Arctic Field Projects

Project Title: Modeling Caribou Migrations and Traditional Hunting Strategies in a Virtual World Simulation (Award# 1744367)

PI: O’Shea, John M (
Phone: (734) 764.0485 
Institute/Department: U of Michigan Ann Arbor, Museum of Anthropology 
IPY Project?
Funding Agency: US\Federal\NSF\GEO\OPP\ARC\ASSP
Program Manager: Dr. Erica Hill (
Discipline(s): | Biology\Modeling | Social and Human Sciences |

Project Web Site(s):

Science Summary:
Caribou are one of the most significant animals in the Arctic. They are intimately tied to the people, history, and ecology of the region. This project will bring together archaeologists, computer scientists, geographers, ecologists and Alaska Native rights holders to investigate caribou migrations prior to the dramatic reduction in caribou numbers during the 18th Century. A unique aspect of this project is the creation of a virtual world model of the past environment for a portion of ancient Alaska. The researchers will then ask experienced Alaska Native hunters to enter the virtual world to seek migrating caribou under different conditions. Using virtual reality googles and similar equipment, the hunters will be able to experience the model world as if they were actually there. By following their movements and listening to their descriptions the researchers will be able tell how well the model is simulating reality. By comparing the model with the hunting locations chosen by ancient hunters known from archaeology, the research team hopes to see how conditions of the environment and of caribou numbers have changed over time. In addition to informing us about the past, the model will provide a valuable new tool for ecologists to think about caribou migrations and how they might be altered in response to future oil and gas development within the region. Beyond the scientific value of the research, the inclusion of Alaska Native communities in the design process will provide an opportunity for them to inform the model. The gaming format developed from the model will provide a valuable (and easily accessible) educational tool for K-12 students in Alaska, encourage interest in science and technology (STEM) among Alaska Native students, and provide opportunities for the involvement citizen scientists more broadly. In consultation with Alaska Native communities and local experts the research team will adapt a virtual world model of caribou migration developed for the Early Holocene period in the Great Lakes region and apply it to a portion of modern Alaska. The project has two main goals. To allow the research team to become acquainted with the Arctic context of the research and to establish the necessary collaborative contacts particularly among Alaska Native scholars, to ground the virtual world simulation in Alaska. Second, to recruit one or more Alaska Native hunters to experience the current virtual world simulation via an immersive augmented reality system. The placing of knowledgeable hunters within a virtual world simulation as a means of exploring the interactions of human actors in modeled environments is an emerging approach to behavioral research in many fields, and this will be among the first systematic applications of the approach to anthropology. Through these activities, the research team will verify the basic elements of the virtual world simulation and fine tune the augmented reality system for recording the movements and comments of the hunters as they traverse the model landscape. These results will also provide important data for better understanding the Early Holocene occupation of the Great Lakes region and will highlight differences in hunting strategies and tactics observed in recent and ancient times. The work will also lay the foundation for a systematic remote sensing survey of built hunting structures (both recent and ancient) in an archaeologically under-research portion of Alaska.

Logistics Summary:
This project will bring together archaeologists, computer scientists, geographers, ecologists and Alaska Native rights holders to investigate the patterns of caribou movement and exploitation prior to the collapse of caribou populations during the 18th Century. Researchers will apply a virtual world simulation for a region in Alaska in which they can experimentally control aspects of the climate, environment, and herd dynamics in order to model potential past conditions, as well as to predict outcomes for the future. Researchers will then ask experienced traditional hunters to enter the virtual world to seek caribou. By tracking their movements and recording their commentaries researchers will be able to both gauge the accuracy of the virtual world simulation, and enhance the scientific understanding of how hunters move across the landscape and utilize features of the environment in their quest for caribou. No fieldwork is associated with this project.

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