Environmental Archaeology

Ancient Environments: Investigations into Archaeological Flora and Fauna

Research in the Division of Archaeology has a strong focus on Environmental Archaeology, which reconstructs paleo-environments,  ancient humans’ adaptations and their ecological footprint.  

The Division of Archaeology’s comparative biological collections consist of modern examples of animal shells and skeletons and plant seeds, nutshells, corncobs, fruit pits, wood, and other hard parts used as research aids in the identification of archaeological remains. The collections represent flora and fauna primarily native to North America, with a strong emphasis on the Great Plains.  Archaeological floral and faunal remains often constitute the largest assemblages recovered during excavation of a prehistoric site. Once identified, they can provide information on procurement strategies, food preparation, diet, feasting, health, farming and husbandry, climatic patterns and human adaption, landscape reconstruction, trade, social and political organization, and mortuary practices. Correct identifications are critical but are often challenging due to the fragmentary, distorted or charred condition of the archaeological material. The use of comparative collections is a profession-wide standard for determining accurate identifications of bio-archaeological remains (Pearsall 2015, Reitz and Wing 2008). Although the BI’s other divisions curate significant floral and faunal collections, their specimens are often inappropriate for archaeological comparisons in terms of their preservation methods or part representation. For example, Mammal collections are often skulls and skins, with few postcranial skeletons.  Fish, amphibian and reptile collections are usually in alcohol and preserve soft tissue, so skeletons are not visible. Botanical samples are mostly pressed plants with few seeds and nuts represented.


Paleoethnobotany is the study of the interrelationships of people with their plant world through the archaeological record. Research in this focus often combines principles of archaeology, botany, ecology, nutrition, and chemistry. Questions on how people interact with their environment and use the landscape, how they eat, how they relate to each other within and outside of their immediate group, and how they survive can all be addressed using paleoethnobotanical data, either as a single data set or combined with other approaches.

Paleoethnobotanical research in the Archaeology division is directed by Senior Curator Mary Adair and is focused on the identification and interpretation of plant remains recovered from archaeological sites located in the North American Central Plains. Much of my research focuses on processes of plant domestication and sequences leading to the development of agriculture in this region (Ancient Great Plains Farming). Although prehistoric Plains cultures are often depicted as bison hunters, many groups who occupied both the eastern prairies and western plains relied on agricultural crops for a portion of their diet.  Exposing this information has been challenging but also fun. Most recently, I have become interested in exploring the foodways of Middle Woodland populations, including both the Kansas City Hopewell and groups who occupied geographic regions in the Delaware, Blue and Republican Valleys of central Kansas and Nebraska (Plains Woodland). This research includes obtaining newer and better radiocarbon dates, especially direct dates on identified cultigens, and using phytolith and starch grain research to document the presence of domesticated plants in regions where larger macro remains have not been recovered or preserved.

Plant identifications are supported by a comparative collection of over 250 species of seeds, nuts, wood and fibers. A key asset of the collection is that it contains both dried and charred versions of plant materials, thus allowing a researcher to compare modern and archaeological specimens in similar states of preservation for more accurate identification.


Zooarchaeology is the subdiscipline that examines the relationships between ancient humans and the animals in their surroundings. This includes studies on paleoenvironmental reconstruction, ancient hunting and collecting of wild species, and breeding and rearing of domestic animals. Various techniques are utilized, but most research is based on studies of invertebrate and vertebrate remains uncovered through excavations of archaeological sites. Modern comparative collectionsare essential to assure reliable identification of archaeological faunal material.  In the Division of Archaeology, Dr. Sandra Olsen conducts her own research projects and helps advise students in their Zooarchaeology projects, including MA theses and PhD dissertations. Given the vast archaeological collections from the American Plains in the Division’s holdings, there are many opportunities for student research projects relating to Zooarchaeology.

Olsen’s current investigations relating to the environment and human-animal interactions follow two primary lines of research. The first focuses on the horse-human relationship through time.  An important part of this research is concerned with how hunter-gatherers on the Eurasian steppe adopted horse pastoralism and how that altered their use of wild fauna, led to a more sedentary life in the case of the Botai culture of Kazakhstan, and increased their populations. Studies of the horse-dominated faunal remains from the Botai sites of Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka continue to elucidate the initial roles of horses in the Copper Age of north Kazakhstan, circa 3500 BCE. To read more about this research, see The Early Horse Herders of Botai

A second field of Olsen’s research examines how ancient people in the Arabian Peninsula hunted wild species and adopted domestic animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels. Of particular interest is how petroglyphs (rock art) can shed light on the range of wild species present during different climatic regimes and how they were exploited. Depictions of domestic animals also elucidate trade and migration, the timing of introduction of the different species, and which breeds were present. To read more about this research, see Arabian Rock Art Heritage Project.


  • Research is conducted in the Paleoethnobotany Lab, overseen by Curator Emerita Dr. Mary Adair, and the Zooarchaeology Lab, supervised by Research Affiliate Dr. Sandra Olsen.