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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

April 29, 2005

Hittin' the road this summer

by Samantha Beres

On the trail of prehistoric buffalo hunters

About 9,000 years ago, Native Americans on the Great Plains hunted the now-extinct long-horned bison. Archaeological evidence reveals these people were highly skilled big-game hunters who were intimately familiar with bison behavior.

Anthropology professor Matt Hill knows this because each summer, he excavates Paleoindian (literally, "old" Indian) camp and kill sites to learn more about their diet and subsistence behavior.

He spent the last four summers at the Clary Ranch site in western Nebraska unearthing what he calls a processing site akin to a modern-day meatpacking plant. On the site, the carcasses of 45 animals were intensively processed for bone marrow -- a conclusion drawn from an unparalleled record of bones broken by Paleoindians.

Hill said sites like this one are few and far between.

"This is some of the earliest secure evidence we have for people establishing food storage," he said. It seems that these people were gearing up to make it through the upcoming winter, a time of reduced mobility due to deep snow or unavailability of bison."

This summer, Hill will take his brushes, trowels and tweezers to a new Paleoindian site that was discovered on the Clary Ranch last summer.

New dig site

The O.V. Clary site, named in honor of the late landowner, is about a hundred years older than the Clary Ranch site, and "appears to record a different dimension of the life-ways of these people," Hill said.

Hill, a dozen of his students and a few colleagues will camp out for about a month from May to June. He said the mosquitoes won't be bad yet, and it's cool enough to make the snakes slow, but the ticks will be out in full force! The researchers will work 10 days on, followed by four days off.

One goal is to determine the density of materials such as stone tools, hide scrapers and spear points. The team aims to determine the kinds of activities that were conducted at the site, whether they be camping, game kills or everyday living.

"We're hopeful that it's a residential site because it will provide a view of the system that we really haven't seen before," Hill said. "We'd also like to know more about the geological setting. Was the site on a flood plain of an old stream or in the channel?"

And to put these human behaviors into an ecological context, he's enlisted specialists in geology, geochemistry, and invertebrate paleontology, to reconstruct the local environment at the time of Paleoindian occupation.

In a general sense, the two sites will help Hill put together a timeline.

"We're probably looking at members of a single hunter/gatherer population, but separated by multiple generations," he said. "I'm interested in learning more about the reasons why their diet and subsistence behavior changed through time."

Public art that cleans rivers

Environmental sculptor Ashley Kyber will spend her hot afternoons walking along the Skunk River to find sites for her sculptures.

The assistant professor of landscape architecture will build large sea-shell basins made of ceramic or cement and they will tuck into the banks of the Skunk to act as filtering systems. Native plants will grow in and around the sculptures. Water that flows through will get oxygenated before moving downstream.

She'll collaborate with scientist Cynthia Cambardella, National Soil Tilth Lab (USDA/ARS), who will help make decisions about where to locate the forms.

"I think it's important to strategically locate the structures, taking into account the plants that exist there already and the soil in which they are growing," Cambardella said. "From my perspective, I want to see whether or not these sculptures have any measurable effect on water quality along the corridor."

The Skunk feeds into the Mississippi, and the larger goal, Kyber said, is to undo the deterioration of the estuaries along the Mississippi Delta due to high nutrient content.

"Any type of filtration process is effective in changing this condition," Kyber said. "What I'm looking at is how we can build things into the structure of public landscapes that also are restorative for the environment."

Though this summer is the time to start the project, Kyber has been walking along the Skunk year round, even in snowshoes and in the rain, to scope out good sites. Banks with erosion problems or areas adjacent to properties that may create chemical runoff, such as golf courses, also may be sites for the sculptures.

Really deep sea treasures

Jiasong Fang will bring a jacket to keep warm while he does his research off the coast of Japan in June. Sure, Japan has balmy summers, but Fang, an assistant professor of geological and atmospheric sciences who studies high pressure, deep-sea bacteria, will be in a submarine that travels 6,500 meters (about 4 miles) down to the bottom of the ocean -- where it can get a bit chilly. The special submersible, called the Shinkai 6500, is the only one of its kind.

The submarine will take him to Nankai Trough, a deep sea trench.

"The unique thing about this site is that there are deep sea cold seeps, gas hydrates (gas molecules trapped in ice) and chemosynthetic communities," said Fang.

A cold seep is a spot in the ocean where the fluids vent from the sea floor with dissolved gas molecules and other chemicals. Patches of life communities that can be found around these seeps are chemosynthetic-- life forms that rely on the chemicals for energy instead of the sun and photosynthesis. These life forms are very different from their surface counterparts. For instance, the clams and tube worms don't have mouths or digestive tracts.

"Bacteria live inside the clams and tube worms and they use chemicals from the seeps to synthesize organic matter," Fang said. Basically, the bacteria provide nutrition to the clams and tube worms in a symbiotic relationship.

The submarine will use its mechanical arms to collect clams, tube worms, water and sediment.

Goat, the other red meat

Sociology professor Betty Wells and graduate student Hannah Lewis will hop in the car and go west this summer, to Sioux City. Clipboards in hand, the two will determine a potential market for goat meat in Iowa through interviews, surveys and focus groups with recent immigrants.

"We picked Sioux City because it has a nice mix of immigrants from different parts of the world," said Wells who explained that goat meat is popular among many ethnic groups around the world, such as Latinos, Africans and Asians.

Wells and Lewis will take advantage of local festivals to do much of their data gathering. In addition to consumers, they will talk to grocers and restaurant owners.

"I think there's a market," Wells said. "But is there a market for fresh, locally produced meat? And what are the ranges of prices people are willing to pay?"

Wells and Lewis' research is funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It will help farmers see an opportunity for farm diversification and suggest some ways that they can tap into this market.

"Immigrants add a richness to Iowa and a lot of new opportunities spring up from people with new world views and new diets," Wells said.

Matt Hill

Anthropologist Matt Hill will spend part of his summer in western Nebraska unearthing a recently discovered Paleo indian site. Photo by Dave Gieseke.