Keith Malcolm Prufer
Department of Anthropology - University of New Mexico








Recent reports on the Uxbenká Archaeological Project can be found Here and Here


My areas of interest are in understanding the growth and decline of complex polities, human responses to environmental change, religious ideology in rank societies, human behavioral ecology, paleoclimatology, political economy, human uses of caves, and spatial analysis. Most of my research focuses on Mesoamerica and specifically the Maya Lowlands.

I currently have two active projects, both of which are funded by National Science Foundation.  Four UNM graduate students are involved in these projects as well as students from a number of other universities, including Texas A&M, University of Oregon, and LaTrobe University in Australia.  We have also supported undergraduate research through awards from the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the National Science Foundation. 

The first project (Uxbenká Archaeological Project [UAP], NSF BCS-0620445, 2006-2009) is exploring the ways that polities colonize vacant landscapes, the development complex political and economic institutions, and inter- and intra-regional relations.  This project focuses on Uxbenká, a Maya polity dating from 1900-1200 BP in the tropical lowlands of Mesoamerica. There I am using archaeological and epigraphic data to trace the spatial growth of the community and the development of social hierarchies. In November 2008 I was awarded an additional fund from a private foundation for three studies related to the UAP: (a) studies of foundational mountain shrine complexes at Uxbenká; (b) a pilot study of migration at Uxbenká using strontium isotopes (backgrounds plus human remains); and, (c) expanded research into landscape modifications in the past, primarily household agricultural contexts and market/distribution centers.   Prior to my starting at UNM this project was awarded two research grants from FASMI  

The second project (Development and Resilience of Complex Socioeconomic Systems: A Theoretical Model and Case Study from the Maya Lowlands, NSF-HSD 0827305,) is a transdisciplinary collaboration between five universities (New Mexico, University of Oregon, University of California at Davis, and University of South Florida) funded by the Human and Social Dynamics program, a NSF priority area that fosters breakthroughs in understanding the dynamics of human action and development, as well as knowledge about organizational, cultural, and societal adaptation and change.

The project's primary goal is to model human behavioral responses to environmental transformation, whether abrupt or gradual, by linking together processes of settlement, resource exploitation, agricultural intensification, competition, and polity stability. The project aims to develop a general theoretical model that integrates population density and distribution, environmental suitability, and political exploitation.  A secondary goal is to test this model at Uxbenká.  Empirical work that I am coordinating includes: (a) generating a precisely dated decadally to annually resolved precipitation record for southern Belize (4000-1500 yrs BP) based on the oxygen isotope values of speleothems (stalagmites) (including several already collected and U/Th dated to this interval); (b) creating “multi-proxy” lake sediment records of vegetation, fire frequency/intensity; (c) conducting archaeological survey and limited excavations surrounding the pre-Columbian Maya polity Uxbenká, focusing on the establishment of the urban/political center and spatial and temporal expansion of domestic compounds and surrounding agricultural fields and terraces into areas of varying productivity; and (d) carrying out ethnographic work with present-day Maya people, particularly the Mopan Maya community of Santa Cruz (on whose communally owned Indigenous lands Uxbenká is located) to explore the dynamic human responses to ecosystem change. The ethnographic study also includes a detailed analysis of contemporary agricultural practices and quantitative experimental work on agricultural productivity, microclimatology, soils, intensity of land use and local-scale spatial differences (e.g., soil, moisture) in the region. Our educational program is developing a environmental and cultural heritage curriculum in collaboration with local Maya indigenous leadership groups.

I am a strong believer in the role of outreach in archaeology and in particular the responsibility of archaeology to communities in the promotion of heritage initiatives. In addition to scientific merit, both of these projects have strong outreach and education components (Public Archaeology) focusing strongly on cultural heritage issues as they pertain to Maya communities.  The UAP has been developing capacity within the small and impoverished village of Santa Cruz (where Uxbenká is located) to aid in the development of infrastructure for sustainable heritage tourism programs based around the archaeological site.  To date we have assisted in the creation of a community wide (consensus based) registered NGO that represents the village in negotiations with government and development funders. The goals of the NGO are to use the educational program in local and national arenas to promote sustainable developments in areas of heritage tourism and ethno-indigenous knowledge based enterprises. We are now aiding the group in preparing training and infrastructure grants.  Our educational program is developing an environmental and cultural heritage curriculum in collaboration with local Maya indigenous leadership groups.  Both curriculum development and teaching of the courses (to children and adults) are coordinated with the local Maya NGO with consultation from my project. The program has been taught three times by graduate students working with my projects.  Under our first NSF award these efforts were unfunded (though considered part of our broader impacts).  The new HSD award contains funding for education and outreach, which are being coordinated by project co-PIs.


M.A. (1996), Ph.D. (2002) Southern Illinois University;
Dissertation:  Communities, Caves, and Ritual Specialists: A Study of Sacred Space in the Maya Mountains of Southern Belize