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INTERACT: Integrating Archaeological and Climatological Datasets: Investigating Global Human-Environmental Interactions

Final Report Summary - INTERACT (INTERACT: Integrating Archaeological and Climatological Datasets: Investigating Global Human-Environmental Interactions)

The main aim of this project is to facilitate systematic worldwide comparisons of how past human populations have responded, over the long-term, to climatic and environmental change during the Holocene period (broadly the past 10,000 years). This period encompasses major environmental changes associated with global warming and sea-level rise at the end of the last glacial period. Moreover, these changes occurred on a scale and in some cases with a rapidity that dwarfs the changes that we are likely to face in the coming centuries, for example sea-level rise of >50m and rapid oscillation of temperatures between full-glacial and full-interglacial conditions, with corresponding dislocations of natural resources and ecosystems. In archaeological terms, these changes are associated with the development of food production and early agriculture on land, and intensification in the exploitation of marine resources at the coast, developments that have resulted in potentially huge quantities of archaeological data relevant to such a study, notably shell mounds - which appear in their hundreds of thousands around the coastlines of the world from about 7000 years ago onwards as the durable expression of coastal settlements, societies and economies - and stone tools, food remains and other material culture associated with pre-agricultural and early agricultural developments on land, some of which extend back to 10,000 years or more.
The project drew on two case studies – from the semi-arid Red Sea and from tropical Australia, which despite the differences in climate have very similar archaeological records dominated by shell middens. This suggests a commonality in the way the records formed, and the way in which people in the past disposed of shell. Within each archaeological assemblage are clues to how people interacted with climate change in the past – and this was the target of this research. The IOF provided excellent opportunities for networking and building collaborations to further the aims of the project. For example a collaboration established with the Marie Curie International Fellowship Project “Accelerate” based at HELLAS FORTH, where a new experimental technique for extracting climate and behavioural data from shell is being developed. This is allowing new data to be extracted from the dataset further informing on the research questions.

The most significant results of my work during the reporting period are:
1. The long-term resilience of both ecological communities and the human exploitation of these is stronger than initially hypothesised. On the timescales the project investigated, shellfish exploitation was found to persist even through highly dynamic periods of coastal change. This challenges previous assumptions both about recovery of the ecological communities, but also about the persistence of human behaviour and opportunism. This was found to be true both in the Red Sea (Bailey et al. in press), and in Australia (publication in preparation).
2. The rapidity of shell mound accumulation is highly variable – with some accumulation in as little as 40 years (Hausmann et al. 2015), whilst others can accumulate over periods of 100’s of years. Interestingly (and unpredicted) was that that rate of deposition changed dramatically during accumulation (publication in preparation) – this is true both in the Red Sea and Australia.
3. The nature of shellfish exploitation has often been suggested to have been highly seasonally in nature – with shellfish forming a fall-back food in times of food stress, for example during dry summers or cold winters. However, the research here suggests that in the Red Sea shellfish exploitation occurred year round (Hausmann et al. 2015).

These results were only possible with the use of big data techniques, necessitating a Common Data Model (developed during the outgoing phase) whereby the data had a consistent format. This approach allowed the broad-scale patterns to be detected over and above the smaller scale site level variation that normally obscures the larger patterns. Most studies lack the sample size or the tools to be able to detect these signals; the methods developed by this project to enable these analyses are currently being adapted to interpret modern sites in Senegal as part of a future MSC RISE application.

During the outgoing phase of my International Outgoing Fellowship my training included hands on tutorials and mentoring – including participating in fieldwork where training was given in the latest cutting edge data acquisition and database techniques. I gained extensive training in geo-database software ArcGIS, and was taught programming language Python to facilitate data manipulation. My scientific maturation was also promoted by weekly lectures and seminars given by well acknowledged, highly reputed and respected scholars invited from across the world. During the return phase I benefitted from the vibrant research community at the return host institution, mentoring and close working relationship with numerous team members. As a key output from this the return host institution has given me a 3 year Honorary Research Associate position starting at the end of the project, to further aid collaboration and integration. During the project I organised five international workshops, bringing together researchers from across the world, building research networks, fermenting ideas and disseminating results. As an outcome I have a strong and diverse international network with collaborations being established, and 9 scientific publications published during the project, with two more in review, and multiple more in preparation. The project has opened up many more opportunities, including the preparation of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie RISE application (to be hosted at York) by the researcher with the two senior scientists on the project.

The fellowship has opened up new opportunities for the researcher, not least their appointment as lecturer; and the opportunity to look at human-climate interactions on a longer time-scale with research on human-climate interactions during the emergence of modern humans.
I believe, that my progress toward the objectives is in full agreement with my project proposal, and I was able to exploit almost all opportunities to gain the host institutes knowledge. I am more developed as a scientist, with greater knowledge and experience, and a new global network. My reintegration has been complemented with the Honorary position, future grant applications, and further workshops planned during the 3 year Honorary period.

For further information see the project website at: