Environmental Archaeology: An Overview
Environmental Archaeology is the study of the ecology of past human populations. No matter where we live, we impact the landscape, and the landscape impacts us. Archaeologists understand the physical environment such as landforms and climate, and the biological environment such as plants and animals, through analytical techniques used by the various sub disciplines of environmental archaeology. This includes:
Geoarchaeology reconstructs interactions between humans and the past physical environment using geomorphology and sedimentology. Geomorphology studies the shape and origin of landscape features, while sedimentology reconstructs the history of sediment or soil deposits. Together we can identify inorganic resources such as stone, clay, and mineral deposits while reconstructing past landscape topographies to explain human settlement patterns and impact.
Archaeobotany is the study of how humans interacted with the plants around them. Using preserved remains such as charcoal, seeds, wood, and phytoliths we can identify plant based foods, other uses for plant materials, and subsistence strategy. We can also use plants to reconstruct the chronology and climate of archaeological sites through additional sub-disciplines such as dendrochronology.
Palynology is the study of microscopic plant remains such as pollen and spores recovered from sedimentary cores to reconstruct regional plant communities. Simply put, the abundance of pollen and spores tell archaeologists which species dominated the area.
Zooarchaeology is the study of sub fossil animal remains such as bone, teeth, antler, shell, and parasites to identify the animals of past environments and identify subsistence of past human populations. This allows us to also learn about the health and sanitation of past populations.
Bioarchaeology is the study of past human remains. Each bone tells a story, and Bioarchaeologists can reconstruct diet, health, infectious disease, and behaviours of past populations through their remains.
The goal of environmental archaeology is the reconstruction of past culture. Understanding that humans are part of a complex interacting system of technology, behaviour, and the physical environment takes time and a wide variety of knowledge.