Paula Turkon

Paula Turkon

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

Specialty:dendrochronology, aquaponics, paleoethnobotany, food systems, Mesoamerican archaeology
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. 


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 also analyze data that come 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.

I have recently begun a new project in collaboration with researchers from the Tree-Ring Laboratory at Cornell University and students from both Cornell and Ithaca College.  Measuring the tree-rings from archaeological charcoal, tree-rings can allow us to get a better control of timing (chronology) and can help us to reconstruct past environmental conditions, both of which have been difficult to address in northwestern Mexico.  Go to this LINK for an overview of our preliminary findings. 

In providing examples of societies that may have been forced to adapt to unpredictable and fragile environmental conditions,this research has 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. 


Courses I teach or have taught:

·        Contemporary Applications of Ancient Agriculture

·        Environmental Archaeology: Human Environmental Impact in the Past and Present 

·        Research in Aquaponics

·        Principles and Practices of Sustainability

·        Introductory and Intermediate Environmental Studies Seminars

·        We Are What We've Eaten: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Food Choice in History

·        Mesoamerican Archaeology

·        Archaeology of Food

·        Introduction to Cultural Anthropology