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Ethnoecology of the Usumacinta: Dynamics of Three Millennia of Maya Land Use

Paleoethnobotanical research with the Proyecto Paisaje Piedras Negras-Yaxchilán (PPPNY) and the Proyecto Arqueológico Busilja - Chocolja (PABC), in the Middle Usumacinta River region of Guatemala and Mexico, is directed toward several related questions:  1) What were the impacts of human activity on local ecologies-- including the effects of different kinds of terraforming, clearing practices, and crop production-- on forests, swamplands, and fields? 2) What were the impacts of broad climate shifts, including El Nino cycles, on ethnobotanical practices such as crop production and forest management? 3) How do differences in foodways-- including cultivation, collection, processing, consumption, trade, and disposal of foods—relate to differences in spatial contexts, including environmental and political conditions?, and 4) How do shifts in foodways relate to changes over time in climate and sociopolitical contexts?  Under Shanti Morell-Hart, analysis at the MPERF involves microbotanical and macrobotanical residues recovered from sediments, artifacts, and human teeth.

PPPNY project directors: Dr. Andrew K. Scherer, Dr. Charles W. Golden, Lic. Griselda Pérez Robles, Lic. Mónica Urquizú

Graduate researchers: Harper Dine (Brown University; 2017-present); Meghan Macleod (2017-2018)

Undergraduate researchers: Sarah Watson (2017-2018), Jimika McGean (2018), Shane Teesdale (2018; Wilfrid Laurier University)

PPPNY and PABC project website

PPPNY 2016 Informe (in Spanish)

PPPNY 2017 Informe (in Spanish)

Human-Plant Relationships in Ancient Mesoamerican Societies: International Collaboration to Collect and Curate Accessible Paleoethnobotanical Reference Libraries

In this project, we are completing work on a plant reference library of economic species for use by graduate students, post-docs, archaeologists, and other scholars addressing foodways and ethnoecology in ancient Mesoamerica. These activities represent an interdisciplinary partnership between archaeologists and botanists, in order to answer questions related to subsistence and landscape management. Ongoing reference material work in Mesoamerica and at the MPERF will document key characteristics of the collections, through morphological and spectrometric analysis using a NanoRam portable spectrometer. 

Project director: Dr. Shanti Morell-Hart

Graduate student researcher: Éloi Bérubé (2017)

Undergraduate volunteers: Xavier Figueroa (2017-2018), Mayda Kigundu (2018), Charlotte Liu (2018), Alicia Chang (2017-2018), and Amanda Macdonald (2018)

Archaeobotany in Ontario

Rudy Fecteau's career in archaeology began in 1972, but he began to work with plant remains in 1976 under the guidance of Dr. ‘Jock’ McAndrews at the Botany Department, Royal Ontario Museum. Over the past 41 years he has completed several hundred reports describing plant remains from more than 300 sites including pre-contact, Euro-Canadian and environmental sites across Canada, Ohio, Michigan and New York State. Rudy has presented his work to First Nation students at a science camp at the Aboriginal Centre, Turtle Island House at the University of Windsor, to monitor/liaison groups at Six Nations of the Grand River, and to the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, Nipissing First Nation and Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. He is an ongoing visiting researcher at the MPERF, where he is examining and photographing archaeological and modern plant specimens from Ontario and beyond. 

Rudy Fecteau laboratory website


Experiments in Obsidian Blade Use to Understand Taphonomy and Recovery of Microbotanical Residues

Shanti Morell-Hart, Éloi Bérubé, and Sophie Reilly have three general goals in this study:  1) to understand deposition on prismatic blades (formation processes from the paleoethnobotanist's perspective) , 2) to observe transformations to prismatic blades from different sorts of plant taxa (formation processes and usewear from the lithicist's perspective), and 3) to describe the ways that (novices) attempt to use obsidian blades in culinary activities, to develop an understanding of sensory experiences and embodied practices.  Toward these ends, they are observing the placement of starch grains and phytoliths on the prismatic blades, the recovery rates of different taxa, and the usewear that results from different sorts of plant-based activities.  They are also documenting the experience of using prismatic blades in food preparation.  

Project director: Dr. Shanti Morell-Hart

Graduate student researchers: Éloi Bérubé, Sophie Reilly

Food and human-plant relationships in the Maya Lowlands

Harper Dine (Brown University) is conducting paleoethnobotanical research in the Maya lowlands in order to answer questions about diet change over time, social aspects of food, agriculture, and food security. Her doctoral research addresses how overarching political changes impacted diet at the smaller scale. At the MPERF, Harper is training in macrobotanical and microbotanical methods to recover remains from contexts such as gardens, farming areas, and cooking spaces. She is also training in the recovery of microremains from dental calculus to learn about diet at the individual level.


Livelihood Strategies at Tahcabo, Yucatán, Mexico: Proyecto Arqueológico Colaborativo del Oriente de Yucatán (PACOY)

Maia Dedrick (University of North Carolina) is studying changing livelihood strategies pursued by residents of Tahcabo, Yucatán--a farming community--from the Classic through Colonial Periods (~300 - 1800 CE). Excavations took place within five rejolladas (sinkholes used for gardening when located within settlements) and six residential platforms spanning distinct time periods. While at McMaster University, Dedrick will further her goal of identifying economic activities and food strategies at Tahcabo through an analysis of phytolith and starch grains found on groundstone tools and in soils from relevant contexts identified during excavation.
PACOY Project Directors: Dr. Patricia A. McAnany and Dr. Iván Batún Alpuche

Human-Environment Relationships at Aventura, Belize

Kacey Grauer (Northwestern University) is studying human-environment interactions during sociopolitical and ecological change at the ancient Maya city of Aventura, Belize. She is investigating how people were using pocket bajos (small depressions likely used for agriculture or water management) during the Terminal Classic/Early Postclassic (ca. 750-1100 CE), a time of regional sociopolitical reorganization and drought when Aventura was flourishing. At the MPERF, Grauer will work to identify phytoliths indicative of wetlands or agricultural fields from pocket bajo soils and groundstone tools from preliminary excavations at Aventura.
Aventura Archaeology Project (AAP) Project Director: Dr. Cynthia Robin


Past Research Projects

Plants and Mortuary Offerings at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Éloi Bérubé examined the residues of plants in ceramic vessels recovered from burials at the site of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Bérubé identified phytoliths and starch grains extracted from those vessels to provide an understanding of plants possibly placed along with the vessels as offerings. These data have allowed for a better understanding of mortuary practices at the site of Palenque.

Project Director: Dr. Lisa Johnson

Ethnoecology, Resilience, and Cuisine at the Crossroads: Proyecto Arqueológico Río Amarillo-Copán (PARAC), Copan, Honduras

Shanti Morell-Hart studied changes in human-environmental transformations over time, comparing cuisines from several ancient communities within and near the Copán area of Northwestern Honduras.  She recovered a rich archaeobotanical data set that included both microbotanical and macrobotanical residues recovered from bulk flotation samples and extracted from artifacts.  She addressed evidence of human resilience during times of social and climatological stress.  She also explored the dynamic overlap between northern and southern societies, where Northwestern Honduras served as a sort of regional crossroads. 

PARAC project directors: Dr. Cameron McNeil and Lic. Edy Barrios

Diet, Food Security, and Sociopolitical Change in the Classic Maya Usumacinta Basin

Meghan Macleod studied dietary trends as they relate to the sociopolitical environment and food security of Classic period (350-950 CE) Maya populations in the Usumacinta Basin. In the field in Chiapas, she extracted microbotanical samples from human teeth and floated macrobotanical samples in search of evidence of plant food consumption. 

Agricultural Practices and Human-Environmental Relations at Motul de San José

Sophie Reilly investigated questions surrounding agricultural practices and human-environmental relations at the Maya site Motul de San José. Reilly employed phytolith analysis of soil samples excavated from various sectors throughout the site.  She traced the sectors that may have been used for agriculture and which plant species people may have been cultivating. This research has contributed to knowledge about how people at Motul de San José interacted with their environment, furthering research about daily life in the Classic Maya Period. 

Motul Project Directors: Dr. Kitty Emery and Dr. Antonia Foias

Motul Project Website

Mixtec Foodways During the Early Colonial Period: Analysis of food residues and interpretation of practices

For his MA thesis, Éloi Bérubé studied shifts in foodways between the Postclassic period (900–1521 AD) and the Early Colonial period (1521–1600) at the site of San Miguel de Achiutla, Oaxaca.  He assessed to what extent the Mixtecs resisted, accepted or negotiated Spanish cultural elements in their own daily and ritual lifeways. At the MPERF, he extracted macrobotanical residues from bulk flotation samples, and phytolith and starch grain residues from artifacts. He compared the foods consumed during the Early Colonial period at Achiutla to those that were consumed before Spanish Contact. 

Achiutla project director: Dr. Jamie Forde

PDF of M.A. Thesis: Mixtec Foodways in Achiutla: Continuity Through Time. A Paleoethnobotanical Study Comparing the Postclassic and Early Colonial Diet


Foodways and Ceramic Craft in the Late Formative Titicaca Basin

In her M.A. thesis, Sophie Reilly researched foodways of the Late Formative period (200 BC-300 AD) in the Lake Titicaca basin of highland Bolivia. She studied both the plant remains of food as well as the ceramic vessels in which food was prepared, stored, and consumed. In another McMaster lab, the Lab for Interdisciplinary Research on Archaeological Ceramics (LIRAC), Reilly studied ceramic attributes to learn about the technological choices that potters made while producing these vessels. In the MPERF, Reilly recovered microbotanical residues from the ceramic sherds to identify the plants that were present in the ceramic vessels. By studying both ceramics and food remains, Reilly explored the daily practices that went into preparing meals in the Late Formative Period.

Project director: Dr. Andrew P. Roddick

PDF of M.A. Thesis: Meals in Motion: A Study of Foodways using Ceramic and Botanical Datasets in Late Formative and Tiwanaku Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia

AnthroDish podcast: Episode 13: Sophie Reilly on Ancient Bolivian Foodways and Mobility


Pleistocene and Early Holocene Social Landscapes in the South-Central Andes: A Paleoethnobotanical Contribution

Brett Furlotte investigated past landscape engagements as they related to subsistence practices and social organization at the Cuncaicha rockshelter, a multi-component archaeological site with Pleistocene and early Holocene dated cultural deposits in the Pucuncho Basin of southern Peru.  In the MPERF, he began to look for plant-related activities, including fuel, medicine, craft, and food and consumption. He initiated analyses in macrobotanical evidence of charred unidentified woody shrubs and grasses, parenchymous tissues indicative of starchy roots and tubers, and starch grain and phytolith residues recovered from sediments.

Quebrada Jaguay project director: Dr. Kurt Rademaker

Storage and Pilgrimage at the Cerro del Convento Rock Shelter: Proyecto Arqueologico Nejapa Tavela (PANT), Oaxaca, Mexico

In this project, Shanti Morell-Hart and Éloi Bérubé investigated macrobotanical remains associated with a specialized feature in the rock shelter of the Cerro del Convento site, in the Sierra Sur region of Oaxaca. Examining the well-preserved macrobotanical remains helped to assess whether the rock shelter served as a functional storage space for agricultural goods, a temporary dry shelter and sleeping space for farmers working in their fields, or a sacred space that was a destination for pilgrimage and making petitions. 

PANT project director: Dr. Stacie M. King

Paleoethnobotany, foodways, and offerings in the Mixteca de la Costa, Oaxaca, Mexico: Research on the archaeological sites of La Consentida and Cerro de la Virgen

Éloi Bérubé used paleoethnobotanical methods to analyze plant uses at two archaeological sites. The samples collected at La Consentida by Dr. Guy Hepp and his team came from different contexts, including grave goods. By identifying phytoliths and starch grains from artifacts dating from the Early Formative period, Bérubé illuminated plant uses in everyday lives and in the ritual and sacred realm. Éloi Bérubé also studied artifacts left as offerings at the Terminal Formative site of Cerro de la Virgen, where he examined the use of plants in sacred rituals. This research helped to indicate the potential for further paleoethnobotanical analysis on the site.

La Consentida Project Director: Dr. Guy Hepp; Cerro de la Virgen Project Director: Jeff Brzezinski

Rio Verde project website