Alamo Bowl opponents attempt a field goal for science

On the football field, the University of Oregon and the University of Oklahoma are competing in the Alamo Bowl December 29. But in the research field, anthropologists from both schools are teaming up.

University of Oregon’s Madonna Moss and University of Oklahoma’s Brian Kemp are working together to identify fish bones found at the site of a 4,000-year-old village. By doing so, they’re mapping out the species of rockfish that Tlingit people living in this coastal village in southeast Alaska thousands of years ago were catching and eating.

“People's food remains can tell us something about their lifestyle,” Kemp said.

The pair and their colleagues will be publishing their results in a forthcoming paper in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Rockfish are a surprisingly diverse group, with more than 100 species found in the north Pacific Ocean. Those species vary widely in terms of lifespan, habitat, and size. Understanding what species were caught and eaten thousands of years ago can give clues to past lifestyles, and help modern fisheries operate more sustainably.

“Native people have been sustainably fishing rockfish for 10,000 years,” Moss said. But with the rise of the commercial fishing industry, “there have been species that have been overexploited.”

In this study, Moss examined bones that she and her team collected at Coffman Cove, a coastal site in southeast Alaska that was once the site of a Tlingit village. Moss has been studying this site since 2006, and working in similar sites in Alaska since 1978.

Kemp and his colleagues analyzed DNA samples extracted from the fish bones, to identify which species of rockfish were present at the site. Studying ancient DNA can be tricky because sunlight and microbial activity break the DNA into smaller fragments over the years.

In total, the team identified eight different species of rockfish at Coffman Cove. Some of those species live further from shore and deeper in the ocean, suggesting that the Tlingit people who once occupied the site were fishing with longlines and boats.

“We don't have physical evidence of boats and longlines, because they break down,” Kemp said. But finding the bones of these species in ancient trash heaps provides further evidence for fishing techniques and tools.

Some of the species identified aren’t common catches in the area today, suggesting that fishing habits or climate change may have shifted the range of certain fish species over the years, Moss said.

The data from this study are a snapshot of one place at one time. But combined with similar work at other historical sites, they can help researchers get a fuller picture of the way humans have interacted with and used animals throughout history. That’s further motivation to preserve similar sites, many of which are under threat from rising sea levels and melting permafrost, Moss said.

“Archaeological sites are archives of environmental and ecological information that we can use to understand climate change and other crises facing our world,” Moss said. “It might seem like other issues are more pressing, but I see archaeology as providing essential data that we're at risk of losing.”

The Alamo Bowl takes place Wed. December 29 at 6:15 p.m. Pacific, televised on ESPN.

By Laurel Hamers, University Communications