PULLMAN – Two graduate students made WSU history on April 5 when they became the first recipients of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships in the anthropology department.
Stefani Crabtree and Kyle Bocinsky were selected for the fellowships based on their outstanding abilities and accomplishments, as well as their “potential to contribute to strengthening the vitality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.”
Only 1,654 NSF graduate fellowships are awarded annually, depending on availability of funds, and there are just 21 archeology recipients nationwide. Upon the formal acceptance of the award on May 1, Crabtree and Bocinsky will receive research funding for a maximum of three years.
“It speaks highly of our program and of our students when we are able to land NSF fellowships of this caliber,” said anthropology chair Bill Andrefsky.
Working with the NSF funded Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP), Crabtree and Bocinsky use agent-based modeling to better understand the archaeological record.
Modeling in the VEP involves computer simulation to recreate an area in the southwestern region of the United States. They input various important factors, such as farming soil, access to water, and access to animals for hunting, into the model in an attempt to recreate the human and climatic conditions of the time.
Simulated “residents” (agents) situate themselves on the landscape in relation to these critical resources, and VEP researchers compare the resulting conditions to the actual archaeological record. In this way, Crabtree, Bocinsky and other researchers are able to draw conclusions about what may have actually occurred in the past.
Researchers from the VEP hope agent-based models like these will provide answers to the mysteries surrounding climate change and sudden emigration from the region.
Crabtree plans to use the platform of the VEP to analyze how alliance formation among ancient societies helped them deal with marginal environments and what triggers made those alliances collapse and result in warfare. She anticipates that these alliances will help her to better understand the vast and complete depopulation of the central Mesa Verde region.
Her passion for archaeology began during a semester studying abroad in Paris when she enrolled in an Egyptology and archaeology of Islam course.
“My professor met with me once a week to discuss Egyptology in personal tutorials. Her passion really fueled my desire to do archaeology,” Crabtree said. She returned to France the following summer to take part in the excavation of a Gallo-Roman settlement, which became the subject of her senior thesis.
“Being the first person who saw a discarded artifact, a buried sacrificial animal on the floor of a house more than 2,000 years old, was amazing,” she said. That experience, as well as others that she had at Scripps College, her undergraduate institution, led to her change in major from politics and theater to archeology and to her current success at WSU.
“The NSF grant will provide me with the means to pursue research both at WSU and internationally. I am thrilled that this grant will not only help to boost my career, but also will help the WSU anthropology department. Being a nationally recognized scientist is pretty amazing,” said Crabtree.
Second-year master’s student Bocinsky also works with the NSF funded VEP. Through his research he hopes to broaden archaeologists’ understanding of how turkey domestication spread across the southwest region of the United States.
Bocinsky has designed a module for the village simulation allowing people to hunt and domesticate wild turkeys, which show up abundantly in the archeological record and may have been a critical resource for people in the past.
He seeks to use innovative research methods to extract ancient DNA from turkey eggshells found at the site, which he believes will reveal the diet and the breeding habits of these ancient birds.
An interest in complex systems began for Bocinsky when he studied chaos theory in high school and anthropology at Notre Dame.
“The NSF graduate research fellowship gives me the freedom to design a truly influential dissertation project. In particular, it will allow me to get the additional training and coursework needed to do such research. I look forward to potential residencies at institutions such as the Santa Fe Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre,” he said.
Crabtree and Bocinsky have been working together since last fall and both anticipate their research being influenced by one another.
“I’ve really enjoyed having Stefani as a colleague, and I look forward to working alongside her as our careers develop. We are both indebted to Professor Tim Kohler for his tireless support,” Bocinsky said.
Kohler, Regents professor of anthropology, is excited that his students are being recognized.
“It is a privilege for me to work with such talented and motivated students,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with them both on their research over the next few years.”
Kohler received his master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Florida in 1975 and 1978. Since arriving at WSU in 1978, he has increasingly specialized in Southwest archaeology, directing excavations in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico and the interdisciplinary NSF funded VEP to understand the causes for changes in settlement systems in the eastern Southwest between A.D. 600 and 1500.
He is a research associate at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, Colo., and an external professor at Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico.