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Exploring complexity in the archaeological landscapes of monsoon Asia using lidar and deep learning

Project description

Lidar technologies unveil the past of tropical forests

Recent breakthroughs in archaeological science are inspiring a widespread re-appraisal of the dynamic relationship between humans and tropical forest environments throughout prehistory. Often seen as pristine, wild and inhospitable places, recent work suggests that we have underestimated the scale and intensity of human impacts globally in these regions. The EU-funded project aims to study rainforest landscapes in Southeast Asia, by using a new generation of lidar technology, which can detect former traces of human activities on the earth's surface. Based on this technology, the project will create comparable datasets of human impacts, to better understand trajectories of innovation and complexity in the tropics from the past to the present.


Compelling evidence is now emerging that tropical environments were cradles of innovation and complexity from prehistory to the present. Tropical forests in particular have long been considered marginal and inhospitable, but recent work suggests that several critical milestones were achieved in these landscapes. Vast expanses were terraformed by increasingly complex societies, often in a quest to mitigate the sharp seasonality of the monsoon. Ostensibly wild and pristine rainforests are now characterised as managed 'gardens'. The giant low-density settlement complexes of 'rainforest civilisations' anticipate the sprawling megacities of our contemporary world, and offer a laboratory for understanding the profound challenges that they create.

To date, these emerging perspectives have largely been driven by advances in palaeobotany, archaeogenetics, isotopic analyses, and contemporary rainforest ecology. Remote sensing has so far played only a modest role in this broader agenda, in spite of the unique capability of lidar technology to 'strip away' vegetation and reveal archives of human activity inscribed in the Earth's surface.

This program will tackle the core problems that currently constrain the 'lidar revolution' in archaeology: We will use a new generation of lidar technologies to greatly expand coverage in Southeast Asia, home to many of the most important and understudied rainforest landscapes. We will develop open access frameworks and infrastructures for aggregating, sharing and collaborating on new and existing lidar datasets. We will build on recent advances in artificial intelligence to develop generic models for automation and analysis, in order to move beyond localised, culturally-specific lidar applications. The net result of this work will be to create consistent, comparable datasets of human impacts on the Earth's surface, with a view to understanding trajectories of innovation and complexity in the tropical world from the deep past to the present.


Net EU contribution
€ 2 748 285,00
Avenue du president wilson 22
75116 Paris

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Ile-de-France Ile-de-France Paris
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00

Beneficiaries (1)