Colorado State University Researchers Awarded Space Archaeology Grant from NASA

Colorado State University geographers and anthropologists will use satellite imagery to examine ancient societies in Mexico as part of a Space Archaeology grant from NASA.

Satellite imagery from NASA will help CSU Geographer Stephen J. Leisz and colleague Christopher T. Fisher examine the long-term consequences of climate change on ancient societies in Mexico and model long-term human and environment interaction in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin in Michoacán, Mexico.

The high resolution ALOS PRISM satellite data provided to the team through the NASA grant will be integrated with ongoing archaeological and paleoenvironmental investigations to examine relationships between climatic fluctuation, landscape development, land degradation and the formation of complex societies in the west central highlands of Mexico, as part of the Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project.

The project uses remote sensing data to better model the ancient landscape in ways not possible with data otherwise available. It is expected that the development of high-resolution, large-area, elevation models from the satellite data will represent an important archaeological tool for the research team.

“This research will allow us to create and test high spatial resolution models of linked human and environmental development and collapse over long periods of time that will in turn help current and future conservation efforts throughout Latin America,” said Leisz.

By integrating ALOS PRISM satellite data into their research, Leisz and Fisher are offering a new and innovative technique, with potential for use by other scientists.

“The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin is an important example of coupled human and environmental change,” said Fisher, director of the Legacies project. “A key aspect of the Legacies project is to create explanatory models to help explain changes in ancient lake level, distribution of agricultural lands and the location of ancient settlements. We want to see how people in the past responded to climate change as examples that can help modern policy.”

Fisher and Leisz will specifically look at the impact of the Medieval climatic anomaly (A.D. 950-1250) and the subsequent ‘Little Ice Age’ on Central Mexico.

“For the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, the Medieval Climatic Anomaly likely lowered lake levels and increased the agrarian potential of the region, while the opposite may have occurred during the Little Ice Age,” said Fisher. “This is the opposite impact expected by many researchers.”

“Through the NASA-supported research we hope to better understand how ancient peoples modified their landscape to mitigate the impact of climatic fluctuation,” Leisz said. “As societies become larger, they have access to increasing amounts of labor that they often invest in the landscape to mitigate environmental change.”

One important outcome of the project will be a better understanding of the timing, form, and function of intensive agricultural features such as terraces that are found throughout the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.

“Ultimately we hope to focus on environmental change as a long-term process rather then a trigger for social complexity,” said Fisher.

Fisher and Leisz begin field work on the two-year, $155,591 grant in summer 2010. The researchers will use TrimbleRecon rugged handheld computers as well as the GeoXH and GeoXT GPS receivers, to accurately map every cultural feature they encounter as well as collect ground reference data that will be used in conjunction with the satellite imagery to create high-resolution elevation models of the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.

Fisher and his team recently discovered the ruins of an ancient urban center in the heart of the Purépecha Empire in Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, located in the central Mexican state of Michoacán.

About Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project
This multidisciplinary research project includes archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico. They explore prehistoric sites to better understand the development of prehistoric societies and relationships between humans and climate change.

Fisher is a fellow with CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

For more information about the project, visit