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American Southwest Archaeology and Lidar

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University of Missouri researchers use drones and other technology to better understand the migration and social interaction patterns of the Ancestral Pueblo people from Mesa Verde into other areas of the American Southwest.

From Eureka Alert.

Jeff Ferguson, Rob Walker and Francisco “Paco” Gomez at the University of Missouri are part of an interdisciplinary research team using drones equipped with light detection and ranging, or lidar, to study ancient Native American villages called pueblos in the Lion Mountain area of western New Mexico. The team’s goal is to better understand the connection between migration and social interaction patterns and pueblo occupations.

“Among the archaeological sites discovered in the area is a massive pueblo likely built and occupied by immigrants from the large-scale abandonment of the Four Corners region, including Mesa Verde, in the late 13th century,” said Ferguson, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. “Our research is focused on documenting the regional settlement pattern and understanding how the migrants coming from the north interacted with existing local populations. Using this technology, we aim to efficiently identify any sites not previously documented.”

Lidar is a technique that uses laser pulses to “map” the ground surface. While drone-based lidar can provide more detailed images of the ground surface than plane-based lidar, the team is exploring whether drones can be used efficiently to conduct the large-scale land surveys needed to search for these sites — efforts that can sometimes encompass hundreds of square miles. After the sites are identified by air, they must be verified by researchers doing field work on the ground through a process known as “ground-truthing.”

“It’s not always obvious that these features are architectural in nature,” Ferguson said. “It could be difficult to distinguish between a natural rock outcrop or a cultural feature, so we must look at factors like alignment, positioning, size, type of rock and whether other cultural artifacts are present.”

Sensitive to the cultural significance of these sites, the researchers are partnering with a cultural resource advisory team from the Pueblo of Zuni, one of several Native American groups who claim these ancestral sites as part of their cultural heritage. Ferguson described one such meeting last year after researchers discovered a small set of vertical stones placed in a box shape in the ground. The Zuni Cultural Resource Advisory Team (ZCRAT) determined it was a shrine and identified numerous others at additional sites. Researchers are planning additional fieldwork in partnership with ZCRAT in fall 2023.

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For more information about the archeology of the American Southwest CLICK HERE.

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