USD Anthropologist Awarded Grants to Study Past Human Response to Ecological Change and to Provide Human Activities Timeline

Tony Krus with a student excavating soil at a dig site near Vermillion. Tony Krus, assistant professor of anthropology (left), and a USD student screen excavated soil at a dig site near Vermillion while searching for artifacts. Krus's two recent federal research grants will take him to the southern U.S. and the North Slope of Alaska.

VERMILLION, S.D. – A University of South Dakota anthropologist’s expertise in chronological modeling using radiocarbon dating has earned him a spot as a researcher on two grants supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In the first grant, Tony Krus, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology, serves as a principal investigator, along with colleagues from the Chickasaw Nation, the University of Florida and the University of Mississippi on a collaborative project entitled “Long-Term Human Responses to Ecological Instability.” Krus and fellow researchers will examine parts of what archaeologists call the “Vacant Quarter,” a 50,000-square-mile area in the North American midcontinent that was depopulated during 15th century AD. The researchers will examine how ecological change affected the migration of people in two parts of the Vacant Quarter—central Tennessee and northern Mississippi.

“The depopulation happened when there appears to be severe, multi-decade droughts in North America,” Krus said. “We are examining how these people coped in an environment of ecological instability.”

Radiocarbon dating archaeological samples from sites in these two areas will provide a more accurate story of the people who lived there and why they left, Krus added. Additionally, through this project’s collaboration with the Chickasaw Nation, Native American students will participate in research and field work; interpretive collaboration will take place with Native American communities as well.

Krus will be involved with the radiocarbon dating of different layers of materials at a site thousands of miles away in his work on the second NSF grant—"Radiocarbon Dating of Birnirk Levels at Walakpa, North Slope, Alaska.”

With a colleague from the University of Fairbanks-Alaska, he will serve as co-principal investigator to determine the chronology of human occupation at a site in the Arctic called Walakpa.

“Walakpa is important in American archeology because it is the only archeological site in the U.S. Arctic where multiple groups of people through time occupied the exact same site,” Krus said. “This single site has many different iconic Arctic cultures represented and it's also a site that is rapidly eroding.”

Temperature changes in the Arctic have caused the coastline to begin falling into the sea, resulting in emergency excavations of materials that need to be radiocarbon dated. This data, along with that collected during the site’s first excavation in 1968-69, will give a more accurate and precise chronology of life at Walakpa from AD 500-1750.

Krus’s techniques, which he honed as a research assistant in Great Britain before coming to USD, will help investigators form a complete story about human activity for both projects.

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