Dr. Gabriel Sanchez Awarded National Geographic Grant

Dr. Gabriel Sanchez portrait

Dr. Gabriel Sanchez has been awarded a National Geographic Early Career Grant in support of his collaborative and eco-archaeological research with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. Their project, “Archaeology as Conservation Science: Investigating the Historical Range of California’s Endangered Coho Salmon” employs archaeological data to inform contemporary salmon management by identifying the native range of salmon species and their presence in specific coastal streams. Dr. Sanchez joined the Department as a College of Social Science Dean’s Research Associate and specializes in Indigenous and environmental archaeology. Working through the lens of historical ecology, he studies ancient fisheries along the Pacific Coast of North America and how data from archaeological sites can inform contemporary resource management and conservation.

The National Geographic Society funds “bold, innovative, and transformative projects” through a highly competitive grant program, with a particular focus on projects aligned with conservation, research, education, technology, or storytelling. The National Geographic Early Career Grant is a one-year funding award, which offers an exceptional opportunity for early career scholars to join an international community of National Geographic Society Explorers.

Dr. Sanchez and students sifting at an archaeological site
Dr. Sanchez (front) and University of California, Berkeley graduate and undergraduate students excavate site CA-SMA-184 adjacent to Butano Creek in Pescadero, California, to recover ancient salmon remains.

Dr. Sanchez’s collaborative eco-archaeological project employs archaeological datasets and molecular archaeology methods, such as collagen peptide mass fingerprinting and ancient DNA analysis, to define which salmon species were historically present in California streams over the last ~7,000 years. This research is pertinent for the endangered Coho salmon as their historical biogeography is debated; researchers argue that Coho salmon are not native south of the San Francisco Bay, while others suggest Coho are native as far south as Santa Cruz County. The field of archaeology is uniquely situated to inform the debate of salmon biogeography given the preservation of animal remains in archaeological sites and the broad use of resources by Native Californians, which provides a wealth of baseline environmental information prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans and subsequent landscape-level transformations.

The research is especially relevant for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, who, through their established non-profit Amah Mutsun Land Trust, are stewarding their traditional terrestrial and aquatic territories. Salmon is a culturally significant species, and the research will support their efforts to mitigate the potential extinction of salmon within their territories and California broadly. As part of the project, members of the Amah Mutsun Native Stewardship Corps will participate in all aspects of the fieldwork.

The research project will define which salmon were native to coastal streams and illuminate their genetic diversity as a means of helping tribal and state resource managers prioritize salmon restoration, stream protection and restoration, water allocation, and also inform land-use practices. At this time, samples have been submitted for collagen peptide mass fingerprinting and ancient DNA analysis but are delayed due to laboratory closures resulting from Covid-19.

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