Research Interests

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Research Interests

Ph.D., Cornell, 1977 (Anthropology)
B.A., Oregon, 1971 (Honors College, Independent Study)

[In the following short essay, full citations can be found in my C.V. Dates without names indicate materials on which I am the sole author; otherwise joint authorship is shown.]

I am an ecological anthropologist, trained at Cornell University in anthropology and in human evolutionary, population and ecosystem ecology. I work with the behavioral ecology of hunter-gatherers while also pursuing multidisciplinary research on agroecosystems in highland Peru. This two-part focus has one eye on models and foragers, the other on field research with smallholder agriculturalist/miners. I describe below the analytical linkages between these projects.

As a new graduate student, I began field research in the Andes in 1972 (Winterhalder et al., 1974; Thomas and Winterhalder 1976; Winterhalder and Thomas 1978, 1982), working on high altitude adaptation and ecology. I intended to continue with studies in Peru and a human adaptability focus. However, the chance convergence of an exceptional course, "The evolution of vertebrate social behavior," taught by Stephen Emlen, and a funding offer from Theodore Steegmann, SUNY at Buffalo, led me to the Canadian sub-arctic for dissertation research with hunter-gatherers. The course introduced me to new evolutionary ecology models on foraging strategies. Simultaneously, I was presented with an unexpected opportunity to apply the models to a group of extant hunter-gatherers living in the boreal forest, the Cree. I thought momentarily about Jack London's story of the severe arctic cold, "To Build a Fire," and prepared to go north. Back to top

For a year, 1975, I lived, hunted and gathered with the Cree of Muskrat Dam Lake, Ontario. I mapped and timed their foraging expeditions, measured the catch and inquired about tactics and knowledge of animal behavior. My goal was to understand Cree subsistence and to test foraging models for their broader applicability in studies of hunter-gatherers (1977b, 1980b, 1981a, b, 1983a, b) and hominid evolution (1980c, 1981c). The models proved to be valuable on several levels (Smith and Winterhalder 1981): i) they linked studies of hunter-gatherer behavior to general theory in evolutionary ecology; ii) they directed attention to unrecognized questions, variables and measurements; and, iii) they produced testable hypotheses. Combined with C.S. Holling’s concept of "adaptive management," the models had implications for resource policy and development in the Canadian north (1983d). In addition, they led me to an alternative explanation of the classical, textbook case of predator-prey population dynamics, the lynx-hare cycle (1980b).

This early work borrowed and adapted models developed largely by biologists. Encouraged by positive results, I began a series of investigations aimed at expanding the range of questions addressed by foraging theory. Each of these inquires has attempted to determine the consequences of the factors and processes that were ignored in the early, highly simplified approaches (see also papers in Winterhalder & Smith, eds., 1981; Smith & Winterhalder, eds., 1992). Back to top

  1. First-generation evolutionary ecology models examined foraging in isolation from other behaviors. They assumed that a forager would attempt to maximize, within constraints, his or her net rate of energy capture while foraging. They did not set foraging into the context of other essential activities and thus could not address questions of how long a hunter-gatherer should forage or how much food he or she should attempt to acquire. To redress this deficiency, I have used opportunity cost concepts and indifference curve analysis to show generally how foraging can be related to the remainder of the forager's adaptive behavior (1983c; 1987).

  2. The early models ignored the consequences of stochastic variation in the ecological variables affecting foraging decisions. In simulation studies (1986a, 1986b) I have shown that the forager's best risk-minimizing diet in a stochastic environment often will be similar to its best rate-maximizing diet in an environment without unpredictable variance. The best resource selection option, however, may not be very good. Further analysis, stimulated by the work of economic historian Donald McCloskey on medieval field dispersion, has shown how food sharing functions minimize risk (1990).

  3. With two of my graduate students, I have written a comprehensive review of the conceptual and empirical literature on subsistence risk in human and non-human foragers, drawing on the fields of biology and anthropology (Winterhalder, Lu and Tucker 1999). I currently am working with Tucker to develop and analyze a simulation model that will extend the analysis of hunter-gatherer diet selection under conditions of risk. Back to top

  4. The early models also ignored the consequences of long-term resource depletion. To address this shortcoming, Winterhalder et al. (1988) developed a dynamic simulation model which examines the interaction of a population of foragers and their resource species. The model shows the consequences of resource exploitation for hunter-gatherer population size and resource choice. In biological terms, it generalizes the Lotka-Volterra population models to a situation in which the predator can select among multiple prey species. The results challenge traditional uses of the concept of carrying capacity and they also offer an alternative explanation for a key feature of hunter-gatherer ecology: efficient but constrained production linked to limited work effort, as evocatively captured but not well explained in Sahlins' idea of "original affluence" (1993a).

  5. In a set of recent papers, I shifted from models analyzing production to those focused on exchange (1996a, b; 1997a, b, & c; 2001a). The first of these (1996a) is a technical paper on the application of marginal valuation to questions of resource transfers; 1996b, 1997c, and 2001a are reviews of behavioral ecology models addressing the evolution of exchange. This work offers further insights into the constrained production of hunter-gatherer economies, Nicolas Peterson's “demand sharing,” and the evolutionary origins of cooperative social behavior.

  6. I am just beginning to pursue a series of analyses which attempt to apply these models to questions concerning the origins of agriculture (Winterhalder and Goland, 1993, 1997), and to issues of foraging and conservation biology (Winterhalder and Lu,1997). Back to top

  7. With colleague Paul Leslie, I am working on the applicability of risk-sensitive adaptive models to questions of fertility behavior (Leslie and Winterhalder n.d.b.; Winterhalder and Leslie n.d.c.). We have proposed a variance compensation hypothesis and have argued that it may help to explain phenomena as diverse as demographic transitions, agricultural intensification (as described by Ester Boserup), observed correlations between subsistence systems and natural fertility patterns, and possibly also some of the diversity seen in "clutch size" (as proposed originally by David Lack).

These and other developments in foraging theory have led to a book-length analysis with the tentative title, Paleoeconomics: The Behavioral Ecology of Hunter-Gatherers and the Foraging Mode of Production. Paleoeconomics will demonstrate how behavioral ecology theory attempts to explain the basic socio-economic features of diverse hunter-gatherer societies. A nascent sense of this analysis can be gained from four sets of papers: my comparative study of risk-minimization through field dispersion in agricultural societies and food sharing in foraging societies (1990), my reinterpretation of the concepts of original affluence and the Zen economy (1993a; 1997c), my reviews of models of the origins of exchange behavior (1996b, 1997c), and my comparative work on the behavioral ecology and population dynamics of foragers and agriculturalists (Winterhalder et al. 1988; Winterhalder and Goland 1993, 1997; Leslie and Winterhalder, n.d.b.; Winterhalder and Leslie, n.d.c.). Two recent reviews, one for an Oxford U Press text (2001b) and the other solicited for the millennial issue of Evolutionary Anthropology (Winterhalder and Smith 2000) highlight in very abbreviated form some of the arguments. Certain broader theoretical issues are addressed in Winterhalder and Smith (1992), Smith and Winterhalder (1992). This book will move from the explanation of behavioral ecology models (n.d.a.) to a reinterpretation of the political economy of hunter-gatherers and a commentary on related issues of social theory. It will draw on both ethnographic and archaeological research. Back to top

I resumed the second, Andean track of my research in 1982 with a small exploration grant from UNC -- CH. Drawn by field work opportunities and the possibility of designing and directing a multi-disciplinary, human ecology research project, I decided to return to the Andes and Peru. I also was intrigued by the chance to contrast my analyses of foragers with an investigation of food producers. The ensuing grant ("Production, storage and exchange in a terraced environment on the eastern Andean escarpment," or PSE) was funded by NSF in 1984; field work continued through 1988.

The PSE research has focused on this question: How do peasant agriculturalists use production (field dispersion and cultigen diversity), storage (of freeze-dried tubers) and exchange (of labor or materials) to mitigate subsistence risk due to crop pathogens, drought and frost? The proposal emphasized careful study of the natural and anthropogenic environment (see Thomas and Winterhalder 1976; Winterhalder & Thomas 1978, 1982; 1980a; 1984; 1993b), quantitative methodologies, and a series of hypotheses relating each of the proposed adaptive responses to temporal and spatial features of the andean zone. Five faculty, six graduate students and three BA-level students participated in this project. Their individual contributions have ranged from archaeology and geomorphology through economic and medical anthropology. See (The Andean Project) for a fuller description.Back to top

Fall semester 1990 I was supported by an NSF methodological training grant, with the objective of learning computer mapping (Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) and remote sensing techniques (using LandSat satellite imagery), essential to a full analysis of our andean materials (Winterhalder and Evans 1991; Evans and Winterhalder, 2000).

Besides continuing work on the behavioral ecology of hunter-gatherers, currently I am: (a) serving as the ethnographic protocol consultant on a large NICHD project to investigate migration, subsistence agro-ecology and deforestation in tropical lowland Ecuador ( C.V.); (b) exploring with John Earls the possibility of updating our Andean climate database(n.d.e.), in the context of global warming and subsistence production in tropical high mountains ; and, (c) working with a group of statistics graduate students to develop statistical analyses appropriate to time allocation data (n.d.f.). Back to top

This research agenda – subarctic hunter-gatherers, models and Andean farmers – may seem a bit schizophrenic. However, it has long-term rationales beyond the usual accidents of interest and opportunity. First, my work with behavioral ecology models has moved deliberately over the variety of approaches and topics that I consider necessary to begin synthesizing a substantial reworking of our understanding of this form of economy. This effort is underway (see, Paleoeconomics, n.d.d.). Second, the work in Peru has been inspired by evolutionary ecology in methodological and some substantive senses. For instance, my analyses of hunter-gatherer sharing draw on the same model as we have applied to issues of field dispersion in the Andes (1990) . I believe that model-building (n.d.c), which combines behavioral ecology and micro-economic theory, must move beyond foragers and expand to encompass food production, and population and economic as well as ecological questions. Third, I believe that this kind of inter-disciplinary modeling as well as personal field experience both with foragers and with agriculturalists is positioning me to analyze some key issues in human history: the ecological bases of divergence between foragers and farmers, the origins of agriculture, and the subsequent intensification and eventual dominance of agricultural systems of production. These are long-term goals.Back to top

To learn more about the topics mentioned here, please take a look at:

Recent Publications
Current Manuscripts
The Andean Project (PSE)

If you would like reprints of any of the papers mentioned in the essay, drop me a note by e-mail with your address, and I will post you a copy. Please reciprocate if you are working on related topics. Back to top