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ECOLOGISTS Looking for help in the soil

Looking for help on his high school science project, Jeff contacted a curator at a local natural history museum who put him into contact with a historical ecologist. They met in the field to talk over the project. "So," Jeff started out, "what are you doing here?"

"Well, I'm interested in the relationships between people and the environment. I can't do all my research through books or natural history collections, so I come here," said the ecologist. The student looked around. "Is that...are they doing archeology?"

"Yes, actually," replied the ecologist. "Your history teachers probably talk about doing research with primary sources. This is similar."

"Huh?" said Jeff.

"We're looking at ancient peoples, so we don't have historical information about them. Archeology enables me to 'ask' the earth questions."

"And what then?"

"We want to learn from the ways people and the environment have interacted in the past, and to plan for the future." Jeff nodded, so ecologist asked, "What is your school project about?"

"Erosion," said the student. "When I go camping with the Boy Scouts in the mountains, we see other people destroying trails. When that happens, it's easier for rain and snow to make the soil slide."

The ecologist replied, "Great - you have a problem that affects the ways people use and manage the landscape, and you want to see how people over time have dealt with it. The materials people left behind tell you about the ripple effects of ecological change. You'll see it in their eating habits, workplaces and homes, and even in the kinds of natural materials they used."

"So archeology shows us how the environment has influenced the ways people lived!" exclaimed the student.

"Yes, but don't forget - people affect the environment and the landscape, too, like the mountain trail mashers. Archeology shows us the relationships between people and the world around them, and it educates us as the kinds of decisions we should make about our future."

Case Studies

(photo) Alaska's Mesa plateau. (Dan Gullickson)
A remote plateau in Alaska, called The Mesa, is a paleoecologist's dream. Research indicates that its ancient occupants lived during a time of radical global change. Archeology helps ecologists to understand their lives.   more +

Over time, ecological changes probably devastated the large Ice Age herbivores, perhaps also severely impacting people, too. As travel became more difficult, so did hunting and gathering for food. The changing landscape may have pushed some people south.

Paleoecological research associated with the Mesa has led to some interesting new discoveries. There is tentative evidence for a Younger Dryas (YD) event-a time of radical and rapid climate fluctuations at the core of the changes in Alaska from 11,000 to 10,000 years ago.

One of the most exciting aspects of the paleoecological research is the discovery of the "Lake of the Pleistocene." Several hundred years ago, an ancient lake was breached and drained by a course change in the Nigu River 15 miles to the west of the Mesa. The lake's sedimentary record begins during full glacial times, spans the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, and extends up to the time of drainage. The frozen sediments of the drained lake are now exposed in a 150-meter-long, 5-meter-high cutbank of the river.

Studying the past helps ecologists plan for the future and offers valuable and relevant information for debating climatic change, such as global warming. The world of the Mesa people changed dramatically 10,000 years ago, but they can still help us deal with changes happening now in the Arctic ecosystem.

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(photo) Archeologist examines ancient cultural site. (Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center)
What can we learn about the human use of Kenai Fjords by examining ancient cultural sites and consulting living descendants? And what can their cultures tell us about climate and natural resource changes taking place today? The Coastal Archaeology Project aims to find out.  more +

The coastlines within Kenai Fjords National Park are a rugged and seemingly hostile environment, but many waves of people have chosen to live there. Although this study is in a preliminary stage, researchers think they have found sites going back 1,000 years that they believe were rotated seasonally. There was evidence of a great earthquake, and that people were forced to abandon sites as glaciers advanced.

More study is required to unravel the mysteries of early coastline cultures and their relationships with the Alutiiq traditions on Prince William Sound, the Alaskan Peninsula, and the people of Port Graham and Nanwalek. But such work promises to contribute to our understanding of past ecologies and to the heritage of local peoples.

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(photo) Landscape backdrop of Jackson Hole project.
How do bison benefit from archeology? Archeologists, quaternary geologists, geoarcheologists, phytolith specialists, and ecologists are exploring that very question at Jackson Hole on the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park.   more +

Researchers are hunting for evidence of a long record of mammals to understand how mammals developed in relation to past climate change. Archeologists have found evidence of people, too. Butchering tools, rocks split by the heat of fires, cut marks on bones, and bits of charcoal indicate that people were hunting and preparing meat in this area for at least 9,000 years. The huge amount of bison bones found by archeologists at Jackson Hole indicate that bison, along with elk, bear and rabbit, were a major part of their subsistence.

Archeology may help determine how much land for parks bison need to live and thrive. Researchers hope to use archeology to model mammals' responses to changes in the Earth's climate and create strategies for the future management of wildlife and wetlands.

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