Keith Malcolm Prufer
Department of Anthropology - University of New Mexico








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.

My current project focuses on human-climate-ecological dynamics among the earliest inhabitants of the Central American tropics from 14,000-3,500 BP. We are studying links between human behavior, landscapes, and crtical junctures of change over this 10,000 year period. Empirical work is focused on rockshelters in the tropcial forests of Central America, and we are developing parallel climate and paleoecology records. Funding has come from Alphawood Foundation (2015-2018).

I am currently completing two other projects:

The first project (Uxbenká Archaeological Project [UAP], NSF BCS-0620445, 2006-2009, Alphawood Foundation 2009-2014) 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. 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, 2008-2015) is a transdisciplinary collaboration between five universities (New Mexico,Penn State University, 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.