ND Grad Kyle Bocinsky Researches Mystery of Ancient Puebloans

Author: Lisa Walenceus

Kyle Bocinsky

Talking Turkey With Kyle Bocinsky ’08

From A.D. 550 to 1300, the ancient Puebloans inhabited the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, the place where four states—Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah—now meet.

For more than 600 years of this time period, the Puebloans lived primarily on top of places such as Colorado’s Mesa Verde. They then began to build their now famous cliff dwellings, but barely 150 years later, they not only stopped building but also disappeared from the Four Corners region altogether.

How are archaeologists tackling the mystery of why these ancient people may have abandoned their homes so abruptly? Kyle Bocinsky ’08, for one, says he is investigating whether the ancient Puebloans’ interactions with North America’s famous native domesticate, the turkey, may have played a role.

Research Simulations

Bocinsky, who just received his M.A. in archaeology from Washington State University, is involved in the Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP), a virtual recreation of the ancient Puebloan world that simulates the complex interactions between ecological factors such as fauna, flora, landscape, climate, and human behavior.

“Turkey use, and eventual domestication, played a central role in prehistoric economies in the American Southwest,” says Bocinsky. “By A.D. 200, people in eastern Utah were constructing turkey pens and almost certainly using turkeys in ritual contexts, though turkeys do not appear to have been commonly used as a food source until about A.D. 1050. Around that time, turkey use intensifies, and turkeys become the dominant protein source at virtually all agrarian sites.”

As part of VEP, Bocinsky and his colleagues can run simulations under a range of parameter settings and then compare their results to the extensive archaeological record for the region.

“My work has been programming new parts of the simulation to allow for the hunting and domestication of turkey,” he says. “[This should help] determine the extent to which keeping and breeding turkeys for protein played a role in the tremendous population growth followed by the sudden breakdown this culture experienced.”

An Early Start

As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, Bocinsky majored in anthropology and was a student in the University’s Glynn Family Honors Program, which supports high-achieving students in their study of both the liberal arts and sciences.

“The research opportunities open to Notre Dame undergraduates are phenomenal, especially in anthropology,” Bocinsky says. “I don’t know of any place else where I would have been able to work across multiple departments, have access to state-of-the-art labs, and learn the analytical methods that are so important to the research I do now.”

While at Notre Dame, Bocinsky worked with Mark Schurr, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, on a senior thesis titled “Rodent Stable Carbon-Isotope Ratios as a Measure of Maize Production,” a project that also put him in the chemistry lab. Another research project with Meredith Chesson, associate professor, and Donna Glowacki, John Cardinal O’Hara Assistant Professor of Anthropology, took him to the physics lab for proton-induced x-ray emissions analysis of early prehistoric ceramic pigmentation from Levant, the early Bronze-Age region east of the Mediterranean.

Now pursuing his Ph.D. through the IGERT Program in Evolutionary Modeling, Bocinsky is conducting research on methods for correlating genetic matrilines of ancient turkeys with actual turkey husbandry practices evidenced in the Southwestern archaeological record. His goal: generate the data necessary to track the adoption of turkey domestication practices across the Southwest—and, just maybe, help solve the mystery of the cliff dwellers’ disappearance.