Understanding how people acquire food and maintain food security under changing social and environmental conditions has important implications for both understanding past human societies and exploring ways for contemporary societies to maintain access to food supplies. Archaeological datasets are ideal for examining this issue, providing a record of the foods people ate and how access to those foods changed at a scale of many centuries.
Over time, human populations increase or decrease; average precipitation and temperatures vary; the agricultural crops available for planting change; and the abundance of wild plants and animals vary in response to hunting, harvesting, and climate variation. Ancient people responded to those changes by adapting their methods of acquiring food, by moving together into large villages or dispersing to small settlements, and by migrating to new locations.
This project is a collaboration between Karen Schollmeyer at Archaeology Southwest and Michael Diehl at Desert Archaeology, Inc. By studying precontact cases (before the arrival of Europeans), we identify techniques that worked well for sustaining villages and communities during lean years and for taking advantage of favorable conditions. We also identify techniques that failed to sustain communities during periods of food stress.
Our research assesses changes in farming and foraging in relation to three major issues. First, it examines evidence for increased effort and dependence on agriculture from multiple archaeological sites and time periods. We then use this information to examine how changes in human population levels and investment in agriculture affected timber, food plant, and game animal species availability in the areas around ancient settlements, including how negatively impacted species may have recovered during periods of human population decline. Finally, we examine how household specialization in farming crops or foraging for wild resources varied in relation to village size, agricultural intensification, and changes in wild resource availability.
Data come from charred food plant remains, wood charcoal, and animal bone from 80 previously-excavated archaeological sites in southwestern New Mexico spanning the period from A.D. 150 to 1400. Some data are obtained from unpublished manuscripts containing analyses not widely available until now. In addition, 335 previously unanalyzed flotation samples and eight previously unanalyzed animal bone assemblages from older excavations are undergoing analysis. Systematically examining data from numerous sites and a long time period provides new insights on how people’s activities influence the food resources available to them, including identifying ways of acquiring food that were stable for long periods.
This information is potentially valuable for modern communities and government agencies planning for economic, climate, or other stresses that affect food availability. For example, knowing how people integrate obscure wild foods into agricultural production systems during lean years may provide useful analogs for public planning to promote community, population, and political stability in times of crisis. The results of this study will interest researchers in other fields investigating ways of maintaining food security in the face of changing climate conditions and shifting human populations.
This research was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1524079).