Collaborative Research: Long-Term Human-Environmental Interaction In a Lowland Tropic Setting

Project: Research project

Project Details


The aim of this interdisciplinary study, conducted by researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Pennsylvania State University (PSU), is to study human-climate-environmental dynamics among the earliest inhabitants of the American tropics. The work is designed to investigate the hypothesis that major behavioral changes in subsistence economies and technology were partially mediated by demographic transitions, climate variability, and anthropogenic environmental change on multiple timescales. The study of human adaptive capacity in the face of rapid environmental change has become more urgent given predictions of future warming and rapid population growth globally. This study is centrally relevant to this societal challenge. It will promote teaching, training, and learning, providing opportunities for collecting original data for graduate and undergraduate student projects at the University of New Mexico, Pennsylvania State University, and other institutions.

The team will conduct a range of archaeological, bioarchaeological, and geochemical analyses on artifacts, skeletal materials (human and non-human), and plant remains from two rockshelter sites in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize with demonstrated occupations ranging between 13,000 and 3,500 years ago. Researchers will also develop a parallel paleoclimate record from nearby cave deposits with incremental geochemical analyses of stalagmites known to span this interval. During this time, humans successfully adapted to tropical habitats, responded to important changes in climate and ecosystem organization, coalesced into the first sedentary communities, and developed agriculture. Precision accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating of animal and human bone along with stable isotope measurements will be conducted at the PSU Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility and UNM Center for Stable isotopes. At PSU, variation in internal bone structure in the lower and upper limbs will be measured using 3D microCT scans to provide insights into human mobility and adaptation to changing lifeways through time. At UNM, and in collaboration with climate science collaborators, the team will develop a high-resolution paleoclimate record from cave stalagmites in the region that will be anchored precisely in time with uranium series dates. The climate backdrop will be used to interpret both cultural and biological change.

Effective start/end date8/1/167/31/20


  • National Science Foundation: $127,188.00


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