As human populations worldwide grow and settle in formerly remote regions, questions about how hunting can be managed in order to provide long-term access to animals for local people without loss of biodiversity are becoming increasingly urgent. This project, a collaboration between Karen Schollmeyer at Archaeology Southwest and Jeffery Ferguson at MURR, is an opportunity for archaeology to contribute to this important current issue while simultaneously addressing an interesting archaeological problem in the U.S. Southwest.
In the Mesa Verde region in the period from A.D. 750–1280, human populations grew increasingly larger and more densely packed into villages. This population growth was accompanied by increasing pressure on local resources, including animals used for meat. Previous studies suggest that over time, declining availability of important animal species contributed to an increasingly tense social environment as acquiring food for the human population became more difficult. By A.D. 1280, this pressure culminated in episodes of violence, and Pueblo farmers moved their villages out of the region permanently.
Our research uses archaeological chemistry to examine the chemical signatures of elements like strontium, carbon, and oxygen in animal bones from ancient villages. We compare their distinctive chemical signatures to those of modern plant and water specimens to identify the types of plants the ancient animals ate, and where on the landscape they lived as they consumed plants and water.
This allows us to examine whether farmers traded domesticated turkeys with other villages or raised their own birds for meat, and whether the amount of domesticated maize (corn) people fed their turkey flocks changed as villages grew and as food became harder to produce in the face of climate fluctuations. We also examine whether people expanded hunting territories in response to fluctuations in large game abundance.
One possibility is that people walked to distant hunting areas and carried butchered animals back to villages. Another is that as animals bred in distant “source” areas their offspring dispersed into the heavily hunted areas around villages, allowing hunters to obtain limited numbers of them locally even after centuries of heavy hunting pressure.
These patterns have important implications for modern conservation work as examples of how hunters’ long term access to game might be maintained in some areas without extirpating those species at a regional scale. Understanding the centuries-long balance between human demands and animal populations in this case study provides valuable information on how different patterns of hunting and raising animals are sustainable at different spatial and temporal scales.
This research was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1460385).