Sean Downey

Associate Professor

I am an ecological anthropologist whose research explores the social and environmental dynamics of farming and foraging societies, past and present. My work is guided by anthropology’s traditional focus on human cultural and biological variability, which I believe can provide important insights into pressing questions about contemporary societies and the environmental sustainability. In order to achieve this potential, I believe it is important to develop and apply novel methods of data collection and analysis in our studies. 

Current research

My current NSF-funded research project is entitled, “CAREER: Analyzing the Emergence of a Complex Swidden Management System in the Toledo District, Belize”. The goal of the project is to advance our understanding of the dynamics and emergence of "Coupled Human and Natural Systems" through a multi-year study of the swidden agriculture of Q’eqchi’ Maya farmers in southern Belize. This project is part of a long-term collaboration with university scholars and local researchers in Belize.

The project analyzes the ecological effects of swidden from the perspective of landscape ecology, social networks, and political ecology. I am using information from southern Belize about forest plots and social networks to understand landscape-scale outcomes, represented by high-resolution spatial data being collected with drones ( I am also using in methods from behavioral economics to understanding social norms related common-property resource management. I am working with collaborators and students to develop and use methods from complexity science such as social network analysis and multi-agent modeling to analyze how non-linear dynamics may affect the dynamics of this coupled human-nature system.

Research opportunities for students

If you are interested in my research, I encourage you to email me ( I would like to recruit a new graduate student to begin a PhD in the Fall 2018 to focus on developing a dissertation related to fieldwork and research in southern Belize. The application deadline for the Ohio State University Anthropology Department is November 20th, but I encourage you to contact me as soon as possible.

PDF icon Dr. Downey's CV


Current Graduate Students

Fabio Correa


Selected publications

Downey, S. S., R. Haas, and S. Shennan. (2016) European Neolithic societies showed early warning signals of population collapse. PNAS 113(35):9751-9756. doi/10.1073/pnas.1602504113.

Downey, S. S. (2010). Can properties of labor exchange networks explain the resilience of swidden agriculture? Ecology and Society 15(4):15. 

Downey, S.S. (2015). Q’eqchi’ Maya Swidden Agriculture, Settlement History, and Colonial Enterprise in Modern Belize. Ethnohistory 62(4), 751-779; doi:10.1215/00141801-3135338. 

Downey, S. S., G. Sun, and P. Norquest. (2017) alineR: an R package for optimizing feature-weighted alignments and linguistic distances. The R Journal 9(1): 138-152.

Downey, S. S., Bocaege, E., Kerig, T., Edinborough, K., & Shennan, S. (2014). The Neolithic Demographic Transition in Europe: Correlation with Juvenility Index Supports Interpretation of the Summed Calibrated Radiocarbon Date Probability Distribution (SCDPD) as a Valid Demographic Proxy. PLoS ONE, 9(8), e105730. 




Areas of Expertise
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Coupled human and natural systems
  • Computational and quantitative methods

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(614) 688-3904
(614) 292-4155
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Columbus, OH 43210