E. Christian Wells, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
University of South Florida
4202 East Fowler Avenue, SOC 107
Tampa, FL 33620-8100 USA
office: 813/974.2337, 5397
I am Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. At USF, I have served as the founding Director of the Office of Sustainability (2009-2012) and as Deputy Director of the Patel College of Global Sustainability (2010-2012). From 2007-2009, I served as Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Anthropology’s graduate and dual-degree programs in applied anthropology. In 2010, I was elected to a two-year term as Archaeology Division Secretary of the American Anthropological Association, and in 2012 was appointed Global Coordinator of Current Research Online for the Society for American Archaeology. In 2011, I was awarded the Jerome Krivanek Distinguished Teacher Award—the highest teaching honor at USF—and the Black Bear Award by the Sierra Club of Tampa Bay “in recognition of outstanding dedication to sustainability and the environment.”
Over the past 15 years, I have undertaken field research in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and the United States with funding from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and other agencies. My research has been covered by various media outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today, Science News, National Geographic News, Chemical & Engineering News, American Archaeology Magazine, Tampa Bay Times, and The Tampa Tribune, among others. I have written or edited seven books and journal issues as well as more than 90 articles, chapters, and reviews. I currently advise and mentor four Ph.D. students, five M.A. students, and two B.A. Honors students.
My research explores the ways in which worldview, values, and beliefs motivate people’s economic choices. As an archaeologist who studies human behavior over long time spans on the order of hundreds or thousands of years, I am especially interested in understanding how religious and economic practices articulate in the exploitation of the “natural” environment over time. My professional research goal is to discover and apply new knowledge about ancient economies to help solve ecological problems of the present and future. This work is important, because it will inevitably help us to create better measures of the human experience relative to the biosphere and allow us to address how humans are forcing changes to the Earth system.
Since coming to USF in 2003, my research has focused particularly on the relationship between culture and agriculture in tropical lowland settings (Mesoamerica and the Caribbean), which constitute one of the most important reserves of biodiversity on the planet. It is also a region where indigenous societies such as the Maya have, in many cases, permanently and significantly transformed landscapes and the ecosystems that compose them over millennia. Such a setting offers an unparalleled opportunity to examine how archaeologists might integrate indigenous knowledge into contemporary discussions and decisions about resource management and conservation. Over the past few years, I have incorporated other variables into my research, including the powerful role that water plays in mediating this relationship. Recently, I have also considered the contemporary cultural context of these dynamics, especially global tourism, which is becoming increasingly central to the economies of developing nations as their residents struggle to manage both cultural and natural resources sustainably.
The aim of all of this work has been to explore what a deep-time perspective can reveal about the intersection of “rational” and “nonrational” behavior in times of resource scarcity, economic uncertainty, or political instability among Mesoamerica’s diverse populations. There are two primary research questions that guide my work. First, how are subsistence economies structured by cultural knowledge and social experience? Second, how does “local” environmental worldview coincide with and diverge from scientific understandings of the natural world? These are important issues since many of the places in the world where food production will need to expand to meet growing demand are occupied by peoples with different values and beliefs about the biophysical environment, which have significant consequences for the sustainability of landscapes and communities. They are also key questions for understanding how society, economy, and environment combined to create conditions conducive to growth and adaptation in ancient Mesoamerican complex societies.
Given the scope of the problems that I study, my research is necessarily multiscalar and cross disciplinary, combining the methods, theories, and data of archaeology, ethnohistory, cultural anthropology, behavioral economics, agroecology, and soil science. Over the past decade, I have focused much of my work on three international, interdisciplinary projects, summarized below.
Current Research Projects
Religious Mechanisms for Agroecological Resilience (Palmarejo, Honduras). With funding from the National Geographic Society and other agencies, I have been leading a team of scientists and students to investigate how ancient, historical, and contemporary populations in northwest Honduras experienced varying degrees of social and ecological resilience through mechanisms derived from religion and ritual practice. We are also interested to know whether past abandonments of the region were associated with cultivated hillslope erosion of soils exacerbated by agricultural expansion. Our primary research question is, how and to what extent do animistic landscapes (inhabited by ancestors) structure agricultural intensification? To answer this question, we have been conducting archaeological investigations at ancestral Lenca sites in the Palmarejo Valley. In addition to full-coverage pedestrian and geomorphological surveys of the valley and archaeological evidence excavated from the main settlement and subordinate villages, we have made systematic inventories of exposed stratigraphic profiles from road cuts and seasonal streams to collect and analyze sediments, pollen, and radiocarbon samples. We have found that the scale of maize cultivation in certain communities was inhibited by costly agrarian rituals aimed at petitioning and placating ancestors. Since increases in cultivation demand greater compensation for ancestors, there appear to be scalar limits to agricultural intensification in animistic landscapes. Our work shows how beliefs about the biophysical environment shape agricultural decision making, and suggests the need for considering environmental worldview as a crucial factor in agricultural development in ancient and modern Mesoamerica.
Impacts of Global Tourism on Heritage Resources (Roatán, Honduras). Honduran Historian Darío Euraque has used the term “Mayanization” to characterize the past century of tourism and development in Honduras in which many tour operators and business owners have capitalized on the geographic proximity of their well-known ancient neighbors, the Classic Maya, to name (and claim) as “Maya” everything from handicrafts to entire buildings. The island of Roatán off the north coast of Honduras has become increasingly “Mayanized” over the last few years as heritage tourism has amplified dramatically in the wake of new development opportunities for the island’s residents, opening up new conversations and conflicts about heritage and indigeneity on the island. My research with graduate and undergraduate students on the island—in the form of a field school for training in archaeological and cultural methods—has collected archaeological, historical, and ethnographic data from ancestral and descendent Pech communities through survey, excavation, archival research, and semi-structured interviews, which we are using to contextualize these dialogues and to understand their trajectory. Since the prehispanic occupants of the island were likely multilingual (Chibchan, Tolatecan, Misumalpan, and Mayan), and the centuries that followed brought Spanish, Dutch, and English settlers, as well as the establishment of the Garínagu of mixed West African and Carib/Arawak descent, many island residents have multiple claims to multiple identities. The island’s unique genealogy and the resulting controversy over indigeneity have also resulted in the large-scale destruction—in the name of development—of significant archaeological and historical remains that are central to these struggles. Our research documents some of these complexities and seeks to understand the long-term consequences of heritage tourism on cultural patrimony in Honduras.
Socionatural Dynamics of Sustainable Tourism (Placencia, Belize; St. Thomas, USVI). Most recently, I serve as Co-Principal Investigator on a $3.9 million NSF project that employs a wide range of ethnographic methods to examine the relationship between tourism development and coastal health in ethnically diverse communities throughout the Caribbean. In this five-year (2013-2017), university-engaged study, our team integrates archaeologists with cultural and medical anthropologists, environmental engineers, coastal ecologists, and marine scientists to engage in participatory and collaborative research with local residents, with the greater goal of building capacity for sustainable tourism. Our aim is to better understand the ways in which residents in coastal regions develop and implement co-management models to protect cultural and natural resources, including archaeological sites, traditional cultural properties, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons, coral reefs, and other community resources vital to tourism. We are also evaluating the extent to which local residents might consider the adoption of new technologies that reclaim resources from wastewater. We are preparing for our first field season (among Maya and Kriol communities in Belize) in May 2013 and will seek to evaluate the efficacy of new ‘smart media’ for data collection that will allow citizen scientists to contribute to knowledge production. By breaking down the traditional silos and organizing research efforts in more holistic ways, we hope to construct more accurate models of global environmental change and gain a broader perspective on where we stand relative to larger cycle and trends.