Human Ecology

, Volume 46, Issue 6, pp 897–908 | Cite as

Integrating Modern Vegetation and Ethnographic Data to Understand Dietary Choices in the Past: the Case of the Southern Paiute, Utah

  • Lisbeth A. LouderbackEmail author
  • Bruce M. Pavlik


Ethnographic information on dietary plants can be cast into an ecological framework by using vegetation sampling techniques. Lists of ethnobotanical species become the basis of a dietary inventory that applies to a regional assemblage of vegetation types in a landscape associated with an archaeological site. But such lists are usually derived from many sources often without biogeographic or temporal reference. In effect, the dietary inventory represents potential food plants that may ultimately be found in archaeological deposits. The dietary palette, however, is composed of plant species that actually occur within the greater landscape of an archaeological site and that may or may not be known from the ethnographic record. Vegetation sampling provides a quantitative assessment of the dietary palette in the local ecosystem by using standard metrics, such as plant cover, basal area, density, and even productivity. By comparing vegetation data to the dietary inventory and archaeobotanical record, general patterns of foraging behavior as predicted by behavioral ecology are verified. This study of the Southern Paiute in south-central Utah also compares the plant species composition of modern and ancient landscapes, emphasizing a lack of correspondence between the dietary inventory and the dietary palette, as well as with the archaeobotanical record. Our example is from North Creek Shelter, a well-stratified archaeological site on the Colorado Plateau.


Dietary plant inventories Dietary palette Natural vegetation Foraging behavior Site catchment analysis Ethnobotany Southern Paiute North Creek Shelter Colorado Plateau Utah 



We thank Donald Grayson, David Rhode, Joel Janetski and the University of Utah Archaeology Center Lab group for their insightful comments and edits to earlier versions of this manuscript. We also thank Tom Jones for his assistance in the field in July 2011. And finally we are grateful to Joette-Marie Rex and her family for giving us access to her property (North Creek Shelter) to conduct vegetation sampling, and to Terry Tolbert of the USDI Bureau of Land Management, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, for assistance rendered.


This research was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (#1262835) awarded to LAL in 2012.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Natural History Museum Utah, Department of AnthropologyUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA
  2. 2.Red Butte Garden and Arboretum, Department of ConservationUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA

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