Research Overview

What effect have humans had on tropical environments over the last several thousand years?

We often take for granted how unnatural our present-day landscape actually is. The Neotropics are no exception, having been occupied by untold numbers of humans for thousands of years. These societies permanently altered plant and animal populations through hunting and harvesting, by domesticating new species, moving and introducing species into new areas, and by occasionally harming or exterminating certain taxa, especially in recent years. To understand the tropical landscape today and what is “natural,” we need to examine and be able to recognize where and how humans have influenced the environment in the past.

How were animals integral to the rise of ancient communities and early states?

Animals and their resources were used for much more than just food in ancient societies, just as they are today. Hunting, fishing, raising and exchanging animals has happened for centuries, profoundly changing both the course of human societies as well as the spread and evolution of animal species on the landscape. As human populations grew over time, people made increasing efforts to control and selectively distribute certain animals and their products, which helped develop and maintain complex political and economic state systems.

How did ancient pre-Columbian societies manage and move animal resources?

Ancient peoples in the Americas were often on the move, and so were their animals. Dogs, turkeys, macaws, fish, and shellfish are only a few of the animals we know that were moving frequently throughout Central America as part of an extensive trade network. Moving and raising animals necessitated specialized experience and knowledge of how to acquire, maintain, and breed particular species. Using zooarchaeological analysis in combination with stable isotope geochemistry, we can study how animals were hunted or bred (often resulting in dramatic changes to their skeletal development), were raised in captivity and fed a human-mandated diet, and were exchanged long distances from one area to another.


2016 Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Florida. Dissertation: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on the Formation of Maya States.

2011 M.A., Anthropology, University of Florida Master’s Thesis: Beyond Capitals and Kings: A Comparison of Animal Resource Use among Ten Late Classic Maya Sites.

2009 B.A., Archaeology, Minor in Biology, Magna cum Laude, Boston University Senior Honors Thesis: From Ritual to Rubbish: The Maya Zooarchaeological Record from San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala.

Selected Publications

Sharpe, Ashley E., George D. Kamenov, Adrian Gilli, David A. Hodell, Kitty F. Emery, Mark Brenner, and John Krigbaum. 2016. Lead (Pb) Isotope Baselines for Studies of Ancient Human Migration and Trade in the Maya Region. PLOS ONE 11(11):e0164871.

Emery, Kitty, Erin Thornton, Ashley Sharpe, Petra Cunningham-Smith, Lisa Duffy, and Brandon McIntosh. 2016. Testing osteometric and morphological methods for turkey species determination in Maya faunal assemblages. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Sharpe, Ashley E., and Kitty F. Emery. 2015. Differential animal use within three Late Classic Maya states: Implications for politics and trade. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 40:280–301.

Sharpe, Ashley E. 2014. A Reexamination of the Birds in the Central Mexican Codices. Ancient Mesoamerica 25(2):317–336.

Sharpe, Ashley E., William A. Saturno, and Kitty F. Emery. 2014. Shifting Patterns of Maya Social Complexity through Time: Preliminary Zooarchaeological Results from San Bartolo, Guatemala. In Animals and Inequality in the Ancient World, edited by Sue Ann McCarty and Benjamin Arbuckle, pp. 85–106. University of Colorado Press, Boulder.

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