Environmental Archaeology

Anthropology: An Overview of Environmental Archaeology

Environmental archaeology, a subfield of archaeology, is the discipline of recreating the links between historical cultures and the settings in which they lived. The discipline originated in the 1970s. The field represents an archaeological-palaeoecological approach to researching the palaeoenvironment using human palaeoecological methodologies. Archaeologists gain insights into the creation and evolution of anthropogenic settings and ancient adaptations and economic activities by reconstructing previous habitats and past peoples’ relationships and interactions with the landscapes they inhabited.

Environmental archaeology sometimes entails researching plant and animal remnants to determine which plant and animal species were present during prehistoric habitations and how former people handled them. It may also entail researching the physical environment and determining how similar or unlike it was in the past compared to now. The investigation of site development mechanisms is an essential component of such investigations.

Essence of Environmental Archaeology

Environmental Archaeology
Credit: Trent University

This category is especially helpful when items are missing from an excavated or surveyed site or when earth movement, such as erosion, has buried artefacts and archaeological features. While specialist sub-fields like bioarchaeology or geomorphology are defined by the materials they study, the term “environmental” is used as a general template to denote a broad field of scientific inquiry. An inquiry applicable across periods and geographical regions studied by archaeology.

Because human behaviour cannot be understood in isolation from its surroundings, the character of ancient environments is an important part of archaeology. A human group’s lifestyle in a thickly wooded location in a moderate temperature, for example, would be significantly different from that of the same society in a treeless polar setting. Furthermore, it must be recognized that, in the case of any given archaeological site, the current environment may exhibit little resemblance to that of the past. Over millennia, there may have been significant changes in temperature, sea level, soils, and plant and animal groups. Thus, a Mesolithic site that was formerly on the shore may now be several kilometres inland, or the sea may drown it.

Subfields of Environmental Archaeology

Credit: Office of State Archaeology

Environmental archaeology is often subdivided into three sub-fields:


The study and interpretation of plant remnants are known as archaeobotany. Researchers can recreate the diets of past humans and their subsistence tactics and plant economy by determining the usage of plants in historical contexts. In addition, it allows for a better understanding of a people’s social and cultural practices. For example, the analysis of a specimen, such as wood charcoal, might show the fuel source or building.

Archaeobotanists frequently analyze seed and fruit remnants and pollen and starch. Carbonization, waterlogging, mineralization, and desiccation are the most popular methods for preserving plants. Ethnobotany is a subfield of archaeobotany. It studies the link between plants and people and the cultural influence plants have had and continue to have on human communities. Plant utilization as food, crops, or medicine is important, as are the plants’ economic impacts. Archaeobotanists mostly work with macrofossils, charcoal and wood, and microfossils. Charring, waterlogging, mineralization, and desiccation have all preserved plan remnants.


Archaeobotany research is classified into the Old World (Eurasia and Africa) and the New World (the Americas). While this separation has a geographical basis, it also reflects distinctions in the flora of the two different zones. Maize, for example, is found only in the New World, but olives are found only in the Old World. Paleoethnobotanists tend to narrow their study to specific locations, such as the Near East or the Mediterranean, since there are regional variances in recovered plant remains.


Zooarchaeology is a comprehensive study of animal remains and what they may teach us about the human communities in which the animals lived Animal remains can provide signs of human predation (or vice versa) or domestication. In addition, despite not disclosing particular animal-human ties, finding animal bones, skins, or DNA in a given region might characterize the location’s former environment or climate.

Zooarchaeology is the study of faunal remains to answer questions about the humans who lived in these places. In contrast to zoology, zooarchaeology focuses on animals about past human activities or previous human habitats. The specific animal species and skeleton features found in an archaeological assemblage can give insight into historical animal usage and information about the surrounding terrain and climate at the time of habitation.

Faunal Remains

Fauna means “animal,” so faunal remains are anything left behind by an animal, including bones, hide, dung, feathers, shells, and chemical signatures. But, of course, animals leave behind faunal remains without ever having anything to do with people. Thus faunal remnants must exhibit indicators of human relationships to be noteworthy. These signs could be direct, such as faunal remains discovered in a grave alongside a human body, or indirect, such as animal bones with chip marks (indicative of human cutting tools) or genetic signatures of domestication.

There must be unambiguous evidence of human activity nearby to be considered direct proof – maybe the bones were discovered in a human settlement. Animal remains discovered without direct or indirect human relationships are not considered part of zooarchaeology. However, they are frequently of interest to palaeontologists, who investigate animal remains with or without human involvement.


The study of landscape and geological processes is geoarchaeology. It examines habitats throughout human history to understand how environment affect or influence primary cultures. Sediment and soil are frequently examined not just because they contain the bulk of artefacts but also because natural processes and human behaviour may modify the soil and disclose its history. In addition to visual observation, computer programming and satellite images are frequently used to rebuild historical landscapes or buildings.

Geoarchaeology is a sub-discipline of archaeology that emerged in the 1960s. It often refers to work done with Earth scientific methodologies and techniques but with archaeological goals and objectives in mind. Geoarchaeology differs from archaeological geology as the latter uses archaeological data to solve geological difficulties. A geoarchaeological project might include geomorphological mapping to predict the locations of past human settlements. On the other hand, an archaeological geology study might use artefacts preserved in a stratigraphic sequence to understand the chronology of landscape change.

Examples of Geoarchaeology Research

Several examples of geoarchaeological research occurred in the 1960s, albeit mostly by geologists. H Wright’s study of the setting of Bronze Age activity in Messenia, Greece, performed as part of a broader archaeological survey, is a fine example of the latter. In contrast to early times, modern geoarchaeologists are mostly archaeologists with Earth science expertise.

Scope of Geoarchaeology

Geoarchaeologists are experts in layers and landforms. In contrast to zooarchaeology and archaeobotany, a site may have no sub-fossil remnants of animals and plants. Furthermore, even with no archaeological stratigraphy, the location still has a geomorphological story. As a result, geoarchaeology is relevant to all archaeological fieldwork initiatives.

Other fields that are similar include:

  • The archaeology of landscapes
  • human ecology and bioarchaeology
  • climatology
  • palaeoecology
  • archival investigation

History of Environmental Archaeology

Excavation Site
Credit: Mediaevalists

Environmental archaeology has arisen as a unique study in the last 50 years. Its importance has expanded quickly in recent years, and it is now an established component of most excavation operations. Environmental archaeologists and palaeoecologists collaborate with archaeologists and anthropologists specializing in material culture studies better to understand the livelihoods of early humans and people-environment interactions.

The environment is a “passive” interaction with humans in archaeology in the 1960s. However, with the addition of Darwinism and ecological concepts, this worldview began to evolve. This worldview was underlined by the main ideas and concepts of the period. Catastrophism, for example, explored how disasters such as natural disasters may be the deciding factor in a society’s existence.

Over the Years

The environment can have social, political, and economic consequences for human groups. As a result, it became more necessary for scholars to consider the direct impact of the environment on society. This spawned middle range theory and the key concerns posed by environmental archaeology in the 20-21st centuries. Environmental archaeology has since come to two fundamental conclusions: humans evolved in Africa, and agriculture originated in southwest Asia.

Another significant development in the field’s thinking revolved around cost-effectiveness. Archaeologists formerly believed that people operated to optimize their use of resources, but they now feel that this is not the case. Following theories/principles include sociality and agency and an emphasis on archaeological site linkages. In recent years, government research audits and environmental archaeology’s commercialization have also changed the field.

Methods of Environmental Archaeology Research

Hearts Environmental Archaeology
Credit: Jan Fast Archaeology

Environmental archaeologists approach a site by evaluating it and excavating it. The goal of evaluation is to examine the resources and artefacts provided in a specific region and their potential relevance. Excavation collects samples from various earth strata and employs a similar method to assessment. Human and animal remains, pollen and spores, wood and charcoal, insects, and even isotopes are popular materials. In addition, biomolecules such as lipids, proteins, and DNA can illuminate samples.

Computer topography and satellite photography frequently employ in geoarchaeology to rebuild landscapes. A Geographic Information System refers to a computer system capable of processing geographical data and creating virtual landscapes. Palaeoclimatology proxies, which can offer information on temperatures, precipitation, vegetation, and other climate-dependent factors, are usable to reconstruct climate records. These proxies can offer context for the current climate and compare the previous climate to the current climate.

Significance of Environmental Archaeology

Each emphasis of environmental archaeology collects data on a different element of humans’ interactions with their surroundings. These components (along with methodologies from other areas) integrate to completely comprehend the lifestyle and interactions of a previous civilization with its environment.

Land usage, food production, tool use, and habitation patterns all trace back in time and apply to current and future human-environment interactions. In addition, humans have impacted historical habitats through predation, cultivation, and the introduction of alien biota into new settings. Understanding these previous processes can aid us in our current conservation and repair efforts.

What is it about?

Environmental archaeology sheds light on sustainability and why certain societies perished while others thrived. The societal collapse has occurred several times throughout history, with the Maya civilization being one of the more renowned instances. Archaeologists could reproduce the Mayan climate using detailed lake sediment core and climate reconstruction methods.

Although the Yucat√°n Peninsula experienced severe drought during the Mayan civilization’s destruction, numerous other reasons also had a role in their demise. Deforestation, overcrowding, and wetlands manipulation are only a few explanations for why the Maya civilization perished, yet all of these factors conspired to harm the ecosystem. Studying how the Mayans changed the environment helps academics determine how these alterations have permanently affected the terrain and succeeding populations living in the region.

Archaeologists are under growing pressure to demonstrate that their work has a broader influence than the field. As a result, environmental archaeologists say that knowing historical environmental changes is critical for forecasting future consequences in climate change, land cover change, soil health, and food security.

Environmental Archaeology- A Diverse Field of Study

Environmental Archaeology
Credit: Wessex Archaeology

Environmental archaeology is a broad field dealing with historical human ecology and includes studying various biological and geological resources. However, the definition of environmental archaeology is a matter of debate in the academic literature. It is due, in part, to the confusion of definitions based on the purposes of the research and the techniques of the investigations. Additionally, it is to determine whether the methods utilized define the discipline or the aims of the studies.

The discipline’s approaches include investigating and interpreting biota within the depositional environment of the archaeological site. In the study of biota, we are talking about “ecofacts.” Still, they are convertible to “artefacts” (for example, animal long bones are in use for knife handles) and may also be sedimentary particles. The discipline’s goals are to increase understanding of previous human ecology.

As a mature discipline in its own right, environmental archaeology is a relatively recent development. Still, its roots are articulated with the development of other ideas and disciplines, particularly understanding of stratigraphy (18th century), human antiquity and early archaeology (19th century), comparative vertebrate anatomy (19th century), evolution (19th century), ecology (early 20th century), and molecular biology (later 20th century).

Diversity in Disciplines

Environmental archaeology comprises several overlapping and interrelated sub-discipline -geoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, and archaeobotany. Human remains doesn’t include in the list; while they often fall within the scope of environmental archaeology, it is mostly a separate field. Other disciplines discussed below include the following:

  • rapidly emerging biomolecular areas of DNA study and
  • stable isotope studies


Environmental archaeology is significant because it allows us to study how humans interact with their surroundings over time. People of the Earth will be able to make better decisions about saving the Earth and land use by learning about the past and exploring environmental archaeology.

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