Detecting Precontact Anthropogenic Microtopographic Features in a Forested Landscape with Lidar: A Case Study from the Upper Great Lakes Region, AD 1000-1600.

Academic Article


  • Forested settings present challenges for understanding the full extent of past human landscape modifications. Field-based archaeological reconnaissance in forests is low-efficiency and most remote sensing techniques are of limited utility, and together, this means many past sites and features in forests are unknown. Archaeologists have increasingly used light detection and ranging (lidar), a remote sensing tool that uses pulses of light to measure reflecting surfaces at high spatial resolution, to address these limitations. Archaeology studies using lidar have made significant progress identifying permanent structures built by large-scale complex agriculturalist societies. Largely unaccounted for, however, are numerous small and more practical modifications of landscapes by smaller-scale societies. Here we show these may also be detectable with lidar by identifying remnants of food storage pits (cache pits) created by mobile hunter-gatherers in the upper Great Lakes during Late Precontact (ca. AD 1000-1600) that now only exist as subtle microtopographic features. Years of intensive field survey identified 69 cache pit groups between two inland lakes in northern Michigan, almost all of which were located within ~500 m of a lakeshore. Applying a novel series of image processing techniques and statistical analyses to a high spatial resolution DTM we created from commercial-grade lidar, our detection routine identified 139 high potential cache pit clusters. These included most of the previously known clusters as well as several unknown clusters located >1500 m from either lakeshore, much further from lakeshores than all previously identified cultural sites. Food storage is understood to have emerged regionally as a risk-buffering strategy after AD 1000 but our results indicate the current record of hunter-gatherer cache pit food storage is markedly incomplete and this practice and its associated impact on the landscape may be greater than anticipated. Our study also demonstrates the potential of harnessing commercial-grade lidar for other fine-grained archaeology applications.
  • Authors

  • Howey, Meghan
  • Sullivan, Franklin
  • Tallant, Jason
  • Kopple, Robert Vande
  • Palace, Michael
  • Publication Date

  • 2016
  • Published In

  • PLoS ONE  Journal
  • Keywords

  • Forests
  • Great Lakes Region
  • Humans
  • Lasers
  • Remote Sensing Technology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Trees
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Start Page

  • e0162062
  • Volume

  • 11
  • Issue

  • 9