Real understanding of past societies can only come with a holistic view of their place in the world. Today’s societies sometimes imagine that they act independently of the ecosystems that support them. We need only to look at the economic and health impacts of recent extreme weather and fires to see the fallacy of this view. The environment shapes how we understand ourselves as humans. Past societies may have had a more obvious relationship to their environment than people today, but investigating this relationship relies on fragmented evidence. This fragmented evidence is studied by archaeologists to understand past societies and by palaeoecologists to understand past ecosystems. Bringing these two fields together presents a number of challenges: reconciling issues of spatial scale, temporal span and different scholarly mindsets can frustrate attempts to investigate past socio-environmental systems. New techniques promise to relieve some of these frustrations. For example, land-cover modelling can reveal the extent of past human modification of regional-scale ecosystems, rewriting the history of human activity on the earth’s surface. Ancient DNA exposes past migrations and genetic bottlenecks in relation to environmental forcings, providing lessons relevant to current and future challenges. Sedimentary biomarkers help disentangle processes previously hidden from view. New statistical methods allow us to analyse patterns that our scientific forebears could only dream about. Like any new tool, there are important limitations and ethical issues that come into play, especially when dealing with the cultural and genetic heritage of Indigenous peoples. As researchers, we need to remain mindful of the peoples who created and maintained complex socio-environmental systems over millennia. While new technology and techniques hold much promise, a truly holistic view requires us to consider multiple sources of evidence and to learn from the descendants of the societies and environments we are trying to study.
Simon Connor works in the Archaeology and Natural History unit at the Australian National University. His research includes studies of air pollution history in Sydney, interactions between prehistoric cultures and vegetation in the Caucasus region, climatic change in the Balkans, forest disappearance along the Portuguese coastline, fire history in Mediterranean mountains, the creation of cultural landscapes in Tasmania's World Heritage Area, human impacts on island ecosystems, interactions between past fire and biodiversity change on the Iberian Peninsula, and early European impacts on the savannas of NW Australia.
The scale and antiquity of human impact on Amazonia is one of the most debated topics in archaeology and paleoecology. To address this issue, we implement an interdisciplinary approach to investigate climate-human-ecosystem interactions in the Amazon rainforest ecotone (ARE) of SE Amazonia. AREs are transitional landscapes between the tropical forest and the seasonally flooded savannas of the Llanos de Moxos. They are hotspots for biodiversity and harbor some of the earliest records of human occupation and plant domestication in Amazonia. There is increasing evidence that pre-Columbian land use and fire management strategies shaped Amazonian landscapes, particularly during periods of increased climate variability. To examine long-term human-environment dynamics in the ARE, we combine archaeology, archaeobotany, palaeoecology, and palaeoclimatology around Laguna Versalles in the Iténez Forest Reserve, Bolivia. Pollen and charcoal data indicate polycrop cultivation of Maize and Ipomoea and fire management after ca. 4500 cal yr BP. Phytolith data from archaeological soil profiles indicate Maize and Manihot cultivation predated the formation of ADE soils ~2400 cal yr BP. A new ceramic chronology identifies three phases, demonstrating the dynamic cultural history of the region. The first ceramic phase is synchronous with Amazonian Dark Earth (ADE) soil formation, while the construction of ditch and embankments, known as zanjas, and a double-ditch ring village, during the final ceramic phase, mark an increasing demand for fortification, consistent with a pattern that is found across Amazonia during this time period. Settlement fortification is synchronous with the abandonment of crop cultivation around the lake and an intensification of crop cultivation in the enclosed ADE sites. Regional palaeoclimate records indicate increased variability in precipitation that may have contributed to increased social conflict. The data suggest polyculture agroforesty, created resilient subsistence strategies that persisted despite pronounced climate variability and social conflict in the region.
Yoshi Maezumi is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Amsterdam. Dr Maezumi has degrees in Anthropology, Archaeology, and Religious Studies and earned her PhD in Physical Geography (concentration in Palaeoecology). Her dissertation focused on Climate, vegetation, and fire dynamics in the Amazon. During her post-doctoral research she developed an integrated approach to investigate the legacy of pre-Columbian land use, fire management and plant domestication in the Amazon rainforest. This research was published in high-impact journals including Science, Nature Plants, Nature Ecology and Evolution, Scientific Reports and Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Her current Marie Curie Fellowship Project FIRE: Fire Intensity in Rainforest Ecotones, implements state-of-the-art technology to examine the role of natural and anthropogenic fire in shaping rainforest-savanna ecotones in the Amazon and Caribbean islands. Dr. Maezumi aims to integrate insights from ancient land use to inform modern management policies for sustainable futures in tropical ecosystems.
Semiarid regions are spatial boundaries ideal for understanding climatic and environmental variability over different timescales. They are also preferred environments for human settlers given their climate, rich biodiversity and open landscapes. Since the late Pleistocene, semiarid regions in Chile resulted from increasing aridity in the Northern Semiarid Region and increasing temperature/moisture after the retirement of glaciers in the eastern flank of the Andes of Central Patagonia. Comparative archaeological research in these two regions may provide fruitful grounds for discussing early human trends; particularly if environmental changes of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition exerted pressures on resources and thus influenced behaviors of the first hunter-gatherers. This presentation summarizes decades of research in these two regions. The characteristics of the archaeological record, main sites and preferential settlement choices, chronological distribution of human occupations, and the evidence of technology and subsistence are used to assess human/environmental interactions. Understanding the early exploring phase, the extinction of several genres of megafauna, and human transformations of the landscapes are some of the lingering questions driving research for the years to come.
César Méndez's research focuses on studying the human-environmental interactions in semiarid regions across Chile (Northern Semiarid Region and the eastern flank of the Andes of central Patagonia) with special interest on the first human settlers that peopled the region during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.
While Social sciences question on unequal human agencies for the Anthropocene, Geosciences are mostly focused on identifying best candidates for Stratotype Sections and Points. Such problematizations for one the most influential concepts over recent decades, reflect predominant reductionist perspectives to portray feedback processes that might compromise the stability and resilience of socio-ecological systems. Still, the Historical Ecology approach has the potential to promote a real paradigm shift to understand interactions that have shaped the human-dominated Earth state through time and, apparently, into the future. In this talk, I will outline some challenges in implementing this research program by revising study cases delineated for the Atacama Desert and central Chile for the last 3.5 ka. I will also highlight the importance of integrating of large datasets for biophysical conditions and socio-cultural behaviors in our understanding of processes that govern human-engineering capacities at several spatio-temporal scales. But more importantly, to recognize that the Anthropocene cannot be solely linked to an “universal imprint” of Industrialized societies, but that this phenomenon is intrinsically tied to (paleo)historically and geographically diverse configurations in the human-environment interactions.
Eugenia Gayo is Associated Researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience Researcher (CR2, Chile). After graduating as a Biologist, she focused her career on studying co-evolutive feedbacks between biophysical and social systems at different timescales. Eugenia has developed a research agenda that explicitly conjugates principles and methodologies from Paleo-sciences, Ecology, Biogeochemistry and Archaeology to understand the long-term dynamic of socio-ecological systems, past societal vulnerability to environmental variations, and how these factors could impact socio-cultural trajectories. She has recently synthesized a large amount of data to contextualize in the deep-time the socio-environmental history in Chile, and its relationship with the Anthropocene. In 2012, Eugenia was awarded two prizes in Excellence in Life Sciences Research (PUC, Chile) for her pioneer and interdisciplinary PhD dissertation on the human-environment interaction in the Atacama Desert over the last 18,000 years.