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
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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
https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-37.2.167
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A DIALOGUE BETWEEN EMPIRICAL AND MODEL-BASED
AGRICULTURAL STUDIES IN ARCHAEOLOGY
Andrew Gillreath-Brown
1*
and R. Kyle Bocinsky
2,1
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.
1
Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA
2
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.
GILLREATH-BROWN and BOCINSKY168 Vol. 37, No. 2
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.
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JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 171
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