Settlement Ecology

In this research, I explore the factors, environmental and cultural, that influence where people choose to live. Essentially, the larger question is, “why do we live where we do?” At this time, I am focusing my research on tribal, swidden agricultural American Indian societies in eastern Noth America from AD 800-1600. I am currently researching these groups because I am interested in exploring some of our current ideas about tribal groups and the ecology and sustainability of swidden–slash and burn–farming in temperate climates. For the first point, we tend to describe and explain tribal groups as being very environmentally focused. My ongoing research is showing that the economics of trade and political relationships were a very influential part of their ecology. For the second point, swidden agriculture is no longer practiced in temperate climates. Early research suggested that it was extremely sustainable in temperate soils. My current research is finding further support for these ideas.

I conduct this work by collecting site location data through archaeological surveys. Here is a picture of Wake Forest students conducting a survey to determine the boundaries of a site in the Yadkin River Valley:


Once collected, this information is entered into a geographic information system (GIS), which allows for digital mapping and statistical analyses. Within the GIS, I reconstruct the past environment using archaeological data and modern and historic environmental data. Here are some examples from my recent publication in North American Archaeologist and several meeting presentations:

Sites in the Yadkin River Valley in relation to wetlands, which were important resource zones:


Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) sites in upstate New York and the visible area from those sites. This is a measure of the defensibility of sites:


Soil texture, which is a significant factor in agricultural productivity, in relation to Haudenosaunee sites:


The location of sites along the Yadkin River in relation to historically marked trails and least cost paths (computer generated paths that require the least amount of energy to traverse based on slope and location of rivers):


Here are some links to my published research on these topics:

Using event history analysis to examine the causes of semi-sedentism among shifting cultivators: A case study of the Haudenosaunee, AD 1500–1700

An analysis of factors influencing sixteenth and seventeenth century Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) settlement locations

Using viewshed analysis to explore settlement choice: a case study of the Onondaga Iroquois

My current work on this subject is following up the large-scale analyses of the Yadkin River sites with site level excavations to test my previous findings. For example, I found that agricultural land seemed to play a significant role in settlement location choice. However, we tend to assume that the people that lived in the area did not do much farming. My site level excavations will be aimed at clearing up these confusing lines of evidence.