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UW Scientist Explores Archaeological Record by Studying Mongolian Reindeer Herder Camps

April 14, 2017
composite time-lapse photo of Mongolian people in a camp
This composite time-lapse photo shows every spot Mongolian people occupied in a reindeer herder camp Sept. 15, 2014. Todd Surovell, a UW professor of anthropology and director of the George C. Frison Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, heads the Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project. The project’s primary goal is the development of spatial theory of human behavior for application to archaeological problems. (Todd Surovell Photo)

For years, Todd Surovell has studied an ancient Paleoindian site in Colorado and wondered why he would find concentrations of tools in one spot or a particular type of tool in another. He had to go to Mongolia to find the answers.

Surovell, a University of Wyoming professor of anthropology and director of the George C. Frison Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, is an expert in Paleoindian archaeology. He heads the Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project, which has a primary goal of developing spatial theory of human behavior for application to archaeological problems.

In essence, he is interested in understanding how people decide where to do the things they do.

“I’m interested in how people use space from an archaeological perspective,” Surovell says. “We might, for example, identify prehistoric households and examine how people used space, both inside and outside. We also might ask how the spaces in different households were used, whether similarly or differently.”

For a number of years, Surovell and his colleague, Nicole Waguespack, a UW associate professor of anthropology, studied the Barger Gulch archaeological site that dates back 12,500 years and is located in Middle Park, Colo. There, they recovered more than 75,000 chipped stone tools and artifacts. Sometimes, a large number of various tools would be found in one spot. Other times, similar tools would be found in another.

From studying spatial patterns in the Middle Park site, Surovell surmised that Folsom people, nomadic hunter-gatherers, lived in round-shaped structures with fires in their centers. Artifacts preferentially accumulated to one side of the house (east or west), and often toward the back, or south side, of the home.

“Archaeologically, all you see are spatial patterns in chipped stone artifacts. There is no house or physical architectural remains,” he says.

In order to understand archaeological spatial patterns and how they translate into past human behavior, Surovell, as a scientist and a researcher, wanted to see how nomadic people use space in real life.

“To interpret human behavior from the past was not easy,” Surovell concedes. “I wanted to see nomadic people in the real world, and how they use space in the real world.”

So, Surovell traveled to the Khovsgol Province of Mongolia to study the Dukha (pronounced Do-ha), nomadic reindeer herders of Tuvan descent. Like the Paleoindians of the past, the Dukha of today live in rounded homes, called an ortz, with iron stoves located in the middle. The structures somewhat resemble teepees.

He has traveled to the northeast Asian country five times, and in all seasons, as part of the Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project, which began in 2012. Ethnoarchaeology is the study of living peoples for the purpose of developing tools for improving interpretation of the archaeological record. This project differs from traditional spatial ethnoarchaeology, in that Surovell shifted the focus from the mapping of material remains to the direct mapping of human behavior. To do so, he has used a combination of observational mapping and time-lapse photography coupled with photogrammetry, or mapping from photographic imagery.

For example, one composite time-lapse photo that was taken shows all camp occupants -- in all of the spaces they occupied in exterior camp space -- over the course of a 12-hour day. Photos were taken roughly every three minutes from a camera perched atop a fiberglass mast. Cameras relied on battery and solar power. In all, about 300 photos were shot and then combined into the composite photo that accompanies this story.

“That is unique to the project. The big innovation in our project is this idea of mapping people as they go about their lives,” Surovell says. “Technically, it wasn’t possible to do this with high precision until recently. Imagine being in a place with no electricity, and you want to map how they (Mongolians) go about their lives. So, we turned to time-lapse photography.”

man riding a reindeer across a stream
Todd Surovell rides a reindeer and uses the animal to haul firewood during his time in the Khovsgol Province of Mongolia to study the Dukha, nomadic reindeer herders. (Todd Surovell Photo)

The goal was to precisely map people in camp sites over frequent intervals. The information can be used to develop spatial datasets which, in turn, allow Surovell and his research team to understand how people make space-use decisions. Spatial datasets included information on a person, his or her sex, age, activity, equipment, household membership and weather.

Initial results suggest that human spatial behavior on small scales is highly patterned, predictable and explainable.

During his five separate treks to Mongolia, Surovell has lived in seven different camps. The days are long, filled with lots of hard work just for basic survival.

“It’s physically challenging. It’s cold in winter -- 40 below regularly every night,” he recalls. “In summer, it freezes almost every night. It’s rustic. You sleep on the ground. You can’t take a shower for months on end. I bring freeze-dried food. You have to ride in on a horse or a reindeer.”

During the spring, Surovell often rode a reindeer -- the Dukhas’ mode of transportation -- to help haul firewood to summer camps with the family with whom he stayed and studied. He says he paid attention to being careful, knowing medical help was often three or four days away. Still, his body was beaten up, and he typically lost 8-10 pounds during each trip.

Still, he enjoyed the simplicity of living in the moment and being away from technology.

“It’s wonderful, physically challenging, and they don’t speak English. I had to learn Mongolian,” Surovell says.

Surovell says spatial patterns of tools used at the Colorado Middle Park site could be used at Wyoming’s archaeological sites, including the Mammoth Kill site near Douglas, the Hanson site in the northern Big Horn Basin and at Hell Gap.

“I don’t know if there are obvious, practical benefits of this work. The major benefits are largely academic,” he says. “Architects who design workspaces would probably be very interested in those kinds of data of how people use space.”

Funding and sponsorship of the Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Scholars Program and the George C. Frison Institute. Surovell says he has a few publication papers in the works and, ultimately, he says his group -- which includes Randy Haas, a UW postdoctoral researcher, and Matthew O’Brien, an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University-Chico -- plans to write a book about the research experience.

“A lot of these things, they do became obvious when you see it in the real world,” Surovell says. “We have found, for example, that the distribution of light is an important factor governing the performance of many activities in interior spaces. I don’t go to a dark closet to read a book. We knew people tended to gather around a stove.

“I suspect how Mongolians use their spaces is fairly similar to how we use our homes, too,” he says. “I hope this research will give us insight into spatial patterns worldwide and not just in Colorado.”


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