Current Research Projects

Plant Domestication and Agroforestry in Ancient Mesoamerica

This project, in collaboration with Dr. Ken Hirth and Dr. Doug Kennett (Penn State University) and Dr. Heather Thakar (Temple University), seeks to illuminate the forager-farmer continuum for an area of highland Honduras from 11,400-1500 cal BP with detailed macrobotanical analysis of a well-preserved and extensive plant assemblage from El Gigante rockshelter. Contemporary research no longer draws a hard line between mobile foragers and sedentary village agriculturalists. Instead, researchers recognize that prehistoric groups actively manipulated and managed their natural environments to make them more productive and the resources they contain more predictable. This project focuses on variety of plant species (avocados, maize, beans, squashes, just to name a few) in an attempt to closely document their domestication, management, and use by humans throughout this 10,000 year period.


National Science Foundation Research Grant, Collaborative Research: Domestication, Food Production and Arboriculture during the Early to Late Holocene at El Gigante Rockshelter, Honduras, 2018, $38,814.

UCSB Academic Senate Grant, Documenting Avocado Domestication and Reconstructing Ancient Mesoamerican Systems of Agroforestry over the last 12,000 years, 2015.

UCSB Academic Senate Grant, Holy Guacamole!: Using Metric Analysis of Archaeological and Modern Avocados to Reconstruct Pathways to Domestication, 2019.


Food & Warfare in the Central Illinois River Valley

The Food & Warfare project is a joint project between Dr. Amber VanDerwarker and Dr. Greg Wilson.  We seek to document the effects of chronic and intense warfare on the lives of everyday people living in one of the most dangerous Mississippian regions of the Eastern Woodlands. We approach this through the analysis of household and community organization (Dr. Wilson) and the analysis of plant and animal remains (Dr. Amber VanDerwarker).  We have received various awards to fund different components of this project and have involved several colleagues, grad students, and undergrad students.

Feeding Families in Crisis: The Effects of Warfare on the Daily Food Quest, UCSB Social Science Research Grant, 2012.

  • Analysis of the archaeobotanical assemblage from the Mississippian Component of the Myer-Dickson site.  The site is a nucleated village that dates to the Larson phase which post-dates the intensification of inter-group hostilities in the region.

National Science Foundation Research Grant, Living with War: The Impacts of Chronic Violence on Everyday Life in the Central Illinois River Valley (with Gregory D. Wilson, UCSB and Victor Thompson, Ohio State University), for 3 years of excavation and analysis spanning 2011-2014 (award no. 1062290).

  • Excavation and Analysis of materials from the C.W. Cooper site (late Eveland phase), which immediately pre-dates the intensification of warfare in the region
  • Ongoing identification of plant materials (identification conducted by Amber VanDerwarker, Jennifer Alvarado, and students from ANTH 186 Lab Course in Paleoethnobotany)
  • Wood Identification from C.W. Cooper (as well as Lamb, Roskamp, Orendorf, and Myer-Dickson sites) conducted by Dr. Neal Lopinot (Missouri State University)
  • Faunal Identification conducted by Craig P. Smith (UCSB grad student) and Steven Kuehn (Illinois State Archaeological Survey)

Connected to the NSF are two REU students (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) that I have mentored conducting small projects related to subsistence.  

Ms. Allison Gracer, awarded an REU Supplement to our NSF (2012) and an URCA grant (Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, 2012) for her project Maize Intensification in the Mississippian Central Illinois Valley: Metric data from maize kernels & cupules as a means to establish the number and type(s) of varieties

  • Allison’s REU-funded project seeks to document the variety(ies) of maize grown in the CIRV throughout the Mississippian-period sequence.   Metric data collected on complete kernels and cupules from several sites suggest that CIRV farmers raised a single variety of maize up until the Larson-phase (AD 1250-1300) occupation at Myer-Dickson, at which time a new variety was introduced and grown alongside the existing variety.  Data also indicate a shrinkage of kernel size at this time, suggesting the possibility that maize was being harvested before it could fully ripen.

Ms. Hannah Haas, awarded an REU Supplement to our NSF (2011) for her project, The Effects of Warfare on the Daily Food Quest: Changes in Fishing Strategies in the Mississippian-period Central Illinois River Valley

  • Hannah’s REU-funded project explores the impacts of escalating warfare on changes in village-level fishing strategies, hypothesizing that concerns with safety would have reduced fishing excursions and led to changes in the means of capture.  Her findings reveal that fishing decreased dramatically.  Moreover, metric data from fish vertebrae suggest that people shifted towards more targeted fishing (e.g., with spears or hook-and-line technology).
  • Hannah received the student poster award for her project at the 2012 Annual Society for Ethnobiology Meetings in Denver, Co.

Food and Conflict: The Effects of Warfare on Daily Subsistence, UCSB Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant, 2010

  • Identification and Analysis of Macrobotanical remains from the Mississippian Period, Larson-phase component of the Myer-Dickson site, also located in the Central Illinois River Valley
  • Initial sorting and identification of plant materials was assisted by former undergraduate students Geoffrey Taylor and Caroline Dezendorf, and overseen by Amber VanDerwarker and Jennifer Alvarado
  • Wood identification conducted by Dr. Neal Lopinot (Missouri State University)

Former Graduate student Dr. Dana Bardolph has also contributed to our ongoing research in the Central Illinois River Valley, with her analysis of plants, pottery, and pit features from the early Eveland-phase (AD 1100-1150) Lamb site.

Finally, Ms. Sarah Gjerde wrote her undergraduate senior thesis on the plant remains from the Roskamp site (Gjerde 2008).  These data are as yet unpublished, with forthcoming dissemination in through the Roskamp site report (in prep).


Formative and Classic Period Subsistence & Settlement along Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast

My research projects in this region seeks to document the long-term changes in subsistence practices as they relate to sedentism, the transition to farming, and the formation and maintenance of complex political institutions during the Formative (1400 BC-AD 300) and Classic periods (AD 300-900).  I collaborate with a vairety of archaeologists in this region, including Dr. Philip J. Arnold (Loyola University-Chicago), Dr. Christopher Pool (University of Kentucky), Dr. Tanya Peres (Florida State University), Dr. Robert Kruger (Universidad Veracruzana), Dr. Marcie Venter (Murray State University), and Dr. Carl Wendt (CSU-Fullerton).  My interest in Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast has evolved over the years, and includes the analysis of both macrobotanical and faunal datasets.


The site of Teotepec is located along the edge of Catemaco Lake in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas.  The site has both Formative and Classic period occupations, but the mound and temple architecture is primarily Classic-period.  As co-directors of the Teotepec Project, Dr. Philip Arnold and I are in the process of analyzing and writing up our findings from our combined site survey and excavation project that took place in 2007 and 2008.  This project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation Research Grant: Late Classic Transitions at Teotepec, Southern Veracruz, Mexico (with Philip J. Arnold, III, Loyola University-Chicago), awarded in May 2006 for two seasons of fieldwork during the summers of 2007-2008 (award no. 0610852)



The site of Tres Zapotes, in the western foothills of the Tuxtlas, represents an impressive civic-ceremonial center that politically dominated the surrounding region during the Late and Terminal Formative periods (400 BC-AD 300).  In 2003, Dr. Christopher Pool (director of the NSF-funded Tres Zapotes Archaeological Project) brought me on board as the project archaeobotanist.   With the help of UCSB graduate and undergraduate lab assistants, I have completed analysis of more than 600 flotation samples collection from the site.  The research I have produced from these data address topics of maize intensification, status-related foodways, and elite provisioning. In addition to Dr. Pools NSF grant, the archaeobotanical analysis was also funded by two small UCSB research grants.

Tribute and Taxation in Early Complex Societies, 2009, UCSB Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant

Elite Provisioning at Tres Zapotes, 2008, UCSB Regents’ Junior Faculty Fellowship (RJFF)



The sites of La Joya and Bezuapan are both Formative residential sites in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas.  La Joya was excavated by Dr. Philip Arnold (funded by NSF), and Bezuapan was excavated by Dr. Christopher Pool (funded by NSF).  I undertook analysis of the plant and animal datasets from these two sites as part of my dissertation project.  The project provided the first systematic identification and analysis of Formative period subsistence data for the Gulf Coastal region.  These data have allowed a significant revision (by myself and others) of our understanding of the nature of Olmec political economy.  This dissertation project was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Formative Subsistence Economy in the Tuxtla Region of Southern Veracruz, Mexico, 2000, National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (award no. 9912271).



The site of San Carlos, in the Veracruz lowlands nearby the well-known Early Formative Olmec site of San Lorenzo, was excavated by Dr. Robert Kruger.  The site dates to the Early/Middle Formative transition and currently provides the only published macrobotanical dataset from the region surrounding San Lorenzo.



The Middle Formative site of Los Soldados, in the Veracruz lowlands nearby the well-known Early Formative Olmec site of San Lorenzo, was excavated by Dr. Carl Wendt.  I have recently analyzed the macrobotanical remains as part of this project, and the results are forthcoming. One of my former undergraduates, Majdolene Dajani, analyzed these data for her UCSB Anthropology Senior Thesis. We will be working towards writing these data for publication with Dr. Carl Wendt during 2019-2020.



Located in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, the site of Matacanela was excavated by Dr. Marcie Venter.  The site represents a long-term habitation occupied from the Middle Formative through Classic periods. Analysis of the plant data from the site is complete, and results are forthcoming.


Other Eastern Woodlands Projects

In addition to my current research in Illinois and Mexico, I continue to pursue research on the archaeology of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric periods in Virginia and North Carolina, including the Late Woodland period in the Roanoke River Valley and the pre/post-Contact transition in Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.  Funding to write a synthesis of Cherokee paleoethnobotany was provided by a grant from UCSB.

UCSB Regents Humanities Faculty Fellowship, Farming and Gender at the Crossroads: The Consequences of Cherokee and European Culture Contact, 2011.


Microbotany and California Archaeology Projects

I have several students who are engaged in the archaeobotany and zooarchaeology of prehistoric Chumash groups in the Santa Barbara region.  In collaboration with former graduate student Dr. Kristin Hoppa, in 2010 I expanded my archaeobotanical lab to encompass microbotanical analysis (starch grains & phytoliths) in addition to the analysis of macro-remains.  Funding to set up and maintain the microbotanical lab has been awarded by two internal UCSB grants, in addition to research grants focused specifically on California microbotany.

Subsistence, Technology, and Settlement in the Santa Barbara Channel Region: A Microbotanical Perspective (Project Continuation), 2014, UCSB Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant

Making Ancient Plants Visible: Exploring Archaeobotanical Preservation through Experimental Processing and Recovery, 2013, UCSB Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant

Subsistence, Technology, and Settlement in the Santa Barbara Channel Region: A Microbotanical Perspective, 2012, UCSB Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant.

Reconstructing Prehistoric Plant Use: Integrating Old Data and New Techniques Social Science Research Grant Program Proposal Narrative, 2011, UCSB Social Science Research Grant.