Historical Ecology in the Pre-Columbian Caribbean

Project Details


With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Peter Siegel and a team of colleagues will conduct an interdisciplinary pilot study to address pre-Columbian human-environmental relations in selected locations across the Lesser Antilles. Goals of this research are to assess the effects of humans on landscapes and to understand landscapes as cultural contexts in the Caribbean, a timely topic in view of current concerns over the factors behind climate change. Assessing human-environmental relations in an archipelago setting is crucial for issues of island colonization, introduction of crops, interactions between resident and colonizing peoples, and cultural change. Sediment cores will be extracted from wetlands in proximity to known pre-Columbian archaeological sites to obtain data from which ancient environments will be reconstructed, human impacts on those environments will be assessed, and human-environmental interrelations will be compared and contrasted through time. Archaeological site settings will be examined on Trinidad, Antigua, and St. Croix.

Core samples will be analyzed for the types and concentrations of pollen, phytoliths (plant silica bodies), and larger plant parts for information on prehistoric vegetation cover in each area. Concentrations of microscopic charcoal particles will be examined to document the scale and intensity of burning that may have resulted from vegetation clearing for agriculture by past peoples. Soil conditions in proximity to each archaeological site will be assessed for information on prehistoric landscape use. Integrating plant, charcoal, and soils information will provide a comprehensive picture of the kinds and range of plant species present in the past and how past cultures used, modified, and reacted to their environmental settings through time.

The pilot study will include a reconnaissance survey of seven islands encompassing the full range of geological and topographic variability in the Lesser Antilles to evaluate the potential for a follow-up investigation of climate change in the region. The reconnaissance will address the islands of Trinidad, Barbados, Martinique, Marie-Galante, Antigua, Barbuda, and St. Croix. Specific classes of microorganisms (e.g., ostracods) are highly sensitive to and retain records (by their oxygen-isotope ratios) of relative degrees of moisture in the atmosphere. These organisms preserve as fossils and are useful for constructing climate curves when deposited in closed-basin ponds or lakes in the interiors of islands or landmasses. If suitable conditions are identified for the preservation of appropriate microfossils an important follow-up investigation will include sediment coring in these locations.

Results of the pilot study will be compared to other similar studies in the Caribbean, South America, and Central America to broaden our understanding of the consequences of human activities on the environment and the conditions under which agriculture is adopted. Intellectual merits of the project relate to the origins, evolution, and dispersal of agriculture; expanding or colonizing populations as agents of landscape change; and the antiquity of food production and the conditions under which it developed. People occupying the Caribbean region were linked to Central and South America during prehistory. Addressing Caribbean historical ecology will provide a context to understand interactions between resident and colonizing populations and changes in human-environmental relations.

Broader impacts of this interdisciplinary project will be relevant for researchers studying past environments, origins and spread of agriculture, and island-colonization processes. Students working with the team will benefit from hands-on experience in the field or lab or both. Archaeologists local to each of the island nations have expressed an interest in this project. In most cases, students on each of the islands will participate or visit the research team in the field, thereby obtaining first-hand exposure to fieldwork in conducting paleoenvironmental research.

Effective start/end date15/07/0730/06/09


  • National Science Foundation: $90,726.00


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