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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Program in
Human Ecology and Archaeobiology

Research Interests

Rick’s research focuses on the archaeology and historical ecology of coastal and island peoples, especially on the North American Pacific and Atlantic Coasts. He has active field projects on California’s Channel Islands and the Chesapeake Bay, which are collaborative with researchers from a variety of disciplines (anthropology, biology, ecology, etc.) and focus on ancient and modern human environmental interactions.

Island Foxes, Deer Mice, Dogs, and Humans

Island Fox on San Nicholas IslandIsland fox on San Nicolas Island,
California (photo by R. Vellanoweth)

Humans have been modifying the environment for tens of thousands of years. One of the key ways that ancient people influenced past ecosystems and organisms was through the introduction and movement of non-native species (wild and domestic) to new places. These ancient introductions of various animals and plants are particularly noticeable on islands. Our recent archaeological research on California’s Channel Islands is investigating the role of Native Americans in introducing mammals to the islands or moving them between islands. Through a combination of ancient DNA analysis (in collaboration with Jesus Maldonado at the National Zoological Park and Courtney Hofman at University of Maryland), morphometric analysis, stable isotope analysis, and direct AMS 14C dating of bones we are investigating the relationships between ancient peoples and the island fox (Urocyon littoralis), island deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). While dogs were unequivocally introduced to the Channel Islands by people over 7000 years ago, our work also supports the hypothesis that Native Americans also introduced or, at the very least, moved islands foxes and deer mice between islands. Our ongoing work seeks to understand these relationships across space and through time.

Archaeology and Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Intern Edgar AlanconNMNH intern Edgar Alarcon excavating
a LateWoodland Shell Midden on
the Chesapeake.

Chesapeake Bay is one of the world's great estuaries and an iconic part of American cultural and ecological landscapes. Formed by rising post-glacial seas, the Chesapeake is an intricate ecological web with rich marine and terrestrial life that have been a focus of human subsistence for millennia. Although many of the bay's ecosystems and fisheries have collapsed or are near collapse, interest in restoring the bay is a source of national pride for many and scores of biologists, ecologists, and restoration managers are working to curb the rapid and increasing threats to bay ecosystems and organisms, including its commercial and recreational fisheries. What is the baseline for these restoration efforts? Despite decades of ecological research, significant questions remain about how the Chesapeake's aquatic ecosystems were structured and functioned in the more distant past. Our interdisciplinary research integrates archaeology and ecology by investigating Native American interactions with Chesapeake Bay during the Holocene. Through analysis of Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica), other animal remains, artifacts, and stable isotopes from archaeological sites throughout the Chesapeake we have initiated an interdisciplinary project focused on two interrelated research questions: 1) To what extent and in what ways did natural changes in salinity, nutrient load, and other variables influence where and when Native Americans settled and harvested Chesapeake resources; and 2) How significant of an impact and influence over time did Native American harvesting patterns have on oysters and other Chesapeake resources? This project is funded by the National Geographic Society and Smithsonian Institution and is a collaboration between researchers at the NMNH, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and Johns Hopkins University.

Paleoindian Mariners on California’s Channel Islands

Tools, Channel Islands
Barbed points, crescents and worked
bone from an 11,500 to 12,200 year
old site on Santa Rosa Island
(from Erlandson et al. 2011)

The California Channel Islands have one of the longest archaeological sequences of coastal peoples in the Americas. With some 13,000 years of known human occupation the islands present the oldest definitive evidence for seafaring and intensive use of a variety of marine foods, including seals, fishes, shellfish, and waterfowl. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Rick is currently working with Jon Erlandson (University of Oregon) and other scholars excavating several Channel Island sites that are ~12,000 years old and contain some of the earliest evidence for the life ways and adaptations of some of the earliest coastal peoples in the Americas.


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