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Project: Using zooarchaeological and geochemical evidence to investigate ancient human impacts to Panamanian ecology

Project title

Using zooarchaeological and geochemical evidence to investigate ancient human impacts to Panamanian ecology

Mentor's name(s)

Dr. Ashley Sharpe, Staff Scientist

Co-mentor's name(s)

Dr. Jonathan Cybulski, Postdoctoral Fellow

Contact information: cybulskij@si.edu

Location of internship. Will mentor be at this location?

Naos Marine Laboratory / Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology

Project summary

Modern exploitation of natural resources by humans is often unsustainable and can have severe ecological consequences such as habitat fragmentation, biomass reductions, extinctions, or alterations to food-webs. Food-webs that are undisturbed by humans are typically larger with greater biodiversity, characteristics which influence community structure and ecosystem processes. Conversely, human disturbances affecting food-webs can lead to unintended ecological consequences, such as trophic cascades. Determining a way to identify the direct and indirect impacts from past human forces to the surrounding Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP) trophic systems is necessary to interpret ecological changes through time. Yet constraining these disturbances historically is difficult due to lack of data such as population levels, written records, or preserved taxa. Thus, the timing associated with the initiation of severe human exploitation is often unknown.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s (STRI) Naos Archaeology Lab and Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology (CTPA) house many thousands of faunal remains from archaeological contexts that span over 6,000 years of age, as well as a modern faunal reference collection of approximately 3,000 specimens, with particular emphasis on Pacific marine/coastal species. This incredible collection is the product of decades of research by STRI staff scientists and their colleagues. Additionally, many boxes of samples remain to be processed, identified, and analyzed. This collection offers ample data to continue studying the zooarchaeology of the region, and build on the incredible legacy of past zooarchaeologists in the American tropics such as Dr. Richard Cooke. Additionally, stable isotope analysis (SIA) of both bulk collagen and individual amino acids are rapidly developing methods which allow for the investigation of diet, trophic position, and potential human selection pressures on these fauna. Thus, coupling zooarchaeological research with SIA could help to build a story of human-faunal interactions and trophic dynamics in the TEP through time.

This project builds off of previous work by Dr. Jonathan Cybulski and Dr. Ashley Sharpe who have investigated past human diets and environmental change in the Tropical Eastern Pacific over the last 7,000 years. The goal of this internship would be to interpret new faunal data in the context of these and other published archaeological records.

Our project objectives area:

  • Work with STRI archaeological collections to organize and identify any additional zooarchaeological materials important for this project.
  • Identify a few species representative of major faunal groups that were and are presently exploited by humans.
  • Select type-specimens of these representative fauna from the zooarchaeological collections, and prepare them for isotopic analysis.
  • Explore the trophic consequences of human use of these faunal resources. Has human exploitation caused any changes in faunal abundances or trophic dynamics? Are there faunal groups that have been impacted by human exploitation that have previously gone unnoticed by other methods?
  • When needed, assist in the development of a virtual zooarchaeological database, including making 3D scans of important specimens relevant to the research project.

Mentorship goals

The intern will work full-time, five days a week, splitting time between the two different locations. Interns will work with an international and multidisciplinary research team, and they will have weekly meetings with mentors to discuss project goals and progress. Interns will learn how to process and identify zooarchaeological materials in the lab and will gain experience working with animal bones, analyzing data, and communicating their research with diverse audiences. They will also gain exposure to the fields of stable isotope and historical ecology. There may be opportunities to participate in occasional field work to collect samples, although this project is primarily lab-based. Interns will be encouraged to attend lab meetings as well as seminars, professional development workshops, public outreach and networking opportunities at STRI.

Intern’s role, time commitment and expected products

With help from mentors, interns will assist with sampling, processing, organizing, and identification of zooarchaeological materials. Interns will also photograph and measure materials. Additionally, interns will help prepare materials for isotopic analysis, which includes cutting, grinding, and treating materials with dilute acid and bases. The internship could result in deliverables such as a scientific poster, conference talk, and/or contribution to a peer-reviewed article. Interns will take part in sharing their research with the public through lab tours and other outreach activities.

Desired qualifications include: previous experience working with archaeological materials and data (required); previous experience identifying zooarchaeological remains (preferred but not required); knowledge of stable-isotope analysis and methods (preferred but not required); knowledge of statistical methods (preferred but not required); willingness to learn programming languages such as R; ability to work independently and with groups of people from diverse backgrounds; attention to detail; and commitment to science communication and public outreach.

List of suggested readings

Cooke, R.G., Wake, T.A., Martínez-Polanco, M.F., Jiménez-Acosta, M., Bustamante, F., Holst, I., Lara-Kraudy, A., Martín, J.G. and Redwood, S. (2016) “Exploitation of dolphins (Cetacea: Delphinidae) at a 6000yr old Preceramic site in the Pearl Island archipelago, Panama,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 6, pp. 733–756. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2015.12.001.

Martínez-Polanco, M.F., Rivals, F., Sugiyama, N., France, C.A.M., Méndez, S.A.C., Jiménez-Acosta, M., Martín, J.G. and Cooke, R.G. (2022) “Human ecological impacts on islands: Exemplified by a dwarf deer (Cervidae: Mazama sp.) on Pedro Gonzalez Island, Pearl Island Archipelago, Pacific Panama (6.2–5.6 kya),” Journal of Archaeological Science, 143, p. 105613. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2022.105613.

Sharpe, A.E., Smith-Guzmán, N., Curtis, J., Isaza-Aizpurúa, I., Kamenov, G.D., Wake, T.A. and Cooke, R.G. (2021) “A preliminary multi-isotope assessment of human mobility and diet in pre-Columbian Panama,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 36, p. 102876. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102876.

Sugiyama, N., Martínez-Polanco, M.F., France, C.A.M. and Cooke, R.G. (2020) “Domesticated landscapes of the neotropics: Isotope signatures of human-animal relationships in pre-Columbian Panama,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 59, p. 101195. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2020.101195.

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