Dr. Shannon Tushingham, an anthropological archaeologist who studies human-environmental dynamics, joins the Academy’s Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability
In her new role, Tushingham will continue her research on hunting, gathering, and fishing societies in western North America, specifically on food usage, niche construction, and Indigenous resource management from ancestral communities to present-day descendant communities. Tushingham’s approach to science draws on both archaeological science and traditional ecological knowledge. She hopes to apply this framework to the Academy’s Thriving California initiative to further enhance humanity’s role in preserving our state’s biodiversity.
In addition to her research, Tushingham is most looking forward to collaborating with local tribal communities throughout the Bay Area and Northern California to better identify gaps in conservation and resource management practices.
“We’re thrilled to welcome Shannon to the Academy,” says Shannon Bennett, PhD, and Academy Chief of Science. “In addition to her years of archaeological field experience and teaching, she brings a commitment to building further partnerships with local groups, particularly Native American and First Nations tribes, to regenerate ecological communities—a cornerstone of the Academy’s mission. Shannon’s collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to research for and with community makes her uniquely poised to steward our anthropology collection of more than 16,000 ethnographic objects, as she is deeply committed to increasing access through public education and partnerships.”
Most recently a professor at Washington State University, Tushingham joins the Academy’s Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability to continue her work with descendant communities of California. Previously a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Elk Valley Rancheria (Tolowa ancestral territory), she spent years exploring past and present foodways of coastal communities, particularly the role of acorns, salmon, and smelt—a small forage fish—in ancestral diets. She is excited to collaborate and strengthen ties with local descendant communities here in the Bay Area, including the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, where she studies the role of Indigenous tobacco through residue analysis.
“From oral histories to traditional ecological knowledge data, Indigenous communities have a wealth of information about the biological systems that surround them,” Tushingham says. “By looking at ancient practices through a multidisciplinary lens, we gain a better understanding of past ways of life and can more accurately approach the human health and environmental challenges we face today.”
Tushingham’s research centers on the concept of human autonomy within past and present societies through three distinct pathways:
Ancestral foods are vital to the autonomy, identity, health, and well-being of Indigenous peoples worldwide, yet many communities lack or face threatened access to these foods and knowledge about their nutrition and safety. As climate change increasingly impacts food distribution and availability, this research addresses how to build and maintain healthy, resilient communities by improving access to and knowledge about traditional first foods and medicinal practices.
From tobacco to marijuana, humans have a long history with psychoactive plants. Tushingham’s National Science Foundation-funded Psychoactive Plants Project explores these interactions through ancient chemical residue extraction and analysis to better understand past plant management practices and their modern applications.
Collaboration and equity in STEM
Western scientific frameworks have built persistent inequities for women and other underrepresented groups in STEM, particularly in academic publishing. By promoting collaborative research practices and amplifying diverse voices in the sciences, this area of study investigates how to improve the dissemination of knowledge and provide more avenues, including field and laboratory training opportunities, for traditionally excluded groups.
In addition to learning from past societies to address modern challenges, Tushingham joins the Academy with a passion for connecting humans with the natural world.
“We’re all anthropologists, really,” Tushingham says. “Humans have a direct impact on and are deeply impacted by the biological systems we hope to regenerate. By drawing from traditional ecological knowledge and assessing community needs—particularly those of Indigenous groups—we can more effectively protect our planet’s biodiversity.”
The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 450 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for ensuring they thrive into the future. Through deeply collaborative partnerships and innovative public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.