The nature of past environments is a key aspect of archaeology because human action cannot be understood in isolation from its surroundings. For example, the lifestyle of a human group living in a densely forested area in a temperate climate would be very different from that of the same community inhabiting a treeless arctic landscape. Furthermore, in the case of any individual archaeological site, it must be realized that the modern environment may bear little relationship to that of the past. There may have been major changes in climate, sea level, soils, and plant and animal communities over the millennia. Thus a site occupying a coastal setting in the Mesolithic period might now lie several kilometers inland, or it might be completely submerged by the sea. The reconstruction of past environments is based on many types of evidence, ranging from long-term perspectives on climate change provided by analysis of deep sea sediments and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to reconstruction of local plant and animal communities from biological re- mains excavated from archaeological sites. Specialists from many ﬁelds, including climatologists, geologists, soil scientists, botanists, and zoologists are involved in analyzing such data.
[...] Resource use and seasonality In addition to the natural deposits that document major environmental changes, evidence for the ways in which prehistoric and early historic peoples modiﬁed their environment and exploited its resources is provided by the biological remains from archaeological sites. Mesolithic peoples lived by hunting, gathering plants, and ﬁshing, and may have moved around the landscape following herds and exploiting seasonally available resources. A characteristic result of later Mesolithic activity in coastal areas is shell middens—large piles of shells, such as cockles and limpets—left from shellﬁsh consumption. [...]
[...] Furthermore, climate change during this period varied by region, and it is unlikely that a consistent link to the adoption of agriculture could be demonstrated across an area as environmentally diverse as Europe. Recent research has also highlighted the signiﬁcance of short-term climate changes resulting from variations in solar activity, including a period of cooler and wetter climate at the end of the Bronze Age, c B.C. Such changes may have had considerable implications for land use, by affecting the extent to which “marginal” upland and low-lying areas could be farmed. [...]
[...] Biomolecular techniques, such as analysis of ancient DNA (deoxyribo-nucleic acid), are improving and will play an increasing role in isolating and characterizing tiny quantities of degraded molecules; isotopic analysis of bone can shed light on diet and provide clues to the movement of people between different landscape zones. The specialized scientiﬁc nature of much of this research requires close collaboration between archaeologists and scientists and promises to produce many new insights into human-environment relations. SUMMARY The nature of past environments is a key aspect of archaeology because human action cannot be understood in isolation from its surroundings. [...]
[...] One of the principal techniques used to reconstruct the interaction between human activity and the environment is pollen analysis. Many plants produce large amounts of pollen that may be preserved for hundreds of thousands of years in waterlogged deposits. The identiﬁcation of this pollen makes it possible to reconstruct the original plant communities. The technique can be used to show natural changes in vegetation, such as woodland colonization of the landscape after the last glacial period, as well as the impact of human activity. [...]
[...] Recent analyses of the ice cores from Greenland indicate that maximum Holocene temperatures were reached between c and 2300 B.C., spanning the agricultural transition in Europe, and pollen evidence suggests that, toward the middle of this period, summer temperatures across much of Europe were approximately warmer than today. Warmer temperatures would have affected both natural vegetation and crops, but whether this effect was beneﬁcial would have depended on other aspects of climate, such as the seasonal distribution and quantity of rainfall, the details of which are unknown. [...]
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