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The mutual relationship between archaeology and the environment

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  1. Introduction.
  2. The history of archaeological interest in the environment.
  3. Climate and sea-level changes.
  4. Natural changes in plant and animal communities.
  5. Human impact on the environment.
  6. Resource use and seasonality.
  7. Domestic environments from farmstead to town.
  8. Conclusion.

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 ?elds, 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 modi?ed their environment and exploited its resources is provided by the biological remains from archaeological sites. Mesolithic peoples lived by hunting, gathering plants, and ?shing, 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 shell?sh 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 signi?cance 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. [...]

[...] The disease hypothesis accounts for the speed and wide geographical range of the elm decline, but at many sites an association with human activity is suggested by the presence of cereal pollen and other ?anthropogenic indicators.? It seems that the elm decline may have been caused by a combination of disease and human activity: as Neolithic people removed elm branches for leaf fodder or building purposes, they damaged the trees and provided points of entry for the disease, thus encouraging its spread. The spread of the disease may itself have encouraged Neolithic people to clear woodland by killing trees and creating natural openings in the dense woodland canopy. The Neolithic elm decline provides a useful example of the multiple hypotheses that often need to be considered to understand the past relationships between human activity and environment and the range of different types of evidence that can be used to support them. [...]

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