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Interactions with the environment

Environmental archeology (sometimes referred to as historical ecology) addresses how people lived in the past, the environment they faced, the resources and opportunities it provided or denied them, and the economic strategies by which they made a living in the world around them. Archeological sites very rarely consist entirely of humanly produced remains or artifacts. They also contain a vast range of ecofacts such as soils and sediments that compose the site to the remains of animals and plants. Four areas of environmental archeology and their related fields are discussed below.

Zooarcheology

Zooarcheology (also known as archeozoology) is the study of faunal (animal) remains from archeological sites. These primarily consist of the surviving hard parts of the body, e.g. bones, teeth and shell. Such remains represent for the most part the food refuse of ancient populations, although they may also reflect the use of animals for transportation, decoration or household pets. Zooarcheology, together with other bioarcheological disciplines, provides the archeologist with a more complete picture of the kinds of animals and plants present at a site—whether these organisms represent food remains, living entities that were part of the surrounding environment, or organisms present after the site was abandoned. Faunal and floral remains can shed light on way of life of past populations and the kind of environment they inhabited. Although zooarcheology provides information about the animals themselves and uses biological methods, its final aim is to understand the environmental context of past human cultures.

Paleobotany

Paleobotany, also referred to as archeobotany, is a branch of paleontology dealing with fossil plants. A subfield of paleobotany is paleoethnobotany, which analyzes and interprets plant remains from archeological sites in order to understand the past interactions between human populations and plants (Thomas 1998:325) Paleobotanists particularly study macroflora (seeds), phytoliths (plant microfossils composed of silica) and plant pollen. Paleontology is the study of fossils—any trace of a past life form. Although wood, bones, and shells are the most common fossils, under certain conditions soft tissues, tracks and trails, and even coprolites (fossil feces) fossilized. Paleontologists study these fossils to help reconstruct the history of the earth and the life on it.

Archeologists primarily work with artifacts and human remains. Paleontology does not usually deal with artifacts made by humans. However, archeologists and paleontologists might work together. For instance, a paleontologist might identify fossil animal bones associated with an archeological site to determine what the people who lived there ate; or a paleontologist might analyze the climate at the time a particular archeological site was inhabited.

Soil analysis

Soil analysis can tell archeologists about the conditions in which it was formed, the changes that have taken place since then, and, in some cases, the activities of humans. Soils consist of an inorganic mix of rock particles and minerals and organic material (humus) derived from decayed plants (McIntosh 1999:105). Archeopedology is the study of ancient soils in archeological contexts. At archeological sites soils often retain matter from cultivated plants, fires, human-made features and human daily activities such as cooking or waste disposal.

[photo] Sample page from a Munsell Color Chart.

Sample page from a Munsell Color Chart. (Southeast Archeological Center, NPS)

Archeologists analyze soils in several ways. One method is soil or sediment color and texture analysis. Determining each color in a soil layer is important because archeologists want to see the transition between layers. A difference in soil layer color can show age, use of site, activities, and eating habits. Archeologists use a Munsell Color Chart to determine the color of a soil or sediment. Each color is given a code of letters and numbers that can be compared to those of other colors in the soil profile.

The chart has sets of standardized color chips arranged in rows on several pages. Archeologists obtain a code by comparing the soil color to one of the pages in the book. The purpose of this system is to avoid arbitrary color descriptions. Archeologists may analyze soils microscopically. Magnification may reveal particles that indicate the original function of archeological structures or deposits. For example, minute pieces of charcoal suggest fires, while phytoliths may determine the past presence of specific plants (McIntosh 1999:105).

Archeologists may chemically analyze soils. Human activity can alter soil chemistry, often enriching soils, particularly in their phosphorus or nitrogen concentrations. Soil samples can be taken both within features as well as at regularly spaced intervals throughout the site in an attempt to find patterns in chemical concentrations that indicate human activities such as trash disposal or soil fertilization. Archeologists may test soils in the field or send samples to laboratories for analysis (Hester et al. 1997:136).

Geomorphology

Geomorphology is the science that studies the general configuration of the Earth's surface, specifically the study of the classification, description, nature, origin, and development of present landforms and their relationships to underlying structures, and of the history of geologic changes as recorded by these surface features. Through geoarcheology, archeologists incorporate geomorphological studies into their research to gain an understanding of what earlier landforms were like and where sites may be potentially located as well as insight regarding prehistoric raw material choices, extraction technologies, mining economy, site formation processes, and landscape history. Geoarcheologists often use high-tech remote sensing techniques, such as ground penetrating radar and seismic sensing.

For your information

Environmental Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History
Find out about the museum's research programs in zooarcheology, paleobotany, and archeopedology.

Soil Science for Archeologists
This online manual trains archeologists in all aspects of soil science-from soil classification to soil chemical properties.

Fun fact

1.8 billion years ago (long before people were around), the western edge of the continent was located west of what is now Nevada's Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Geologic evidence of a collision between this coast and offshore volcanic islands that occurred 1.7 billion years ago is visible around Lake Mead.

Case studies

Changing Opportunities & Challenges: Human-Environment Interaction in the Canadian Prairies Ecozone
Read about a project that is examining past interactions between humans and the environment in the physiographically and ecologically diverse Canadian Prairies Ecozone.

Meet the Faunal Expert at Brooklyn's Eighteenth-century Lott House
Learn how a zooarcheologist interprets faunal remains from an eighteenth-century Dutch household.

Try it yourself

The Mystery of the Stolen Artifacts
This activity is a fictional trial of a man accused of illegally taking Anasazi artifacts from public land. One piece of evidence is genetic information from modern plant remains that were found inside one of the pots. You review the evidence and decide whether the man is guilty or innocent.

TSM/MJB