New technology helps in discovery of ancient Native American history

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexico is known for its rich Native history. 

Across the state there are many sacred and historic Pueblo sites – some that have been unearthed and preserved, while others are still being discovered.

Now, a group of archaeologists from the University of Missouri are coming here, hoping new technology will lead them to new discoveries.

“We are using drone-based LiDAR and are attaching a laser scanning instrument to the drone, and flying the drone across the landscape at a much greater scale,” said Jeffrey Ferguson, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri.

The drone can cut through all the brush and see what lies beneath.

“For example, we have a Chaco road segment at one of these sites and I stood there on the ground and I couldn’t see it, even walking it, knowing it was there, and I can’t see it. But on the LiDAR it shows up plain as day,” said Ferguson. 

Before LiDAR, teams of archeologists would survey land by walking across it side by side. So, these drones are saving researchers a lot of time and energy.

But Ferguson wants to take it one step further.

“What we are hoping to do is use machine learning and train computers to scan the data for us. And that is what we are trying to get this year, is enough data to train the computer models, so we can go out fly the LiDAR over 10 square miles, put that in the computer and have it spit out, ‘OK here are the 50 places we think are likely sites,’” Ferguson said. 

But until that technology is available, Ferguson and his team are asking some local experts for some help.

“We are working with a group of cultural leaders from the Zuni Pueblo and so this is the second time we have done this, where we spend a week working with them, taking them to the sites we discovered, and have them tell us what we are seeing. And asking what research questions we could be asking that would be an interest to them as we expand this research,” said Ferguson. 

As the research continues, Ferguson hopes to start working with other tribes in the state.