A Missouri anthropologist is using today’s technology to study ancient cultures of the past.

Jeff Ferguson is an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri. He is using lidar to study ancient Native American villages called pueblos in New Mexico to understand their migration and social interaction patterns.

“It’s shooting laser pulses that then are able to map the ground’s surface,” said Ferguson. “The real advantage to lidar is that we can sometimes see through the vegetation. So, in places where you can get a clean ground surface through even vegetative covers. So, in places like the jungle, it’s really advantageous that you really had no idea there’s a pyramid there. All of a sudden you can strip away the vegetation and see the archaeological features.”

Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsated laser to measure ranges.

“So what we’re doing is actually putting a lidar unit on a drone and flying that at a lower altitude and getting much higher resolutions,” said Ferguson. “So instead of just one point per meter or per square meter, we’re getting hundreds or even thousands of points per square meter and we’re able to create very detailed surface maps.”

His group is collaborating with the Pueblo of Zuni, a Native American group who claims the ancestral sites Ferguson’s team is studying as part of their cultural heritage.

“One of the things that we do is we take them and show them what we found. We show them the sites,” he stated. “They are very interested in the information we are providing. But we want this to be a long-term collaboration that’s an exchange of information. They’ve been pointing out features on sites that we didn’t understand, which has been really helpful to us and then also trying to come up with research questions that are of interest to them.”

Ferguson said there is very little archaeological data on the parts of New Mexico that he is studying. He hopes to use this lidar to understand the culture and document the regional settlement pattern. He hopes to use this technology to identify sites not previously documented.

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