zooarchaeologist brunson joins coe faculty

The COE shares faculty from across departments and programs at Wesleyan,  including government, history, art, dance, computer science, English, philosophy, environmental science, biology, African American studies, physics, classical studies, chemistry, Science in Society, theater, religion, economics, archaeology, and more.  Katherine Brunson is a zooarchaeologist and assistant professor of archaeology at Wesleyan who studies the origins of China’s domesticated animals and the environmental impacts of animal domestication in China. She is currently investigating the genetic relationships between domestic cattle and the extinct East Asian wild aurochs. She also codirects the online Oracle Bones in East Asia project on Open Context.

You’re an assistant professor of archaeology here at Wesleyan. How did you get interested in that field of study?
I was an “undecided major” when I first went to college, not sure whether I wanted to study some form of science or perhaps pursue something in the arts. I took an archaeology class my first semester and was hooked. It seemed like archaeology had everything I was looking for. It was a perfect mix of anthropology, history, biology, chemistry, and museum studies. I’m excited to be able to teach similar courses at Wesleyan that introduce undergraduates to the field of archaeology.

Do you have an area of focus within archaeology?
I am a zooarchaeologist, which means I analyze animal bones excavated from archaeological sites. My research focuses on the social and environmental aspects of animal domestication in ancient China. In particular, I am interested in how cattle, sheep, and goats were introduced to China about 4,000 years ago and how the expansion of pastoralism impacted native species. I also study ancient DNA extracted from animal bones. Right now, I am working on a project investigating the genetic relationships between domestic cattle and the extinct East Asian wild aurochs.

How does environmental studies intersect with archaeology, in your experience?
Some people may be surprised to learn that archaeology overlaps significantly with environmental studies. The archaeological record shows that humans have always modified the environments in which we live. Archaeologists use fieldwork and laboratory methods that draw from environmental science, geology, biology, and chemistry, and many archaeologists also incorporate ecological perspectives into our research questions and explanatory frameworks. 

In my own research, I am interested in how zooarchaeological data can be used to trace the changing distributions of animals in East Asia through time. Modern conservation biology is often limited to studying changes in species distributions that have occurred over the last few decades or over the last few hundred years when there are historical records. Zooarchaeology lets us look at how human activities have impacted animal and global biodiversity over the last few thousand years. This long-term perspective on the ways that humans have shaped animal habitats is a unique feature of a combined archaeological and environmental studies approach.

Tell us about your first dig and your most interesting dig!
Right after I graduated from college, I joined an archaeological project in Copan, Honduras. Copan is an ancient Maya capital city, perhaps best known for its giant staircase containing the longest carved hieroglyphic textual inscription in Mesoamerica. For our project, we were excavating a residential site a few kilometers east of the main city center. Our job was to document and reconstruct the buildings, many of which had close architectural and iconographic links to the pyramid temples at the city center. Copan was a beautiful place to work. I especially loved watching the macaws flying around the pyramids in the main ruins.

It is hard to choose a most interesting dig, but some of my most memorable fieldwork has taken place in northwest China. I am the project zooarchaeologist for the Tao River Archaeology Project where we are exploring sites dating between about 5,000-3,000 years ago in Gansu Province. Our project seeks to understand how new plant and animal domesticates and new technologies such as metallurgy were adopted by people living in the upper Yellow River valley region. It’s dusty work, but also a lot of fun. I find it fascinating to excavate ancient trash pits filled with animal bones and other artifacts that represent the daily lives of people that lived thousands of years ago.

What is the most exciting artifact you ever found?
While excavating a collapsed Maya building at Copan, we turned over what we thought was a regular rock, but it turned out to be a beautiful carved stone bust. The carving of a person’s head and shoulders was part of a larger sculpted mosaic façade that decorated the building. That was a very exciting day!

You’re teaching two courses this semester: Why are they important and what you hope students will learn from them?
This semester I am teaching ARCP204/Introduction to Archaeology and ARCP291/East Asian Archaeology. Intro to Archaeology covers key archaeological methods and provides an overview of world prehistory starting with the emergence of our earliest hominin ancestors. East Asian Archaeology introduces students to amazing archaeological discoveries from ancient China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia while also considering the political roles of archaeology and cultural heritage management. Both classes are very hands-on and provide students with opportunities to observe archaeological artifacts in Wesleyan’s collections. I hope that students will come away with a better understanding of the methods that archaeologists use to study past human societies and the ethical considerations for archaeological research.

You lead the Environmental Archaeology Lab here at Wesleyan. Can you tell about any current projects you’re working on and whether there are any opportunities for students to get involved in your research?
There are several projects taking place right now in the lab, all of which involve Wesleyan students. Students are currently creating 3D models of Wesleyan’s collections, including archaeological artifacts, animal bones, fossils, and more. You can see some highlights here on our lab website. Students are also developing archaeological education and outreach resources such as this virtual exhibit on human evolution. Other students are helping with my ancient DNA research and oracle bone database project. When it is possible to return to the field post-COVID, I hope that students will be able to join my summer fieldwork projects in China. I would encourage interested students to take archaeology classes so that they can begin to learn key archaeological methods and principles of archaeological stewardship. Come talk with me anytime about developing a research project or joining our ongoing collections work here on campus!

Why did you decide to join the COE faculty?
Archaeology provides important data for addressing questions about human-environmental interactions in deep time. It is also a very interdisciplinary field that bridges the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. COE students and faculty are passionate about cross-disciplinary research and are looking for unconventional perspectives and solutions to the environmental challenges we face today. I think there are many potential benefits to studying how past societies practiced sustainable agriculture, engaged in landscape management, and responded to environmental uncertainties.