Skip to main content
Skip to McMaster Navigation Skip to Site Navigation Skip to main content
McMaster logo
COVID-19 information and updates

Find the most recent updates here, as well as FAQs and information for students, faculty and staff.

Active Research

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. Mónica Urquizú, Lic. Griselda Pérez Robles (2015-2017)

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

Undergraduate researchers: Sarah Watson (2017-2018), Jimika McGean (2018), Shane Teesdale (2018-2019; 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); Aaron Parry (2019)

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


Archaeobotany at 5GN1.2 Rock Shelter

Late Prehistoric Diet and Plant Use in the Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado

In the high-elevation environment of the Upper Gunnison Basin (Colorado), fluctuating mid-Holocene climatic conditions culminated in the extirpation of Pinyon pine (Pinion edulis) by 3,000 B.P. and altered the distribution of other economically important resources. According to contemporary cultural history models, Late Prehistoric occupants of the basin began to focus on long-range logistical bison hunting and relocated base camps to outside of the basin. However, archaeological excavations at 5GN1.2 and a few other sites challenge this narrative. For this project, Jonathan M. Peart (visiting researcher at MPERF) is conducting a macrobotanical analysis of materials recovered from site 5GN1.2 to better understand the role that plants played during the Late Prehistoric in the Upper Gunnison Basin. Research questions guiding this study include: What plant resources were used by the occupants of the site? Can the identified plant remains provide evidence of site occupation seasonality or duration? Can the identified plant remains provide information of prehistoric feature use, size and construction design? Are there any temporal patterns evident in the use of plants at site 5GN1.2? Can these patterns provide clues on paleoenvironmental conditions, regional demographics or changing land-use or mobility strategies?

Project Director: Jonathan M. Peart, MS, RPA

Landscapes of the Northern Picts

Shalen Prado is conducting research at the McMaster Paleoethnobotanical Research Facility (MPERF) which focuses on the relationship between the Northern Picts and their proximal ecology through microbotanical analyses.  She is motivated to examine the microbotanical record from Pictish archaeological sites to investigate 1) the presence of wild vs. cultivated plants 2) evidence of trade (e.g., exotic/foreign plant species) and 3) how the paleoethnobotanical assemblage of the Picts compares to contemporary cultural groups (e.g., the Norse or the Gaels). Shalen’s research will be carried out by creating a reference collection of Scottish flora at the MPERF before conducting a pilot project with sediment samples from Pictish archaeological sites in Northern Scotland.  By examining the microbotanical remains of the Picts, Shalen hopes create a nuanced perspective of the relationship between the Picts of Northern Scotland and the surrounding landscape.


Archaeological Study of Ancient Maya Ethnoecology during the Formative and Classic Periods

Sarah Watson is performing microbotanical and macrobotanical analyses in order to assess how the Maya were interacting with the land and how this changed from the Formative Period to the Classic Period. This study is focused on the site of Macabilero, an ancient Maya community with residential, defensive, and ritual features, that was abandoned at the end of the Formative Period. This research will contribute to understandings of the agriculture and consumption practices of Formative Period Maya people, the impact of these practices on the landscape, and abandonment of Formative sites in the Usumacinta River region. At the MPERF, Watson will work to identify phytoliths, starch grains, and macrobotanical remains and then interpret the results in the context of environmental and political changes. 

Human-ecological dynamics in everyday life and ritual practices of the Zapotecs at Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico (500 BC to 750 AD)

Using ancient botanical remains, from both elite and non-elite households (as well as temples), Éloi Bérubé is exploring and comparing the use of plants in  everyday life and in mortuary contexts of ancient Zapotec people. The study offers the opportunity to examine if there were distinctions between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead in ancient Zapotec beliefs, through potentially different uses of plants in quotidian and funerary contexts. Éloi's study also examines how ritualized practices might have helped to provide a bridge between these two worlds. To track distinctions and consistencies in practice, Éloi employs microbotanical analyses (of phytoliths and starch grains), approaches never previously used at Monte Albán.

Río Amarillo: Foodways, Agriculture, and Environment

Melanie Pugliese's thesis research is focused on reconstructing the paleoenvironment to study human-environmental interactions during the Classic Period near the Copán area of Northwestern Honduras. She is studying which plants were utilized by analyzing microbotanical remains recovered from sediments and artifacts at the site of Río Amarillo. Through the analysis of starch grains and phytoliths, she works toward understanding how ancient Maya people were interacting with their surrounding environment, especially during times of social and climatological stress. She seeks to provide answers about how past societies were utilizing plant resources and how changes in the climate and the environment may have influenced agricultural practices in the area.


PARAC Project Director: Dr. Cameron McNeil

Past Research Projects

Past Research

Past Research

View past MPERF research activity.