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
Zoe and William just after the graduation ceremony (UvA)
Two students (Zoe van Kemenade and Tessa Driessen) have recently completed projects looking at past environmental change on Samoa working in the Research Group of Palaeoecology & Landscape Ecology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Zoe’s project, part of her BSc Future Planet Studies (major Earth Sciences) at UvA, was entitled “A multi‐proxy analysis on the effect of climate and human activity on the environment of Samoa during the Holocene” and investigated charcoal, macro-fossils, and algae. Tessa’s project, “Biodiversity, fire and human dynamics on Samoa over the last 9200 years”, was completed as an internship during her MSc in Environmental Biology at Utrecht University (UU) that was co-supervised by Rike Wagner-Cremer. Tessa focused on the fossil pollen record to reconstruct past vegetation change. Both projects were conducted in cooperation with Jon Hassel and David Sear (both University of Southampton) who provided access to the Samoan sediments; for more on the Southampton Pacific Islands projects check out their blog Palaeoenvironmental Laboratory at the University of Southampton.
The results from both projects, and work by the University of Southampton team, will be presented at this years GTO conference (European conference of tropical ecology) in Gottingen next week.
William giving his personal view on the work of Tessa at her gradation ceremony (UU)
The month-long palaeoecology module at UvA is coming to an end. We have had two weeks of lectures and microscope work, an introduction to quantitative palaeoecology, and we just finished a week of fieldwork in Twente, which is in the easternmost part of the Netherlands.
Students working in the field (photo: M. Groot)
Will Gosling and I tried something new for the field excursion this year. We split the class into eight groups, and gave each group a set of pollen and phytolith samples from an ‘unknown location’. Unknown in this context means being from one of the eight primary sites that we would visit during the field excursion. The students were required to perform vegetation surveys and characterize soils at each of the primary sites that we visited. The goal of each group was to figure out which location their set of ‘unknown’ samples came from. Basically, we had them doing forensic palynology, with idea that they could then better visualize the different vegetation assemblages seen in the palaeoecological records. Continue Reading
Students examining a sediment core extracted with a Russian corer
Last week, Will – our new associate professor at the University of Amsterdam – joined us on the field residential module of the undergraduate “Paleoecology” course; 7 days exploring the sediments and vegetation of the Twente region of the Netherlands. The experience provided Will with a lot of information on Dutch language, landscapes, and students; which should be useful to him next year as he will be coordinating the course!
Students examining peat exposures.
During this very intensive (4-week) paleoecology course, students get background lectures in past environmental change, learn to identify microfossils in the laboratory (pollen and chironomids), and go on the excursion to experience fieldwork. The field module involves excursions during the day, when students have to identify plant species indicative of different vegetation types in relation to soil nutrient availability and moisture content. The evenings are reserved for the students own paleoecological research investigation; this year students were reconstructing the vegetation history and climate change during the late-glacial from a lake sediment core from Germany. Once data collection was completed the students had to interpret the pollen assemblages they found using the knowledge of modern day ecosystems they gained throughout the week. On the final evening they presented their work to the whole group. The final results they achieved were quite impressive.
Students presenting findings from the days work
I am very curious as to what the course will be like next year, led by Will, and how he will tweak and turn it to his liking.