Paleoindian Archaeology, Pleistocene Extinctions and Mongolian Use of Space: An Interview with Dr. Todd Surovell

The University of Alberta Association of Graduate Anthropology Students will be hosting the 24th Annual Richard Frucht Memorial Lecture Series from March 2-4, 2016. The distinguished speaker for this year’s conference is Dr. Todd Surovell of the University of Wyoming. I had a chance to interview Dr. Surovell about his research ahead of his upcoming visit to Alberta and he offered some fascinating insights into North American colonization, the extinction of North American megafauna, and his observations of household space use by Mongolian reindeer herders as a means to inform archaeological interpretations.

Dr. Todd Surovell at the Barnes Site, Hot Springs County, Wyoming (Photo: Todd Surovell)
Dr. Todd Surovell at the Barnes Site, Hot Springs County, Wyoming (Photo: Todd Surovell)

How long have you been doing archaeology? What got you interested in it?

I have been doing archaeology for about 23 years. I got interested in archaeology somewhat by accident; I always thought I would be a biologist, zoologist, or ornithologist as I was an avid bird-watcher, but I registered for a course called Introduction to Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and the teaching assistant was advertising an archaeology field school in western Wisconsin. I did the field school and fell in love with field archaeology.

What are your research interests?

I developed “Paleoindian Fever” late in my undergraduate career because of a seminar that I took at the University of Wisconsin on New World Colonization. At the time, Monte Verde was just becoming known, in fact Tom Dillehay came to our class and spoke to us, and here was this site at the other end of the world that pre-dated Clovis, apparently significantly. If you allow for the time it would take for people to get down there (southern Chile) from the Bering land bridge, if that’s where they crossed, it seemed to me that, at the time, we were overturning everything that had become standard knowledge about New World Colonization, and that there was a real opportunity to make contributions to the field. That’s what drove my interest in Paleoindian archaeology and most of the stuff I’ve done since has come from that interest.  As I got more into Paleoindian archaeology, I got interested in the standard fare of lithics, subsistence, mobility, demography, and Pleistocene extinctions and, eventually, the use of space.

My work in Mongolia (Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project) stems from work at the Barger Gulch site, a Folsom site in Middle Park, Colorado – this site was spectacular. The site was shallowly buried so we were able to open up big areas to look at space. This site really grabbed my attention. Because it was shallowly buried and we saw big clusters (of artifacts) over a large area, we really saw the opportunity to look at questions that hadn’t been explored a lot in Paleoindian archaeology, which was the organization of space and, to some extent, social organization. We ended up with 75,000 pieces of chipped stone and really easy to identify spatial patterns and I found myself wondering – what did these patterns mean? It was easy to identify patterns but hard to understand them. At this site we identified three households, mostly on the basis of spatial patterns and lithic technology. When you look at the spatial distribution of artifacts in these households, you see that artifacts in every house, in every case, were preferentially accumulating on one side of the house, either the eastern side, or the western side. We think the doorways faced north. Why would this pattern be occurring? You can search the literature for how people use space in historic or ethnographic context and you don’t find a lot of information. What I found was that people have developed models of how houses were used but they are very generalized. That further inspired me in this really simple idea of wanting to go and see people living a lifestyle similar to this and map them, map the people. I had to figure out how I could do that, how could I go into a campsite of nomadic people and actually map them, where they are, who they are and what they’re doing.

Doing fieldwork in Mongolia. (Photo: Todd Surovell)
Doing fieldwork in Mongolia (Photo: Todd Surovell)

Can you talk about Pleistocene Extinctions and the Overkill Hypothesis?

I started as a skeptic when it comes to overkill, for a lot of the same reasons most archaeologists are skeptics, which is that we had something like 35 genera of Pleistocene megafauna go extinct and yet we can only find evidence that people hunted five of those genera. As time went on, my view started changing for several reasons. The first moment in conversion was when Nicole Waguespack and I put together a global dataset of elephant (mammoth/mastodon) killsites. These are generally one to a few animals tightly associated with artifacts. We have about 15 of these in North America but they are found all over the world in places elephants have inhabited, which was, in fact, most of the world 1 million years ago. We compiled a dataset that included sites from Africa, Europe, Asia, North America and South America. Our real intent was to answer a simple question which was – in the Clovis period, do we have a lot of mammoth kills or very few? People were arguing that we only had about 12 mammoth kills (in North America) and that’s not a very big number. But, how many kills should there be if they were doing a lot of mammoth hunting? We started comparing densities in space and time of these kinds of sites around the world and we found that Clovis was absolutely off the charts. We now have 15 of these sites in the Clovis period which is more mammoth and mastodon kills than any other place and time. This suggests that hunting Pleistocene megafauna (in North America) was common.  When we started looking at the patterning  across the entire globe of these sites in space and time they perfectly mimic human colonization of the world. The oldest ones were in sub-saharan Africa, then moved northward into the Arctic and throughout the New World. What was surprising was that everywhere we looked, proboscidean (mammoths, mastodons, elephants) hunting appears once in the archaeological record for a brief period of time in these places and then never appears again. This suggests that people colonize new environments, hunt proboscideans and then proboscideans go extinct locally. We can track this pattern from 1 million years ago onwards. This pattern made me think there really is something to this overkill idea, at least when it comes to proboscideans.

My approach to Pleistocene extinctions has been how to take the overkill hypothesis or climate change hypothesis or extra-terrestrial impact hypothesis and falsify it. So far, I haven’t found a way to falsify overkill; I haven’t found anything that’s incompatible with it and I’ve tried multiple times. I think the case for it is pretty good.

Excavations at the La Prele Mammoth site, Converse County, Wyoming (Photo: Todd Surovell)
Excavations at the La Prele Mammoth site, Converse County, Wyoming (Photo: Todd Surovell)

Can you comment on Alberta in the Paleoindian Period and the Ice-Free Corridor?

Well, if that was the, or a, major migration corridor into the New World then please find a lot more (old) sites! That would make me very happy. This Wally’s Beach stuff is fascinating. You have pretty clear evidence of hunting of horse, and this is the best evidence we have for hunting of horse anywhere in the New World, in my opinion, and it’s really important that we have clear evidence of people hunting them. If (Alberta) is the gateway to the rest of North and South America then it’s a really critical area where we can find evidence of people moving south of the ice sheets.

Dr. Surovell will be giving a public lecture on Wednesday, March 2nd at 7:00 pm at TEL 150 Telus Centre, University of Alberta. This is a free event and all are welcome. His talk is titled “What Happened to the Mammoths? Exploring the Cause of North America’s Most Recent Mass Extinction.” This year also marks the 50th Anniversary of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. For more information about the talk and the Frucht conference, visit the webpage.

Written By: Courtney Lakevold, Archaeological Information Coordinator, with special thanks to Dr. Todd Surovell for his participation.

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