Event: Friday Seminar: "Attack of the Ruderals: Economic and Theoretical Consequences of Fire Farming in the Prehistoric American Southwest"
Speaker: Dr. Alan Sullivan, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Cincinnati
Archaeological investigations of the effects of anthropogenic fire on the livelihoods of small-scale societies, particularly those of the prehispanic northern Southwest, are embryonic in scope and disciplinary impact. When burning is mentioned in the literature, the emphasis is on its effectiveness in clearing or deforesting areas for corn farming. In this presentation, I introduce an alternative model that focuses on how woodland-dwelling agricultural populations could be supported by systematic, lowintensity, understory burning that promoted the growth of ruderals -- nutritious plants such as amaranth and chenopodium -- that colonize and thrive in anthropogenic fireniches. With paleoeconomic and settlement data from the Upper Basin (northern Arizona), I propose that considerable numbers of people can be supported by firebased ruderal agriculture in areas that are environmentally hostile to corn farming. Consequently, as archaeologists shift their agro-ecological paradigms from obligate to facultative, they will come to appreciate that ruderals, whose remains dominate archaeobotanical and pollen assemblages recovered from a variety of archaeological and sedimentary contexts in the Western Anasazi region, can no longer be considered inadvertent byproducts of corn farming (“weeds”) but were actively cultivated plants. With these understandings, I suggest that the production of ruderals in anthropogenic pyro-landscapes was a sustainable and ecologically-sound practice that both increased food-supply security and insulated economically-autonomous populations from longterm climatic variability and short-term environmental unpredictability.