Dennis E. Puleston

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Dennis E. Puleston Ph.D (19 June 1940 – 29 June 1978[1]) was an American archaeologist and ecologist. Puleston archaeology, biologyecology developed the ecological approach to the study of archaeology, looking at the manner in which humans adapt to their natural environment. His work involved pioneering interdisciplinarity methods which remain current to this day and led to a greater emphasis upon ecological and experimental archaeological research in the 80's and 90's.[2][3] His work is still used to teach the importance of diversity in scientific interest, need for social relevance, and problem solving in archaeology classes due to the broadness of his approach.[3] Puleston's work ranged from experiments in reconstruction and usefulness testing of chultuns or raised fields, building a traditional dugout canoe and using it to investigate otherwise unreachable areas, or challenging the belief that the Ancient Maya subsisted on a milpa agricultural complex – maize, beans, and squash.

Life and career[edit]

Puleston was born to Dennis and Elizabeth Rhode Puleston. He has one brother, Peter, and two sisters, Sally and Jennifer. His father was a noted ornithologist sailor, explorer, painter and environmentalist. It is from him that the younger Dennis learned a love of adventure, the outdoors, and science.[1] According to—a repository for a majority of Puleston's works and photographs from the field, Dennis “lived and worked in such places as the Canadian wilderness, the island of Moorea, Society Islands, and the tropical forests of Central America which he came to love deeply.”[4]

Dennis attended high school at Bellport High School, in Brookhaven, New York, and upon graduating embarked on his own adventures. A great illustration of his adventures and eventual decision to become an archaeologist is found in the following excerpt from Harrison and Messenger’s obituary:

Before beginning formal study of biology at Antioch College, he [Dennis] spent a season working with the National Film Board of Canada as assistant in the production of a cinematic study of tundra ecology. During the years of study at Antioch, Denny’s interest in archaeology developed through a series of contacts and field experiences. In 1960 he worked as a student assistant under Roland Force and Paul S. Martin in the Chicago Natural History Museum. It was Paul Martin who arranged a visit for Denny and a classmate to Tikal in Guatemala via a letter of introduction to Edwin S. Shook, then director of the project. When they arrived in Guatemala the pair found tickets to Tikal waiting for them and a warm welcome at the site. For Denny the visit stretched into the 1961 field season, then another, and another….

As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Dennis met and married Olga Stavrakis.[5] Dennis and Olga had a son, Cedric, and a daughter, Lyda. During many of Dennis’s adventures his family would accompany him.His Brother, Peter and his wife, Olga were partners and contributors to a number of his projects, and his son, Cedric is now in conducting post-doc work in the field.

Puleston’s career was intimately tied to Tikal. He spent his years at graduate school studying at Tikal with William Haviland under the direction of his advisor, William Coe. Puleston mapped causeways, earthworks, homesites, and chultuns with Haviland and contributed significantly to the increase of population estimates in the region.[6] He mapped the eathworks around Tikal that have been suggested to be indicative of defensive fortifications (rarely found in the Maya Lowlands) or the borders of the site.[7] He studied caves and sacred writing to expand knowledge on the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Maya.[8] And, he developed several important hypotheses on Maya subsistence and agriculture that are discussed below.

Puleston died in 1978, struck by lightning while viewing a thunderstorm from the summit of a pyramid in Yucatan, Mexico.[9]

Approach to archaeology[edit]

While several of Puleston’s contemporaries were concerned with human interactions with nature -- cultural ecology,[10] Dennis’s approach was novel in its ability to juxtapose the micro and macro perspectives of these environments into one coherent argument.[11][12] Traditional archaeological methods rest on theory interpreted through anthropological observations and repetition of artifactual data from site to site.[13] However, a more encompassing approach was needed to address the problems Puleston was studying. Therefore, he set forth to test many of his theories through experiments in the environment. A wave of such approaches was evident in the aftermath of Puleston’s death, as evident in the book, Maya Subsistence: A Tribute to Dennis E. Puleston and In the recordings of the proceedings of Puleston's memorial conference (available at ), entitled "The History and Development of Maya Subsistence, which was held in October 1979 in Minneapolis.[14] Unfortunately, arguments of environmental change since the 8th and 9th century decline of Lowland Maya societies have been convincing and have been used to undermine the experimental approach to archaeology to the point that it is now rarely practiced.[15][16] Consequently, there is a waning in the study of ecology and archaeology through these experiments. Despite this, there are still questions to be answered through experimental means and a portion of the field, particularly in Europe, but also including American researchers like Clark Erickson and John P. Hart are actively involved in experimental archaeology to this day. Below are brief synopses of two of Puleston's works in experimental archaeology.

Research into chultuns[edit]

Chultuns are man-made holes in the ground and are found in many parts of Mesoamerica. They come in several forms, but they are all called by the same moniker. In 1971, Puleston wrote an article entitled, An Experimental Approach to the Function of Classic Maya Chultuns. Within this article, he shows that, despite the common name, there are several different types of chultuns and he suggests that these different styles were indicative of differing uses.[17] In this article, he asserted that while the first chultuns documented where single chambers with plastered walls for holding and collecting water, the chultuns in the Tikal region were different in shape, not plastered, and did not hold water.

Dr. Puleston conducted three experiments to test the chultuns. First, he filled a chultun with water and watched it drain away quickly. This lent credibility to his assertion that chultuns of this region were not for water storage. Next, Puleston built a chultun. To do so he created stone tools similar to those that would have been used to construct one 1,000 years ago. Upon completion, in 1966, Puleston filled the chultun with a diversity of locally produced dietary contributions, like maize, beans, squash, and cassava. Every two weeks, Puleston would pull the items out and document their state of preservation. These items were weighed, examined, and photographed. The observations were then compared to a control group that was store above ground. However, the control group was quickly consumed by rodents and insects. While the chultun stored produce was not consumed, the end products were also not consumable. Upon completion of this 11-week experiment, Puleston (1971) noted that, “while the chultun apparently offered valuable protection from vermin, it evidently could not be used for the storage of maize, beans, or squash”.[17] The following year Puleston tried the experiment once more, but this time he added a nut from a local tree – the Brosium alicastrum (ramon) to the mix. O.F. Cook (1935) is cited in Puleston’s article as the originator of the idea that chultuns could have been used to store ramon nuts, however, without Puleston’s experiment this assertion had never been taken seriously.[17] What Puleston found changed many archaeologists' opinion of the ramon's utility and its possible utilization in ancient Maya society. Not only did the ramon nuts survive the 13-week experiment that once again devastated the comparable crops, after 13 months, ”they were still in excellent condition and completely edible”.[11] Puleston drew on these experiments for further work on the ramon as an alternative staple in the Maya diet. The resultant argument can be seen in a number of the linked articles below, and a synopsis of his findings is included below.

Research into Brosium alicastrum (Ramon)[edit]

The ethnohistoric record and ethnographic data from the observation of Maya populations since the conquest lead archaeology to adopt the theory that ancient Maya populations were reliant on swidden (slash and burn) agriculture.[12] This swidden hypothesis continued, relatively unchallenged, for hundreds of years. The recent realization that many Classic Period Maya sites were too large in population to be supported with such subsistence technologies has combined with the observations of numerous physical manifestations of agricultural intensification to unseat the swidden hypothesis from its throne. Several sites remain problematic for this new hypothesis, due to their high populations and the lack of clear evidence of localized intensification processes. The situation at Tikal, Guatemala is indicative of such issues.[18][19]

Many ascribe to the hypothesis that Tikal, as a major state level society in the Peten, would have used military force and diplomacy to demand tribute to alleviate population pressure on their localized subsistence base.[19][20] A subsistence base that Puleston note as seeming “to provide an environmental antithesis of what might be expected to produce civilization on the basis of the other examples”.[11] While there is a significant case to be made for such assertions during times of power in Tikal, every Maya site cycles between times of prosperity and recessionary periods, both economically and politically. Tikal was no exception. Tikal’s “hiatus” in the Late Classic Period, after a series of defeats at the hands of Caracol, Naranjo, and Calakmul, would have put a significant barrier up against Tikal’s ability to extract tribute.[21] Therefore, another source of sustenance would be needed in Tikal.

Following the above mentioned experiments with the chultuns of Tikal, Puleston began to investigate the Brosium Alicastrum (ramon) tree as an alternative to the traditionally accepted Maya triad (maize, beans, and squash) for staple level utilization and to address the sustenance issue mentioned above. Once again Puleston uses experimentation to challenge long accepted theories. Consider the following excerpt from The Role of Ramon in Maya Subsistence:

It is my intention here to suggest that our view on the relationship between ancient Maya culture and its environment, particularly with regard to subsistence practices, has been totally wrong. Perhaps heavily biased by our own agricultural heritage, Western archaeologists have been extremely slow to question long-accepted basic assumptions about the Maya. Far from being "the least desirable environment for human occupation in Mesoamerica," the tropical forests of the Maya Lowlands, in fact, seem to have offered certain specific resources which, because they were utilized skillfully, permitted the rise of a state society, which was sustained by one of the highest regional population densities in the preindustrial world.[11]

Puleston makes an argument for the possibility of Ramon utilization as a staple in a number of his articles. While this hypothesis has not been universally accepted, Puleston’s work with the Ramon tree and its fruit have been utilized in recent agricultural programs in southern Mexico, like those in Peten, Guatemala, where according to Rainforest Alliance’s article, A Little Nut with Big Possibilities, “the world's first ramón nut-based school lunch program, Healthy Kids, Healthy Forests is helping to feed more than 8,000 children from 46 rural communities, while providing jobs for women and offering a real incentive for forest conservation”.

Problem areas aside, Puleston’s work with ramon showed promise as an alternative source of calories for sites with no clearly observable alternatives for intensification. According to Puleston, “Three features made the ramon stand out: (1) it showed a close association with sites, (2) it was an edible staple, and (3) it was storable”[11] as seen in the chultun experiments above. Based on these features, Dennis’s team, originally consisting of Dennis, Jeffrey Parsons, and Richard Blanton, began to collect data on Ramon productivity. The results of these experiments are important. Consider this excerpt from Puleston(1982) for demonstration:

I set up a grid on a 900 [square meter] plot of forest floor at Tikal. This plot was divided into 100 3[square meter] plots from which a sample of 25 was randomly selected for systematic collection and weighing of the seed fall during the fruiting season. This was done over a period of three years, during which time the plots yielded an average of 1,763 kg/ha/year. This was despite the fact that the trees were untended and in full competition with other non-food producing species that crowded around them.[11]

When contrasted with his observation that “maize under the best of conditions and minimum fallowing periods can yield little more than an average of 324 kg/ha/year”.[11] wild untended ramon is shown to be more than 5 times more productive than maize per unit of land. Puleston’s experiments also analyzed the nutritional quality of ramon nuts and compared them with alternative crops available to the Maya (see charts in his thesis link below). In many cases ramon scored higher than these alternatives. In fact his research showed that, ramon is advantageously comparable to maize in the quantity and quality of its protein content, as well as its content of calcium, iron, niacin, vitamins A and B, and the desperately deficient element of the traditional Maya diet, tryptophan (1982, 161-162). Finally, Puleston’s team evaluated the efficiency of labor input needed to cultivate and harvest the ramon nuts. Citing Carter (1969), Puleston assumes the figure of 2000-3000 man-hours needed to maintain a traditional maize field at a level that produces sufficient food for an average Maya family. His experiments at Tikal in 1973 produced data that indicated the same family could be supplied for the year with the more easily stored ramon seeds in less than 100 Man-hours (1982: 362). Therefore an investment of 3% to 5% of the time spent conducting slash and burn agriculture could supply the caloric needs of the same family through ramon-based tree cropping.


Puleston was instrumental in the wave of investigation of subsistence ecology that followed his demise.[22] A book, Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston, was written in dedication to Dennis and his passion. Many of Dennis’s friends and colleagues contributed to this book, in 1982. But the story did not end there. While there is a dwindling amount of study on ecological aspects of archaeology and even less utilization of experimental archaeology in the field today, there are some who remain dedicated to the pursuit of these answers and for many modern applied and/or experimental archaeologists, Puleston is an inspiration.

In 2015, British Archaeological Reports published a collection of Puleston’s field work, edited and revised by Olga Stavrakis-Puleston.[23] This volume represents the only full report of Puleston’s Tikal survey and also covers several related sub-projects, including excavations of Tikal satellite sites.


Several of Dennis E. Puleston's published articles are listed here. However, much more of his and related articles, both published and unpublished can be found at


  1. ^ a b Harrison, P.D.; Messenger, P.E. (1980). "Obituary: Dennis E. Puleston". American Antiquity 45 (2): 272-276.
  2. ^ Mathewson, Kent (1990). "Rio Hondo Reflections: Notes on Puleston's Place and the Archaeology of Maya Landscapes". in Ancient Maya Wetland Agriculture: Excavations on Albion Island, Northern Belize. Edited by Mary D. Pohl. Westview Press. Boulder, Co.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Writings
  5. ^ Travel with Olga
  6. ^ Haviland, William A. (1969). "A New Population Estimate for Tikal, Guatemala". American Antiquity 34 (3): 429-433
  7. ^ Puleston, Dennis E. (1974). "Intersite Areas in the Vicinity of Tikal and Uaxactun. In Mesoamerican Archaeology: New Approaches. Edited by Norman Hammond. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX pp. 303-312.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Dennis Puleston". Daily Telegraph. 6 July 2001. Retrieved 13 March 2014. 
  10. ^ Butzer, Karl W. (1996). "Ecology in the long view: Settlement histories, agrosystemic strategies, and ecological performance". Journal of Field Archaeology 23:141-150.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Flannery, Kent; Puleston, Dennis E. (1982), "The Role of Ramon in Maya Subsistence", Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston, Academic Press, pp. 353-366
  12. ^ a b Harrison, Peter D.; Turner, B. L.; Puleston, Dennis E. (1978), "Terracing, Raised Fields, and Tree Cropping in the Maya Lowlands: A New Perspective on the Geography of Power", Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture, University of New Mexico Press, pp. 225-245
  13. ^ Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P. G. (1991), Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd,
  14. ^
  15. ^ Coles, John Morton (1979), Experimental archaeology, London a.o.: Academic Press, ISBN 0-12-179750-3 / ISBN 0-12-179752-X, 274 pp. Republished 2010
  16. ^ Tringham, Ruth (1978), Experimentation, ethnoarchaeology, and the leapfrogs in archaeological methodology. in: Gould, Richard A. (editor): Explorations in ethnoarchaeology. Albuquerque, pp 169-199.
  17. ^ a b c Puleston, Dennis E. (1971). "An Experimental Approach to the Function of Classic Maya Chultuns". American Antiquity 36 (3): 322-335
  18. ^ Teeter, Wendy G., and Chase, Arlen F. (2004). Adding Flesth to Bones: Using Zooarchaeology Research. Archaeofauna 13 (2004): 155-172.
  19. ^ a b Foias, Antonia E. (2002). "At the Crossroads: The Economic Basis of Political Power in the Petexbatun Region. In Ancient Maya Political Economies. Edited by Marylyn Mason and David Friedel. Altamira Press. Walnut Creek, CA pp. 223-247
  20. ^ Teeter, Wendy G. and Chase, Arlen F. (2004). "Adding Flesth to Bones: Using Zooarchaeology Research to Answer the Big-Picture Questions". Archaeofauna 13: 155-172
  21. ^ Chase Arlen F. and Chase, Diane Z. (2004). "Exploring Ancient Economic Relationships at Caracol, Belize," Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 1:115-127.
  22. ^ Flannery, Kent V. (1982). "Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston. Academic Press. Austin, TX.
  23. ^ Stavrakis-Puleston, Olga (2015). Settlement and Subsistence in Tikal, The assembled work of Dennis E. Puleston (Field research 1961-1972). Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. ISBN 9781407314198. 


Flannery, Kent; Puleston, Dennis E. (1982), "The Role of Ramon in Maya Subsistence", Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston, Academic Press, pp. 353–366 

Hammond, Norman; Puleston, Dennis E. (1977), "The Art and Agriculture of Hydraulic Agriculture in the Maya Lowlands", Sound Process in Maya Prehistory: Studies in Memory of Sir Eric Thompson, Academic Press, pp. 449–468 

Harrison, P.D.; Messenger, P.E. (1980). "Obituary: Dennis E. Puleston". American Antiquity. 45 (2): 272–276. 

Harrison, Peter D.; Turner, B. L.; Puleston, Dennis E. (1978), "Terracing, Raised Fields, and Tree Cropping in the Maya Lowlands: A New Perspective on the Geography of Power", Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture, University of New Mexico Press, pp. 225–245 

Puleston, Dennis E. (1973). Dissertation: Ancient Maya Settlement Patterns and Environment at Tikal, Guatemala (Thesis). 

Puleston, Dennis E.; Callender, Donald W. (1967). "Defensive Earthworks at Tikal". Expedition: 40–48. 

Puleston, Dennis E. (1971). "An Experimental Approach to the Function of Classic Maya Chultuns". American Antiquity. 36 (3): 322–335. doi:10.2307/277717.