Paula Turkon

Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies and Science
Phone: 607-274-3280
Office: Center for Natural Sciences 257, Ithaca, NY 14850
Specialty: dendrochronology, aquaponics, food systems, paleoethnobotany, Mesoamerican archaeology

I am an archaeologist with research interests in food systems and human environmental interactions from a deep time perspective.  I received my M.A. from the University at Buffalo and my PhD. from Arizona State University. 

My Research:

ARCHAEOLOGY: While they may initially seem unrelated, my research interests are all focused on the interaction between people and their environments through the lens of food –related activities. My archaeological research focuses on the influence of environmental change in the expansion and contraction of prehispanic sites located beyond the northern limit of reliably arable land  in the northernmost region of prehispanic Mesoamerica. Because food systems are a direct reflection of both availability and cultural choice, the analysis of food remains can provide important clues about interrelationship between prehispanic populations and their environments. Since 1990 I have been part of a team of archaeologists excavating at La Quemada in the Malpaso Valley of Zacatecas, Mexico. This is an interesting region to study food systems because the amount of rainfall is, at best, marginal for adequate agricultural production. So this region could provide a great case study in human responses to climate change from a long-term perspective. 

DENDROCHRONOLOGY: Despite extensive archaeological research, our understanding is impeded by two things, precise measures of time to date cultural changes, and climate reconstructions at high enough resolution to assess the variability of climate over space and time. With the goal of addressing both these obstacles, my most recent research uses dendroarchaeology, a combination of tree-ring analysis and 14C-dating. Together with students from Ithaca College, and in collaboration with researchers from the Tree-Ring Laboratory at Cornell University , we are collecting and studying prehistoric and historic wooden beams from northern Mesoamerica with the goal of developing a chronological sequence that extends back from present to the 4th century A.D.  Go to this LINK for an overview of our preliminary findings of Phase I of this project. By providing a deep time example of a society that may have been forced to adapt to unpredictable and fragile environmental conditions, this research has broad relevance to the rapid environmental changes we are struggling with today.

AQUAPONICS: While conventional food production methods produce large amounts of food, they also produce agricultural waste, deplete the soils, add chemical runoff to natural water sources, and take up large expanses of land.  In contrast, integrated agricultural systems, like aquaponics, are developed on the philosophy of mimicking nature's systems to create productive agriculture with minimum input and close to zero waste. Aquaponics uses fish waste, which is naturally convertible to a form of nitrogen, to nourish plants. Since the inception of the Ithaca College Aquaponics Research Project, more than 30 students have conducted research to evaluate the ability of aquaponics to efficiently produce healthy food in a commercially and environmentally sustainable setting and, as a bonus, has provided students and faculty with fresh herbs, fish (tilapia), and produce. Here is a link to the Ithaca College Project with details on some of the student projects. 

What, you ask, does aquaponics have to do with Mesoamerican prehistory?  Actually, aquaponics has it roots in a technology called chinampa agriculture, which was used in Mesoamerica as the source of much of the food consumed by the Aztecs. The nutrient dense organics deposited by fish and plant debris in the canals was used to fertilize the surrounding the raised fields.  These fields were so productive that they could often harvest three crops on the same plot each year!  The connection between these two technologies is an example of the topics we address in my class "Contemporary Applications of Ancient Agriculture". 


  • ·        Contemporary Applications of Ancient Agriculture
  • ·        Environmental Archaeology: Human Environmental Impact in the Past and Present
  •          ICSM: Freshman Seminar: Food: Feast, Famine, Taboo 
  • ·        Research in Aquaponics
  • .        Research in Dendrochronology
  • ·        Principles and Practices of Sustainability
  • ·        We Are What We've Eaten: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Food Choice in History
  • ·        Mesoamerican Archaeology
  • ·        Archaeology of Food
  • ·        Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

Ithaca College students work with the aquaponic system in the Center for Natural Sciences greenhouse. 

Sampling 8th century wood from the Cuartel compound at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico

Rachel Volkin (IC ’21), Paula Turkon, and the dendrochronology team from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia sample historic beams at Hacienda La Ferreria, Durango Mexico.