Detecting past peoples in the tropics

January 22, 2020

Vegetation History & ArchaeobotanyDetecting the presence, and impact, of peoples past impact in ecosystems and landscapes in the tropics is a challenging because the traces that they leave behind are few and disentangling them from ‘natural’ (non-human related) variability is a challenge. As an Associate Editor for Vegetation History & Archaeobotany (VHAA) I enjoy handling manuscripts that think about these issues and explore the role of humans in tropical landscapes. Two recent papers published in VHAA touched on this subject (one of which I “communicated” as an editor).

  • Bodin et al. (2020) studied charcoal recovered from soil at sites with a gradient of archaeological evidence for past human activity in French Guiana.
  • Goethals & Verschuren (2019) explored the relationship between the amount of dung fungi found in lake sediments and the herbivore populations living around the lakes.

The work by Bodin et al. identified two periods of past human occupation of the Nouragues Reserve of French Guiana: (i) 1300-1000 years ago, and (ii) 600-400 years ago. They also found that at the landscape scale the extent to which humans are present, and the way in which they did/did not have a legacy in the modern vegetation, was variable. The link between the archaeological evidence and the inferences drawn from our understanding of plant usage is shown not to be simple, with “useful” species dominating in areas containing no archaeological evidence, and the flora within earth works showing no signs of human modification today.

The research by Goethals & Verschuren suggests that domesticated large herbivores within agricultural landscapes produce a large amount of dung fungi that is transferred into lakes than wild large herbivore populations. This finding has important implications for establishing robust interpretations of dung fungi found in ancient sedimentary records both in Africa, where this study was conducted, and around the world.


Bodin, S.C., Molino, J., Odonne, G. & Bremond, L. (2020) Unraveling pre-Columbian occupation patterns in the tropical forests of French Guiana using an anthracological approach. Vegetation History & Archaeobotany DOI: 10.1007/s00334-019-00767-w

Goethals, L. & Verschuren, D. (2019) Tracing ancient animal husbandry in tropical Africa using the fossil spore assemblages of coprophilous fungi: a validation study in western Uganda. Vegetation History & Archaeobotany DOI: 10.1007/s00334-019-00760-3

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