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How-Do-You-Know about the Environment

An environment refers to the sum of physical, biological, and cultural characteristics of a particular place at a particular point in time. As such, the data and methods utilized for environmental reconstructions are numerous. Not only are data and methods numerous, they vary with the geological time under consideration and the types of geological, biological, and cultural deposits available for study. As such, the study of past environments is necessarily an interdisciplinary study that requires the expertise of geologists, paleontologists, botanists, palynologists, archaeologists, among others.

Our understanding past environments is greatly enriched by the study of the following.

  1. Sediments that entomb an archaeological deposit. The study of the sediments and stratigraphy of an archaeological site is often the first step in understanding the environments that existed when the site was occupied. A trained eye may often be able to quickly identify the type of depositional environment in which the sediments at an archaeological site accumulated. Floodplain, backwater lake, stream channel, lake, colluvial and alluvial fan, sand bar depositional environments can all be differentiated with careful examination of the characteristics of individual deposits (e.g., size of particles, color of the deposit, etc.). Knowledge of the landscape and geomorphic position of a site is often critical to this assessment.
  2. Geomorphology and landscapes of the study area. Even a general knowledge of the type of geomorphic features in an area will help you understand the main types of geological processes that may have contributed to the formation of sedimentary deposits at a particular site. We can expect, for example, that depositional environments commonly found in modern river valleys, will also be represented in the deposits of ancient river systems.
  3. Animal Remains. The remains of mammals, birds, mussels, snails, amphibians, and even insects are particularly useful in identifying the environments represented at a site or in a region. This is because many animals have rather specific habitat preferences including attributes such as available food, cover, temperature, humidity, soil moisture, and sediment type. Thus, identifying the animals present at an archaeological site provides information of the types of habitats exploited by the human population.
  4. Plant Remains the archaeological deposit and other nearby sites. Like animal remains, plant remains such as carbonized (burned) wood and nuts, and seeds from storage pits are also preserved in archaeological sites. Pollen and macrofossils (fragments of leaves and twigs) from lake deposits also provide detailed information about the past environment. Again, because plants often have highly specific needs and climatic tolerance limits, their presence/absence and abundance at a site can inform us about the past environment.
These and other paleoenvironmental data help archaeologists understand the risks and opportunities associated with living at particular points on the landscape at particular points in time.

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