Detecting the European arrival in the Caribbean

March 8, 2019

The second of our discussion papers for the “Amsterdam Palaeoecology Club”:

Mick Bonnen

Mick ready to catch bumble bees!

Detecting the European arrival in the Caribbean
By Mick Bönnen (currently studying for MSc Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolution track at the University of Amsterdam)

The paper we discussed was “Columbus’ footprint in Hispaniola: A paleoenvironmental record of indigenous and colonial impacts on the landscape of the central Cibao Valley, northern Dominican Republic” by Castilla-Beltrán et al (2018). The paper provides a multi-proxy paleoecological reconstruction of the Caribbean island nation of the Dominican Republic, spanning the last 1100 years. Personally I found this to be a very interesting paper, packed with information and interpretations on the impact of anthropogenic factors on past Caribbean environments. What this paper nicely demonstrates is the difference in impact between pre-colonial and post-colonial societies on the vegetation of the Dominican republic. Pre-colonial Hispaniola was inhabited by indigenous societies, the Taíno people, and while this paper clearly shows them having had an environmental impact in the form of fire management (e.g. for slash and burn agriculture), small scale deforestation and the introduction of cultivars such as maize and squash, their environmental impact remains modest compared to post-colonial disturbances. Columbus arriving in AD 1492 signified a moment of change in the landscape. The paleorecord suggests that, after an initial collapse of the Taíno population, the colonization of the Dominican Republic by the Spanish brought with it deforestation, crop monoculture and the introduction of European livestock, all of which still characterizes the landscape to this day.

The discussion mainly focused on the chronology used. One of the radiocarbon samples was excluded from the age-depth model for no apparent reason, which led us to discuss the importance of critically evaluating your calibrated radiocarbon dates and which ones to incorporate in your age-depth model. The age-depth model currently used implied a shift in pollen composition c. 30 years before the arrival of the Spanish. We were unsure how to interpret these findings because you would expect the shift to happen afterwards, so my initial thought was that it had to be a fault in the chronology. This chronology however does imply a large charcoal peak followed by a rapid decline that coincides precisely with the arrival of the Spanish, and it turned out that this was the reason the authors settled on this chronology.

Even though this paper by Castilla-Beltrán et al. didn’t spark any heated discussions, its incorporation of ecology, botany, history, archeology and geology still showcases the interdisciplinary nature of paleoecology, something I very much enjoy about this field of research.


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AFQUA 2018 – day 5

July 18, 2018

AFQUA: The African Quaternary environments, ecology and humans
2ndInternational Conference and Workshops
14-22 July 2018-07-15 National Museum, Nairobi, Kenya

Day 5

The fifth day of the AFQUA conference started with the second session on “Archaeological Landscapes”. Talks included: (i) a tribute to the work of Dick Grove in Quaternary work in Africa since the 1950’s, including possibly the earliest definition of the African humid period in his paper Grove & Warren (1968) (D.S.G. Thomas), and (ii) a highlight of new work on the Kisese II Rock Shelter in Tanzania (K. Ranhorn). Then to take us up to lunch Prof. David Nash treated us to a tour de force through the use of historical records in reconstructing past climates; including quotes from the fantastically named Holloway Helmore a missionary to Lekatlong in 1851 commenting on drough and how to turn this type of information into a regional/continental synthesis!

The afternoon session focused around the theme of “East Africa”. This session started with two talks on one of the “least known ancient civilization” in Ethiopia the Aksumite and pre-Aksumite peoples, and the resilience of these peoples to environmental and land-use change (V. Terwilliger and Z. Eshetiu).  Other work presented on the morphometry of hominin skulls showing gradual development from 500,000 to 315,000 years ago which lead up to the appearance of anatomically modern humans (E. Mbua).

Population health in the Anthropocene

April 1, 2014

HumanHealthMcMichael, AJ. 2014. Population health in the Anthropocene: Gains, losses and emerging trends. The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, 1: pp. 44-56.

Last week we changed our regular lab meeting, when we all normally discuss a particular paper, to each presenting a general view on the articles published in the first issue of the new journal The Anthopocene Review (SAGE publication). In this lab meeting each member presented and lead discussion of issues within a different paper.

In my case, I had a very interesting paper by Anthony J McMichael about changes in life expectancy (Human population health) related to the human impact caused at global scale during the Anthropocene (defined in the paper as the last 200 yr). Here is a brief summary of the main topics discussed in the paper:

The paper deals with life expectancy trends during the human history on Earth, understood not as the individual health care but as a population or community collective (the “herd” effect), being this two independent topics.

The first section is a nice trip for human evolution and its relationship with the environment, distinguishing three different phases of environment-climate-human relationship:

  1. The Pleistocene (c. 2.6 million – 11,000 years ago): characterised by environment-driven changes;
  2. The Holocene (c. 11,000 – 200 years ago): with cultural-driven changes promoted by the potential of farming. Survival, although relying in culture changes, was still dependent on climatic stability (survival changes caused or amplified by adverse conditions); and
  3. The Anthropocene (last 200 year, as defined in this paper): when humans have become a dominant force on the world stage, being nowadays the major contributor to climatic change.

Then, in the second part of the paper, McMichael explains through several examples how the longer (time) and larger (spatial) consequences of current anthropogenic climatic change are crucial for human survival. The discussion is driven through a wide range of topics, such as the epidemiological transition (or), the environmentalist’s paradox (or), the distributive justice (or), urban sustainability and ecological footprint, or the coming famine.

Finally, the author shows several direct and indirect pathways by which changes in climatic conditions will affect the human health, encouraging the urgent need of an environmentally sustainable way of living.

If you are interested to find out what your ecological footprint might be try these online tests:

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