Asia Alsgaard Awarded NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant

Departmental News

Posted:  Nov 11, 2020 - 10:00am

Archaeology PhD student Asia Alsgaard has just been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Award from the National Science Foundation for her project Coastal Resource Stability and Human Subsistence Adaptation. This award will support Asia’s research on Archaic coastal foragers in Soconusco, Mexico.


Asia Alsgaard and Dr. Emily Lena Jones of the University of New Mexico will examine how coastal human societies actively maintain ecosystem stability within estuarine-lagoon environments. Sustainable coastal resource exploitation is an important aspect of how human populations influence ecosystems, and is relevant on a global scale today as coastal economies are threatened by overexploitation, pollution, and other human- caused modifications. The transition to agriculture in Soconuso, Mexico occurred during a time with conditions analogousto those today, with changing climate, increasing population sizes, and substantial human migration. By understanding how past human societies created conditions of resource stability, not just instability, in estuarine-lagoon systems prior to the transition to agriculture, we can identify similar mechanisms for recreating or maintaining stability in present-day ecosystems. The magnitude of human niche construction, or the process of human modification of the environment, has never been more extreme as it is now; using the archaeological record, we can identify these niche construction processes and their long-term effects on resource availability.

Alsgaard, under the supervision of Dr. Jones, will investigate human management of coastal resources, or niche construction, as a possible explanation for the delayed adoption of intensive agriculture. The archaeological data comes from shell mound contexts in the Soconusco region of Mexico, along the Acapetahua estuary. These shell mound sites are associated with the Chantuto society, a group of coastal foragers who lived in the region during the Archaic period prior to the transition to agriculture. Using zooarchaeological fish remains, Alsgaard and Dr. Jones will test for two forms of coastal resource niche construction: increasing stability in the trophic structure of the fish population and changing the season of fish harvest. They will combine measures of fish diet and trophic level along with the season of fish harvest to understand how the Chantuto society maintained coastal ecosystem stability prior to the transition to agriculture. These data will expand our understanding of the variability in conditions leading up to the transition to agriculture, especially in coastal societies, and directly link archaeological data to that of present-day fish populations. This project will provide data of interest not only to archaeologists, but to the local inhabitants of the Soconusco coast and present-day ecologists, given its relevance to supporting present-day estuarine-lagoonenvironments within the context of changing environmental conditions and increased human fishing pressures.