Sean Downey

Assistant Professor

Please see the website for my Research Lab.


Sean Downey is an ecological anthropologist whose research explores the social and ecological dynamics of farming and foraging societies, past and present. His work is guided by the belief that anthropology’s traditional focus on primary data collection and attention to variability in human culture can provide important insights into pressing questions about sustainability. Sean often uses a “complex adaptive systems” approach to investigate the relationship between humans and the natural environment, which focuses on system dynamics, feedback, scale, historical contingency and emergence; in accordance, one distinguishing aspect of his work and teaching is the use of computational methods such as agent-based modeling, social network analysis, GIS, and computational statistics to complement more traditional anthropological methods. Sean’s projects have spanned three sub-disciplines of anthropology including sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, and computational approaches to historical linguistics.


Sean received an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to conduct fieldwork in several Q’eqchi’ Maya villages in southern Belize researching the socio-ecology of swidden agriculture. The initial publication in Ecology and Society (2010) suggested that neither Malthusian nor Boserupian theory were adequate to explain swidden’s widespread use in historically isolated cultures or in the periphery of the world system. In support, he presents ethnographic and quantitative social network data from Belize to illustrate how the dependencies Q’eqchi’ labor networks create between farmers help protect local forests from over-exploitation by creating incentive to remain in established villages and limiting pioneer settlements into uninhabited parts of the forest.


Through December 2012, Sean will work at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London where he has two ongoing projects. First, he is investigating the European Neolithic period on an European Research Council-funded Advanced grant. His research group is developing novel statistical methods for accurately inferring Neolithic population levels from a large database of radiocarbon dates. This significant work has identified a consistent pattern of demographic collapse 20-30 generations after the arrival of agriculture and stock-keeping in different regions across Europe; further statistical analysis with various paleoclimate proxies (Greenland ice cores, and an Irish speleothem) has supported the conclusion that these declines were endogenous, rather than climatically driven.


His second project is as co-PI with colleagues at the University of Arizona on an NSF-funded project to develop computational linguistic methods and to analyze the demographic history of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. In 2008, they published an innovative method for the automatic reconstruction of demographic history based on phonetic distances in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, and they are currently analyzing the effectiveness of different methods of reconstruction across spatial and linguistic scales.


Dr. Downey will join the Department of Anthropology at UMD as an Assistant Professor in January 2013. Prior to his current position at University College London, he was a post-doc at Stanford University where he developed an agent-based model of Martu (Australian) wind-driven fire ecology. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona in 2009 and his MA in Anthropology from Northern Arizona University in 2003. Between 1994-2000 he worked in the private sector and ran a software development company in Portsmouth, NH. He received his BA in Archaeology, Cum Laudewith Distinctionin 1994 from Boston University.

Areas of Interest:
  • Ecological anthropology; swidden agriculture, common-property resources, Q'eqchi' Maya ethnoecology, neolithic prehistory in Europe and Indonesia, computational linguistics, computational social science (ABM, SNA, GIS, and phylogenetics).
Former Students
  • Guowei Sun
    Research Assistant
  • Matt Gabb
    BSOS Summer Scholar
  • Downey
1106 Woods Hall
Department of Anthropology
Phone: (301) 405-1427