Under the supervision of Dr. Michael Glassow, H.B. Thakar will conduct archaeological excavations at four prehistoric shell midden sites on Santa Cruz Island, California, and analyses of resulting collections. These sites contain the material remains of the prehistoric Chumash who occupied the Northern Channel Islands and the central coast of California at the time of European contact. The four contemporaneous midden sites are located in the same watershed but in distinct microenvironments, at varying distances from the coast and at different elevations. Hunter-gatherers intermittently occupied each of these sites during the time period immediately prior to the dramatic population growth and rapid cultural development in the Santa Barbara Channel Region of coastal California.

Research focusing on the dynamic interrelationship of human population growth and social complexity is important for a number of reasons. Studies worldwide indicate that throughout most of human history, people have lived in small, relatively egalitarian groups that moved frequently in order mitigate seasonal and spatial resource variation. The study of how hunter-gatherer populations reduced risk in accessing essential food resources provides insight into how modern populations can increase sustainability and food security. Understanding how risk reduction articulated with significant population growth contextualizes the demographic boom witnessed in well-nourished modern populations. Furthermore, elucidating causal and chronological relationships between human population growth and social complexity will clarify how modern population growth interacts with the rapid cultural development evident in contemporary society.

Ms. Thakar will recover and analyze data that indicate what food resources the ancient inhabitants of Santa Cruz Island relied upon, how these people managed environmentally induced variation, and how risk-reducing strategies changed through time in relation to population growth and social change. Specifically, she proposes - and will evaluate evidence for - two economic strategies that prehistoric island inhabitants may have employed to increase food stability: diversification in exploitation of many types of food resources or specialization in exploitation of a few key resources.

In addition to its academic merit, this project will bring many educational and outreach opportunities to undergraduate students, graduate students and members of the modern Chumash community. Student assistants will participate in all stages of the project, from excavation through laboratory analysis. This opportunity will provide students the chance to engage directly with archaeology and gain a wide variety of practical skills, from site mapping to flotation to identification of plant/animal remains. Educational outreach programs for grade-school Chumash youth will provide the younger generation of Chumash first-hand experience with archaeology. These efforts will facilitate continuation of the positive relationship that has developed between archaeologists and the Native American community in the local area.

Project Report

This research project was conducted to evaluate the dynamic interrelationships between foodways, the environment, and human population growth in prehistory. Specifically, this case study sought to elucidate temporal variation in how hunter-gatherers reduced food risk during a period of significant population growth on the Northern Channel Islands of California. The outcome of this research includes the most complete integrated foodways research ever completed on the California Channel Islands. Combined with a well-supported, rigorous chronological framework and reconstruction of seasonal mobility patterns, this research revealed substantial shifts in how prehistoric people moved about and exploited the landscape immediately prior to the period of significant population growth. An important preliminary finding of this analysis confirms a significant period of site abandonment that lasted approximately 1,000 years at each of the prehistoric habitation sites investigated. The array of plant and animal foods collected by people before and after this interval of abandonment indicates a substantial shift in how people exploited food resources immediately prior to substantial population growth. Reoccupation of each of the three sites investigated is associated with clear evidence of economic specialization. These hunter-gatherer-fishers now relied more heavily on greater quantities of fewer plant food resources than they did before, with an intense focus on the acquisition of small oily seeds. They used nets and other new fishing technologies to acquire vast quantities of small oily fish. Focused acquisition of oil-rich food resources complemented an existing emphasis on protein rich shellfish and nearshore fish. Although analysis and integration of these rich new datasets is ongoing, preliminary results support the idea that human population growth, at least in this case study, may be a result of major shifts the type, quantity, and quality of food resources that people relied on. That is to say that, prehistoric population growth did not instigate major shifts in food acquisition, rather it was a product of these changes. This research sheds new light and understanding on how significant demographic shifts occurred throughout human history, prior to widespread adoption of domesticated food resources. Final results of this research will form the basis of H.B. Thakar doctoral dissertation entitled, "Food and Fertility in Prehistoric California: A Case-study of Risk-Reducing Subsistence Strategies and Prehistoric Population Growth from Santa Cruz Island, California". In addition to graduate training, this project has provided over 50 undergraduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the opportunity to engage directly with archaeology and gain a wide variety of practical field and laboratory skills widely applicable in many scientific fields. Several additional educational outreach opportunities were provided to Native American youth as well as grade-school children from the Santa Barbara community. These events included an interactive program designed to introduce young students to archaeology, lessons about native plants and their aboriginal uses, and visits to the University campus. Each of these programs incorporated aspects of the research and knowledge gained through this NSF-funded project and served to encourage community awareness of local archaeology and scientific research. More broadly, the funded research project contributes a comprehensive reconstruction of diachronic human interactions with their local environments, a detailed local record of sea-surface temperature variation, and a long-term perspective into human adaptation in the face of environmental fluctuations. Researchers from a wide variety of scientific disciplines are increasingly concerned with elucidation of these dynamic interrelationships as the issues of modern human environmental impacts become a central concern in both academic and public forums. These data, combined with anthropological understanding of the economic, social, and political drivers of land use, provide a scientific foundation on which to model human-environment interactions as a complex system.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of California Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara
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