In This Chapter

Bookmark and Share

Chapter Summary

  • To understand how humans in the past functioned we must know what their world was like. Environmental archaeology is the study of human interaction with the natural world. To investigate environment on a global scale, archaeologists utilize data gathered from such techniques as deep-sea coring, which provide climatic information though the analysis of organic molecules in sediment.
  • Geoarchaeology employs methods for determining the effects of changing climate on the terrain itself. From this archaeologists can assess the environment faced by a site’s inhabitants at different time periods. Geoarchaeology can be combined with traditional excavation to produce a more comprehensive picture of a site.
  • Much information about the past environment can be gained through microbotanical remains, plant remains that can only be seen through a microscope. Palynology, the study of ancient pollen grains, can give archaeologists some idea of fluctuation in vegetation types over time. Phytoliths, the particles of silica from the cells of plants that survive after the plant has decomposed, can be used to recover similar information. Phytoliths often survive in sediments where pollen will not be preserved. Macro-botanical remains, those that can be seen by the human eye (such as seeds, fruit, and wood), provide information about what plants grew near sites and which were consumed by humans.
  • Animal remains supply interesting clues about past climatic conditions. The remains of large animals found at archaeological sites, known as macrofauna, mainly help us build a picture of past human diet. Microfauna, such as rodents, mollusks, and insects, are better indicators of environment than larger species as they are more sensitive and adapt more quickly to climate change.
  • All human groups have had an impact on the environment: the domestication of plants and animals, the controlled use of fire, the pollution of air and water, and the use of field systems are only some of the ways that people have changed the world around them. It is clear that modification of the immediate environment is fundamental to human culture.

Key Concepts


Ecosystem, p.233

Evidence from Water and Ice

Planktonic foraminifera, p.234
Ancient winds, p.234

El Niño Events

El Niño, p.236

Ancient Coastlines

Land bridges, p.237
Isostatic uplift, p.238
Seismic reflection profiling, p.238
Middens, p.239

Studying the Landscape

Geoarchaeology, p.240
Varves, p.241
Geomorphology, p.242
Soil micromorphology, p.244
Cultural deposits, p.244
Loess sediments, p.245

Cave Sediments

Stalactites and Stalagmites, p.243
Cave ice, p.243

Reconstructing the Plant Environment

Pollen, pp.250–51
Fossil cuticles, p.252
Phytoliths, pp.252–53
Diatom analysis, p.253
Rock varnishes, p.253
Flotation, pp.254–55

Reconstructing the Animal Environment

Microfauna, p.256
Mollusk shell analysis, p.257
Insects, p.258
Macrofauna, p.259
Zooarchaeology, p.260

Reconstructing the Human Environment

Modification of the living area, p.264
Land management, p.265
Pollution, p.265

Human Impact on Island Environments

Extinctions, p.269
Easter Island, pp.270–71