Over the last two weeks I have been giving my lectures at the VU Amsterdam “Scientific Methods in Archaeology” bachelor program. In my lectures we think about how to detect past environmental change with particular reference to tracking past human activities. As part of our exploration of past human-environment-climate interactions each student is asked to choose a scientific article, summerise it, and we then discuss it in class. The three papers sected this year covered the Neolithic of the Netherlands (Weijdema et al., 2011), a overview of Mediterranean and north African cultural adaptations to drough events during the Holocene (Mercuri et al., 2011), and an exploration of the role of humans in mega-faunal extinctions in South America (Villavicencio et al., 2015). All papers provided interesting points of discussion and an opportunity to think about different aspects of how we investigate past environmental and societal change.
The 2018 edition of the University of Amsterdam masters course “Environments Through Time” is now up and running. The course sits at the interface between ecology, physical geography and archaeology and seeks to provide students with a better understanding of how long-term (>100’s years) datasets can provide insights in to past environmental change.
In the first week of the course the students had to present their ‘favourite’ paper in just three (3) minutes! Quite a challenge and lots of fun. This years selection of papers themed around:
mega-fauna extinctions (Bakker et al., 2016; Gill et al., 2009; van der Kaars et al., 2017),
impacts of human land use practices (Bitusik et al., 2018; Carson et al., 2014; Chepstow-Lusty et al., 2009; Gauthier et al., 2010; Tisdall et al., 2018), and
climatic drivers of vegetation change (Haug et al., 2001; Tierney et al., 2017; Tudhope et al., 2001).
For full list of papers presented see below.
In the second and third weeks (now ongoing) students get to deconstruct published chronologies and conduct time series analsis of multi-proxy datasets. Data for these excercises is frequently is extracted from databases such as Neotoma, Pangea, NOAA – paleoclimatology datasets database and the Global Charcoal Database – which shows the importance of these open access databases for developing effective research led eductation, as well as pushing forward to frontiers of research.
The second and third weeks of the Environments Through Time course at the University of Amsterdam has focused on obtaining practical experience of developing chronologies, analyzing multi-variate data-sets, and conducting time series analysis. The focus of the course has been on Quaternary environmental change, however, the skills learnt can be applied to almost any time-scale so long as you have time control points you want to tie together, and multiple things you can track changing through that time.
Over the two week period the students worked on a previously published paper that they had selected that contains: (i) chronological information (at least 3 control points), and (ii) multiple variables that change through the time series (at least 9 variables). In week two they deconstructed the chronologies and generated their own revised versions. For example students have (re-)calibrated radiocarbon dates, made different decisions on dates to include/exclude, and used different approaches to constructing the age vs. depth model, e.g. contrasting linear point-to-point vs. Bayesian methodologies. In week three they have taken the data-set(s) associated with their paper and re-evaluated it in light of the revised chronologies using cluster analysis, ordination techniques, and wavelets.
The joy of wavletes
Through this exercise students have gained experience of how to critically assess scientific literature and gained an appreciation of where re-analysis of data-sets can (and cannot) make a difference. Personally I have be delighted with the high level of engagement and enthusiasm for the material and have been excited to have a chance to delve into literature that I would not otherwise be aware of.
Scales of change (ecological, geological, and human).
Humans as drivers of environmental change.
Extra-terrestrial forcing of environmental change.
Earth system feedbacks.
The week was completed with each student giving a three (3) minute presentation of their favourite paper. The papers presented ranged from the extinction of giant sharks, through forest-savannah transitions, to how climate change thwarted Ghengis Kahn. Next week we continue by disecting how chronologies are constructed.
Each project was set up to test a particular ecological or biogeographic hypothesis. Investigations included the exploration of the role of humans in modifying ecosystems in Amazon, the nature of the pre-farming landscape in the the Netherlands, and how to chemically identify fossil charcoal. In undertaking their projects individual students had the opportunity to variously develop skills in microscopy, spatial modelling, or analytical chemistry. The high quality of the data produced means that hopefully many of these data sets can be used in future scientific publications. Well done to all!
If you are interested in conducting a similar project (at any academic level) with us please do not hesitate to get in contact. For further details of ongoing research within the Department of Ecosystems & Landscape Dynamics visit our web pages by clicking here.
Preparing my lecture for the new Scientific Methods in Archaeology course for VU Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam students studying a minor in Geoarchaeology. The focus will be on detecting human activity in the past, to illustrate this I will include Easter Island/Rapa Nui as a case study. We will focus on how palaeoecological evidence can be used to gain insights into past human activity. Whilst putting this together I discovered these nice documentaries looking at humans and their environmental impacts on Easter Island/Rapa Nui which I wanted to share, they show how much effort people would have had to put into altering their landscape:
For further information see also:
Rull, V., Cañellas-Boltà, N., Saez, A., Margalef, O., Bao, R., Pla-Rabes, S., Valero-Garcés, B. & Giralt, S. (2013) Challenging Easter Island’s collapse: The need for interdisciplinary synergies. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 1, DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2013.00003