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New data platform illuminates history of humans’ environmental impact

The human environmental footprint is not only deep, but old.

Ancient traces of this footprint can be found in animal bones, shells, scales and antlers at archaeological sites. Together, these specimens tell the millennia-long story of how humans have hunted, domesticated and transported animals, altered landscapes and responded to environmental changes such as shifting temperatures and sea levels.

Now, that story is available digitally through a new open-access data platform known as ZooArchNet, which links records of animals across biological and archaeological databases.

Making these specimen records accessible digitally helps provide a long-term perspective on current biodiversity crises, such as animal extinction and habitat loss, and could lead to more informed conservation policies.

Erin Thornton.
Thornton

Zooarchaeological specimens can also provide insights into how, when, and why humans domesticated animals in the distant past. Research by anthropologist Erin Thornton of Washington State University and a colleague on the earliest uses of the Mexican domesticated turkey, the ancestor of modern domestic turkeys, highlights how motivations for raising animals can change over time.

“Our recent work suggests that these birds were first domesticated for their feathers and symbolic links to power and prestige, rather than as a source of food,” she said.

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John Chau Wanted to Change Life on North Sentinel Island. Was He Wrong?

The death of a young American missionary on a tropical island at the hands of an indigenous group has left us to wonder: Are they better off with us or without us?

Because of their isolation, researchers say, the islanders have no immunity to infections and diseases of the outside world. Even a common cold could kill them. They posit that Mr. Chau put these people in grave danger and he should have never visited.

John Bodley.
Bodley

John Bodley, an anthropologist at Washington State University, agrees.

“There is no question that this attempt to make contact was totally wrong and a major violation of their human rights to autonomy,” he said. “Outsiders need to respect their wishes and treat them with dignity as fellow human beings. Respect means we don’t assume to know better how they should live.”

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New York Times

Archaeology offers insights into climate change strategies

Once again, humanity might be well served to take heed from a history lesson. When the climate changed, when crops failed and famine threatened, the peoples of ancient Asia responded. They moved. They started growing different crops. They created new trade networks and innovated their way to solutions in other ways too.

Kyle Bocinsky.
Kyle Bocinsky

So suggests new research by former WSU anthropologist Jade d’Alpoim Guedes and Kyle Bocinsky, an alumnus (PhD ’14) and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Anthropology, a senior researcher with the Village Ecodynamics Project, and the William D. Lipe Chair in Research with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado.

Their paper, published in the journal Science Advances, describes a computer model they developed that shows for the first time when and where in Asia staple crops would have thrived or fared poorly between 5,000 and 1,000 years ago.

When the climate cooled, people moved away or turned to pastoralism—herds can thrive in grassland where food grains can’t. And they turned to trade. These strategies eventually coalesced into the development of the Silk Road, d’Alpoim Guedes and Bocinsky argue. In some areas they also diversified the types of crops they planted.

With their new computer model, the researchers were able to examine in detail how changing climate transformed people’s ability to produce food in particular places, and that enabled them to get at the causes of cultural shift.

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Molecular analysis turns up an unexpected twist in smoking habits of ancient tribes

Tobacco plays a big role in Native American history and culture, predating Christopher Columbus’ arrival by well more than a millennium. But what did ancient tribes smoke? And can history help modern-day tribes put tobacco in its proper place?

A newly published study by Washington State University researchers traces the smoking habits of indigenous peoples in southeastern Washington state over the course of centuries, based on a molecular analysis of residue extracted from smoking pipes found at archaeological sites.

Shannon Tushingham.
Shannon Tushingham

“This is the longest continuous biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking from a single region anywhere in the world—initially during an era of pithouse development, through the late pre-contact equestrian era, and into the historic period,” the research team, led by WSU anthropologist Shannon Tushingham, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Back when Columbus got his first taste of tobacco, Native Americans viewed smoking as a ceremonial and religious ritual, marking occasions that ranged from prayers to peace treaties.

Today’s dominant strain of commercial tobacco, known by the scientific name Nicotiana tabacum, was introduced to tribes in the western United States by European settlers in the 1800s. Before contact, Western tribes ranging from Alaska to California used instead wild strains of tobacco, such as N. quadrivalvis (Indian tobacco) and N. attenuata (coyote tobacco).

Some tribes also were known to smoke an entirely different kind of plant called kinnikinnick or bearberry (which is now a popular ornamental plant for Northwest gardens).

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Vancouver junior, Cowlitz Tribe member awarded National Udall Scholarship

Emma R. Johnson.
Emma Johnson

WSU Vancouver cultural anthropology major Emma R. Johnson has received a prestigious and nationally competitive Udall Undergraduate Scholarship in its tribal public policy category.

“The Udall (Scholarship) is incredibly important to me,” said Johnson. “Completing all the work to apply and then being successful, it’s a really huge deal. It is helping me complete my education.”

Johnson is WSU’s fifth Udall recipient since 2015. The Udall Foundation, a federal agency, works both to strengthen the appreciation and stewardship of the environment, public lands and natural resources, and to strengthen Native Nations to facilitate their self-determination, governance and human capital goals.

The scholarship funds Johnson’s college tuition and fees for 2018-19, moving her closer to her career goal of serving the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, of which she is an enrolled member.

“My culture degree will come into play a lot in my future career working with both cultural and natural resources,” she said.

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