renfrew and Cherry 1986). Determining how
people perceived and impacted landscapes within which they lived (landscape
ecology) requires reconstruction of what an environment was like at a given time.
Multiple lines of evidence are needed to reconstruct and understand past
environments through a variety of fields such as geoarchaeology, geomorphol-
ogy, palynology, hydrology, and paleoethnobotany.
Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, CO.
Corresponding author (andrew.d.brown@wsu.edu)
Journal of Ethnobiology 37(2): 167–171 2017
Landscape level methodologies can converge in the field of ethnobiology, as
discussed in a previous issue by Nagaoka and Wolverton (2016). The papers in
this special section highlight new methodologies and technological innovations
for studying agriculture and landscapes. They also highlight the essential
feedback between model-based and empirical research. Modelers require
empirical data to calibrate and test their models. Empirical researchers, in turn,
need models to scale geographic and temporally-local observations to reconstruct
ancient agricultural systems. In this special section, the modeling studies by
Hanselka and King and Bocinsky and Varien depend on empirical studies, such
as Muenchrath et al., Sandor and Homburg, and Sundjordet, to be able to assess
their models and better understand human behavior.
Two of the studies here focus on empirical evidence that contribute to our
understanding of how the environment affects crops and how the environment-
farming relationship leaves behind trace remains for archaeologists. Muenchrath
and co-authors describe a gardening experiment with traditional Zuni maize
varieties and two modern hybrids within a traditional dryland ecosystem, and
record how water runoff enhances nutrient availability and affects the maize
productivity of each variety. Sandor and Homburg review research on ancient
and traditional agricultural impacts to soils in arid to semiarid environments
throughout the Americas. They examine the physical and chemical properties of
soils and provide examples of the Andes and the North American Southwest,
where past agriculture has intentionally and unintentionally modified natural
soils. These papers enhance our understanding of key human-cultivar-environ-
ment feedbacks that must be considered in any model of agriculture that hopes to
achieve a modicum of realism.
The next two papers present other important considerations when studying
agricultural systems: the presence of cultivars that have received relatively little
attention from archaeologists and the often dramatic effect of animal pests on
crops. Kinder and colleagues present evidence for the cultivation of a species of
the potato family, Solanum jamesii, in the prehistoric southwestern United States.
Their research adds to a growing list of ancient cultigens in the US Southwest
(beyond the conventional ‘‘Three Sisters’’ of maize, beans, and squash; e.g.,
Adams 2014; Fritz et al. 2009; Huckell and Toll 2004) that may have provided
essential nutritional benefits to ancient farmers and certainly were featured in
regional cuisine. HBE models that focus on nutritional needs, such as caloric
intake, must consider the availability of these now-feral crops to past farmers.
Sundjordet reports on behavioral observations made during his multi-year study
of Hopi farming in northern Arizona and reveals animal depredation as a
primary concern among agriculturalists in the United States Southwest.
Sundjordet’s key observation is that animal depredation likely increases during
periods of plant stress, such as drought, worsening their impacts. However, he
reports that his informants were not easily deterred from defending their crops
and documents the often extreme sacrifice of time and energy expended in their
defense. Sundjordet’s study reveals that Hopi cultural attitudes towards their
crops lead to behaviors that likely betray conventional senses of ‘‘optimality’’ in
HBE models.
The final two papers take a more model-based approach to understanding
ancient corn farming in the southwestern US and Mexico. Hanselka and King
present a landscape-based model to explore settlement and agricultural potential
in the Ocampo region of southwestern Tamaulipas, Mexico. They develop a
geospatial agricultural suitability model for areas near archaeological sites there,
which can be used to estimate the extent of agricultural catchments around the
sites. The utility of their model is enhanced by its clear presentation and
applicability to other regions. Bocinsky and Varien present results from a multi-
year experimental gardening collaboration with the Hopi tribe and use those data
to assess the productivity of oft-referenced—but until now un-verified—
reconstructions of ancient maize productivity in southwestern Colorado. Their
study reveals a close correlation between model-estimated and experimental
yields, enhancing confidence in the model results. Bocinsky and Varien also
provide useful information about how Hopi farmers select garden locations in
the Mesa Verde region, part of the ancestral Hopi homeland, and demonstrate
that Hopi corn can flourish in an environment very different from that on the
Hopi mesas. These studies help to bridge the gap in between the past, present,
and future [agri]cultural systems (d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2016a) by revealing
how traditional ecological knowledge used by contemporary farmers is
transferrable to past agricultural landscapes.
Agricultural landscape studies require not only a deep knowledge of
primary cultivars, but also a broad understanding of the environmental and
cultural contexts within which they operate. ‘‘Agricultural landscapes are the
product of many generations of farmers applying their indigenous knowledge
and technology to what are often considered marginal lands’’ (Erickson
2003:183). Archaeologists should be constantly asking and re-asking the
question, ‘‘what are the components in the agricultural system?’’ Empirical
and ethnographic studies document the diversity and complexity of behaviors
and interactions within agricultural systems; modeling can distill those systems
to their essential components and reveal feedbacks and interactions between
them. The papers in this special section demonstrate the promise and necessity
of both of these types of studies, and we look forward to their tighter
integration in the future.
References Cited
Adams, K. R. 2014. Little Barley Grass (Hordeum
pusillum Nutt.): A Prehispanic New World
Domesticate Lost to History. In New Lives for
Ancient and Extinct Crops, edited by P. E.
Minnis, pp. 139–179. University of Arizona
Press, Tucson, AZ.
Bevan, A., and M. Lake. 2013. Introduction. In
Computational Approaches to Archaeological
Spaces, edited by A. Bevan and M. Lake, pp.
17–26. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.
Bocinsky, R. K., and T. A. Kohler. 2014. A 2,000-
year Reconstruction of the Rain-fed Maize
Agricultural Niche in the US Southwest.
Nature Communications 5:1–12. DOI: 10.1038/
Complexity, Rigidity, and Resilience in the
Ancient Puebloan Southwest. In Viewing the
Future in the Past: Historical Ecology Applica-
tions to Environmental Issues, edited by H. T.
Foster II, L. Paciulli, and D. Goldstein, pp.
86–105. University of South Carolina Press,
Columbia, SC.
Bocinsky, R. K., J. Rush, K. W. Kintigh, and T. A.
Kohler. 2016. Exploration and Exploitation in
the Macrohistory of the Pre-Hispanic Pueblo
Southwest. Science Advances 2:e1501532. DOI:
Boyd, R., and P. J. Richerson. 1985. Culture and
the Evolutionary Process. University of Chicago
Press, Chicago, IL.
Broughton, J. M., M. D. Cannon, and E. J.
Bartelink. 2010. Evolutionary Ecology, Re-
source Depression, and Niche Construction
Theory: Applications to Central California
Hunter-Gatherers and Mimbres-Mogollon
Agriculturalists. Journal of Archaeological
Method and Theory 17:371–421. DOI: 10.1007/
Conolly, J., and M. Lake. 2006. Geographical
Information Systems in Archaeology. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, United King-
d’Alpoim Guedes, J., G. Jin, and R. K. Bocinsky.
2015. The Impact of Climate on the Spread of
Rice to North-eastern China: A New Look at
the Data from Shandong Province. PLoS One
10:e0130430. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.
d’Alpoim Guedes, J. A., S. A. Crabtree, R. K.
Bocinsky, and T. A. Kohler. 2016a. Twenty-
first Century Approaches to Ancient Prob-
lems: Climate and Society. Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences 113:14483–14491.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1616188113.
d’Alpoim Guedes, J., S. W. Manning, and R. K.
Bocinsky. 2016b. A 5,500-year Model of
Changing Crop Niches on the Tibetan Pla-
teau. Current Anthropology 57:517–522. DOI:
Douglass, A. E. 1929. The Secret of the South-
west Solved by Talkative Tree Rings. National
Geographic Magazine 56:736–770.
Erickson, C. L. 2003. Agricultural Landscapes as
World Heritage: Raised Field Agriculture in
Bolivia and Peru. In Managing Change: Sus-
tainable Approaches to the Conservation of the
Built Environment, edited by J. M. Teutonico
and F. Matero, pp. 181–204. 4
Annual US/
ICOMOS International Symposium in Phila-
delphia, Pennsylvania, April 2001. The Getty
Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, CA.
Flannery, K. 1986. Chapters 1 and 2. In Guila
Naquitz: Archaic Foraging and Early Agriculture
in Oaxaca, Mexico, edited by K. Flannery, pp.
3–28. Academic Press, Orlando, FL.
Fritz, G. J., K. R. Adams, G. E. Rice, and J. L.
Czarzasty. 2009. Evidence for Domesticated
Amaranth from a Sedentary Period Hohokam
House Floor at Las Canopas. Kiva 74:393–419.
Rudzinski, I. M. Grimaldi, J. C. Pires, C. C.
Vigueira, K. Dobney, K. J. Gremillion, L.
Barton, M. Arroyo-Kalin, M. D. Purugganan,
R. R. de Casas, R. Bollongino, J. Burger, D. Q.
Fuller, D. G. Bradley, D. J. Balding, P. J.
Richerson, M. T. P. Gilbert, G. Larson, and M.
G. Thomas. 2014. Storytelling and Story
Testing in Domestication. Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences 111:6159–6164.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1400425111.
Gintis, H., C. Van Schaik, and C. Boehm. 2015.
Zoon Politikon: The Evolutionary Origins of
Human Political Systems. Current Anthropol-
ogy 56:340–341. DOI: 10.1086/681217.
Gremillion, K. J., L. Barton, and D. R. Piperno.
2014. Particularism and the Retreat from
Theory in the Archaeology of Agricultural
Origins. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences 111:6171–6177. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.
Huckell, L. W., and M. S. Toll. 2004. Wild Plant
Use in the North American Southwest. In
People and Plants in Ancient Western North
America, edited by P. E. Minnis, pp. 37–114.
University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.
Kohler, T. A., R. K. Bocinsky, D. Cockburn, S. A.
Crabtree, M. D. Varien, K. E. Kolm, S. Smith,
S. G. Ortman, and Z. Kobti. 2012. Modelling
Prehispanic Pueblo Societies in Their Ecosys-
tems. Ecological Modelling 241:30–41. DOI: 10.
Lock, G., ed. 2000. Beyond the Map: Archaeology
and Spatial Technologies. IOS Press, Amster-
dam, The Netherlands.
Nagaoka, L., and S. Wolverton. 2016. Archaeol-
ogy as Ethnobiology. Journal of Ethnobiology
36:473–475. DOI: 10.2993/0278-0771-36.3.473.
O’Brien, M. J., and K. N. Laland. 2012. Genes,
Culture, and Agriculture. Current Anthropol-
ogy 53:434–470. DOI: 10.1086/666585.
Renfrew, C., and J. F. Cherry. 1986. Peer Polity
Interaction and Socio-political Change. Cam-
bridge University Press, Cambridge, United
Rindos, D. 1984. The Origins of Agriculture: An
Evolutionary Perspective. Academic Press, San
Diego, CA.
Turner II, B. L. 1993. Rethinking the ‘‘New
Orthodoxy’’: Interpreting Ancient Maya Ag-
riculture and Environment. In Culture, Form,
and Place: Essays in Cultural and Historical
Geography, edited by K. Mathewson, pp. 57–
88. Geoscience and Man 32. Geoscience
Publications, Department of Geography and
Anthropology, Louisiana State University,
Baton Rouge, LA.
Zeder, M. A. 2012. The Broad Spectrum Revolu-
tion at 40: Resource Diversity, Intensification,
and an Alternative to Optimal Foraging Expla-
nations. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology
31:241–264. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.03.003.
Zeder, M. A. 2014. Alternative to Faith-based
Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences 111:E2827–E2827. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.
Zeder, M. A. 2016. Domestication as a Model
System for Niche Construction Theory. Evo-
lutionary Ecology 30:325–348. DOI: 10.1007/
  • Chapter
    Full-text available
    Archaeological plant remains have informed environmental issues in archaeology in variety of ways, particularly human-environment interaction, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, the impact of agriculture on the environment, the type of agriculture practiced, identification of habitats exploited by people, and the environmental aspects of agricultural origins. This chapter pays special attention to how plants may inform reciprocal interaction between people and the environment, an area of enquiry that is regionally emphasized, particularly among North American, anthropologically trained palaeoethnobotanists. This chapter also reviews the history and recent developments in environmental perspectives of palaeoethnobotany and relevant aspects of human ecology (ecological anthropology) such as niche construction and human behavioural ecology, resilience, ecological succession, and modelling. Case studies are provided from Japan (Jomon, Epi-Jomon, and Satsumon periods/cultures), the Lower Yangtze Valley, China Early Neolithic, and the Archaic and Late Woodland Periods on Ontario, Canada.
  • Article
    Full-text available
    By documenting how humans adapted to changes in their environment that are often much greater than those experienced in the instrumental record, archaeology provides our only deep-time laboratory for highlighting the circumstances under which humans managed or failed to find to adaptive solutions to changing climate, not just over a few generations but over the longue duréedur´durée. Patterning between climate-mediated environmental change and change in human societies has, however, been murky because of low spatial and temporal resolution in available datasets, and because of failure to model the effects of climate change on local resources important to human societies. In this paper we review recent advances in computational modeling that, in conjunction with improving data, address these limitations. These advances include network analysis, niche and species distribution modeling, and agent-based modeling. These studies demonstrate the utility of deep-time modeling for calibrating our understanding of how climate is influencing societies today and may in the future. climate change | archaeology | computational modeling | agent-based modeling
  • Article
    Full-text available
    The timing and mechanics of the spread of agriculture to the Tibetan Plateau—one of the most challenging environmental contexts on earth—is a focus of recent work and debate. Un- derstanding the timing and spread of agriculture is basic to archaeology and history worldwide. Researchers seek evidence for the earliest, furthest, or highest occurrences of diagnostic elements. However, the Tibetan Plateau case illustrates a key flaw in current work: archaeologists have often uncritically interpreted the presence of plant domesticates at archaeolog- ical sites as being indicative of local agricultural practice. This assumption neglects the long history of food exchange on the Plateau, as elsewhere in the world, even beyond what were then the limits of agriculture. The cause is a fundamental lack of understanding of where crops could be grown in prehistory. Using a formal model of the agricultural thermal niche be- tween the 5500 BP and the present, we argue that agricultural niches on the Tibetan Plateau were tightly constrained to lower-elevation river valleys throughout time. This pattern is confirmed by analysis of the extent of modern crop produc- tion on the Plateau. The challenges deriving from these alti- tudinal constraints placed on early Tibetans largely explain how and why the Tibetan economy developed in the way that it did.
  • Article
    Full-text available
    Cycles of demographic and organizational change are well documented in Neolithic societies, but the social and ecological processes underlying them are debated. Such periodicities are implicit in the “Pecos classification,” a chronology for the pre-Hispanic U.S. Southwest introduced in Science in 1927 which is still widely used. To understand these periodicities, we analyzed 29,311 archaeological tree-ring dates from A.D. 500 to 1400 in the context of a novel high spatial resolution, annual reconstruction of the maize dry-farming niche for this same period. We argue that each of the Pecos periods initially incorporates an “exploration” phase, followed by a phase of “exploitation” of niches that are simultaneously ecological, cultural, and organizational. Exploitation phases characterized by demographic expansion and aggregation ended with climatically driven downturns in agricultural favorability, undermining important bases for social consensus. Exploration phases were times of socio-ecological niche discovery and development.
  • Article
    Full-text available
    Niche Construction Theory (NCT) provides a powerful conceptual framework for understanding how and why humans and target species entered into domesticatory relationships that have transformed Earth’s biota, landforms, and atmosphere, and shaped the trajectory of human cultural development. NCT provides fresh perspective on how niche-constructing behaviors of humans and plants and animals promote co-evolutionary interactions that alter selection pressures and foster genetic responses in domesticates. It illuminates the role of niche-altering activities in bequeathing an ecological inheritance that perpetuates the co-evolutionary relationships leading to domestication, especially as it pertains to traditional ecological knowledge and the transmission of learned behaviors aimed at enhancing returns from local environments. NCT also provides insights into the contexts and mechanisms that promote cooperative interactions in both humans and target species needed to sustain niche-constructing activities, ensuring that these activities produce an ecological inheritance in which domesticates play an increasing role. A NCT perspective contributes to on-going debates in the social sciences over explanatory frameworks for domestication, in particular as they pertain to issues of reciprocal causation, co-evolution, and the role of human intentionality. Reciprocally, domestication provides a model system for evaluating on-going debates in evolutionary biology concerning the impact of niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, extra-genetic inheritance, and developmental bias in shaping the direction and tempo of evolutionary change.
  • Article
    Full-text available
    Moving crops outside of their original centers of domestication was sometimes a challenging process. Because of its substantial heat requirements, moving rice agriculture outside of its homelands of domestication was not an easy process for farmers in the past. Using crop niche models, we examine the constraints faced by ancient farmers and foragers as they moved rice to its most northerly extent in Ancient China: Shandong province. Contrary to previous arguments, we find that during the climatic optimum rice could have been grown in the region. Climatic cooling following this date had a clear impact on the distribution of rice, one that may have placed adaptive pressure on rice to develop a temperate phenotype. Following the development of this temperate phenotype, rice agriculture could once again become implanted in select areas of north-eastern China.
  • Article
    Flotation-processed fill from an inverted bowl on the floor of a late Sedentary period house floor (A.D. 1020–1150, calibrated 1-sigma range C-14 date) at the Las Canopas site on the Salt River in Phoenix, Arizona, yielded approximately 1,500 charred amaranth seeds along with domesticated maize (Zea mays ssp. mays) kernels, tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius), and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) seeds. The amaranth seeds are morphologically different from wild types and have the properties of a domesticated species as determined from seed coat (testa) measurements. We conclude that both pale and dark-seeded domesticated amaranth seeds were present in the bowl, having seed coat thicknesses of 3.7-6.1 microns (pale) and 8.3-14.2 microns (dark), respectively. We also review the Hohokam literature and discuss concentrations of amaranth from possible storage contexts and from additional sites where analysts suggested that specimens represent domesticates. The context and anatomical characteristics of the ...
  • Article
    Full-text available
    We provide the most up-to-date evidence available in various behavioral fields in support of the hypothesis that the emergence of bipedalism and cooperative breeding in the hominin line—together with environmental developments that made a diet of meat from large animals adaptive as well as cultural innovation in the form of fire and cooking—created a niche for hominins in which there was a high return for coordinated, cooperative scavenging and hunting of large mammals. This was accompanied by an increasing use of wooden spears and lithic points as lethal hunting weapons that transformed human sociopolitical life. The combination of social interdependence and the availability of such weapons in early hominin society undermined the standard social dominance hierarchy of multimale/multifemale primate groups. The successful sociopolitical structure that ultimately replaced the ancestral social dominance hierarchy was an egalitarian political system in which lethal weapons made possible group control of leaders, and group success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and of followers to contribute to a consensual decision process. The heightened social value of nonauthoritarian leadership entailed enhanced biological fitness for such leadership traits as linguistic facility, ability to form and influence coalitions, and, indeed, hypercognition in general.