Paula Turkon

Paula Turkon

Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies and Science
Faculty, Department of Anthropology
Faculty, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences
Faculty, Latin American Studies

Specialty:Mesoamerican and U.S. Southwest archaeology and paleoethnobotany
Phone:(607) 274-3280
Office:118 Rothschild Place
Ithaca, NY 14850

I am an archaeologist with research interests in botanical studies, diet, and human environmental impact.  I received my M.A. from the University at Buffalo and my PhD. from Arizona State University. 

Courses I teach:

·         Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

·         World Archaeology

·         Human Environmental Impact

·         Mesoamerican Archaeology

·         Southwest Archaeology

·         Archaeology of Food

·         Principles and Practices of Sustainability


My Research:

While they may initially seem unrelated, my research interests are all focused on the interaction between people and their environments through the lens of food –related activities. Although I have participated and directed excavations in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and throughout the Northeast, the majority of my research has been at sites located beyond the modern geographic limit of reliably arable land in the northernmost region of prehispanic Mesoamerica. My research addresses the influence of environmental change in the expansion and contraction of this cultural frontier. Because foods are a direct reflection of both availability and cultural choice, analyzing food remains can provide important clues about interrelationship between prehispanic populations and their environments. 

Since 1990 I have been part of a team of archaeologists excavating a large site called La Quemada and some smaller surrounding sites in the Malpaso Valley of Zacatecas, Mexico. My research uses botanical remains, constructed features, and tools indicative of food preparation and consumption to define and identify social groups in a setting where elite status was present but not expressed with prestige items.  I argue that the marginal environmental conditions in this region prevented the accumulation of food surplus, which is needed to finance the production and importation of prestige items.

Much of my data comes from trash piles that archaeologists call middens. I study the remains of plants and food-preparation activities that people either intentionally or unintentionally threw away, sometimes more than 1500 years ago. Since so much time has passed, many of the plant parts have broken or decomposed. Consequently, one of the most challenging aspects of my work is to determine how such fragmented remains reflect the behavior of the people who disposed of them.

During the summer of 2009 I participated in a similar study at El Cóporo, a site that is contemporaneous with La Quemada, but located about 150 miles to the southeast in the state of Guanajuato. This is a collaborative project with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico’s historical and archaeological governing body, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) based in Paris. The similarity in environment, chronology, architecture, and artifacts at El Cóporo makes it an ideal case study with which to compare the La Quemada data and will allow better understandings of whether climate change, human environmental impact, or both were factors in the abandonment of these northern frontier sites.  

In providing examples of societies that may have been forced to adapt to unpredictable and fragile environmental conditions, the results of this research have implications beyond Northwestern Mexico. The relationship between environmental conditions and cultural stability is an issue we are struggling with today, especially in this era of rapid environmental changes. Archaeological research is well-suited to allow long-term perspectives to evaluate the degree to which people can endure environmental changes.