MSU Anthropology professor and undergraduate participate in Smithsonian global oyster study

Small “pit feature” or accumulation of oyster, other shellfish, animal bone and artifacts in Rhode Island dated to 100-500 years ago. Sites like this show the full range of sites used in the study, with this representing the smaller end of accumulation of oysters. Photo courtesy of Kevin McBride.

Dr. Sanchez, MSU Department of Anthropology assistant professor, and his colleague Dr. Michael Grone, California Department of Parks and Recreation, contributed to the global study of Indigenous oyster fisheries, which synthesized over a century of archaeological findings from the San Francisco Bay Area. The synthesis of these data was supported by MSU Anthropology major Emily Westfall. 

“I participated in the research to contribute to reimagining Indigenous-environmental relationships, specifically Indigenous fisheries, within archaeological, biological, and ecological literature,” Dr. Sanchez said. “So often, Indigenous relationships with culturally important species, such as oysters, are often minimized. I believe it is critical to center long-term Indigenous relationships with species, ecosystems, and landscapes within the academy and beyond.”

Their research was a part of a global study co-led by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History anthropologist Torben Rick and Temple University anthropologist Leslie Reeder-Myers. The study, published May 3 in Nature Communications, shows that oyster fisheries were hugely productive and sustainably managed on a massive scale over hundreds and even thousands of years of intensive harvest.

Drs. Sanchez and Grone summarized the findings from over 30 San Francisco Bay Area archaeological sites. The study includes the earliest known archaeological site within the San Francisco Bay Area that provides evidence of human-oyster relationships that span the last 6,000 years, known as the West Berkeley (CA-ALA-307) site. Sanchez and Grone recently reanalyzed the West Berkeley site with several colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley, including Professor Kent Lightfoot, with the support of the National Science Foundation.       

Westfall joined the project at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year and conducted literature searches of all of the archaeological sites of interest to find historical data regarding the presence of oyster use by humans to support current data.

“The research was important to me because even though I could not practice the hands-on methods due to the pandemic, it allowed me to gain insight into the other side of archaeology: the side involving writing articles and the background research,” Westfall said. “It was an invaluable experience as an anthropology major to be able to experience the whole process of archaeology research during my three semesters working with Dr. Sanchez.”