People and landscapes are sensitive to global climate changes over tens of thousands of years

We examine the environmental conditions in which human societies operated and ways in which they, in turn, have shaped their environment, using multiple strands of evidence from sediments, fossils, and artefacts.

Expertise in the fields of geomorphology, geochronology, palaeontology, and palaeoecology allows us to explore the environmental effects on human physiognomy, on social and economic development, and on the movements of people around the globe.

Co-leaders

Professor Jon Olley, Dr Justine Kemp

ARCHE members

Dr Julien Louys, Dr Justin Stout

PhD candidates

Mr Daniel Borombovits, Mr Aaron Fogel, Mr Richard Sharpe

Research focus

The co-evolution of people and landscapes provides an overarching research framework for this theme, with both people and landscapes being sensitive to global climate changes over several tens of thousands of years. In Australia, we focus on water as a limiting resource and its seasonal and episodic availability, reconstructed through lake and river records. We also explore landscape change as it relates to changes in land management practices and resource use. In southeast Asia, we focus on the interactions between humans and fauna, and the impacts of human societies on species’ distributions and evolution.

Australian opportunities

Australia, with its ancient landscapes and long history of human occupation, provides unique opportunities and ongoing challenges for studying the interaction between people and their environment. Human occupation in Australia overlaps the greatest climatic perturbation in recent geological history, namely, the slow drop in global temperature leading into the Last Glacial Maximum at ~20,000 years ago, followed by the rapid temperature reversal thereafter.  Examination of the adaption of early Australians to these events begins with documenting the local environmental impact of global climate change.

Asian Opportunities

Hominin occupation of Asian environments is now recognised as complex and multifaceted. Global geographical and environmental changes during the Quaternary included the greening of Middle Eastern deserts and the retreat of rainforests in Southeast Asia. These have at different times either facilitated or impeded human movements and expansions into new areas. We are pursuing multidisciplinary approaches to palaeoecology and environmental reconstruction, anchored by a strong fieldwork program, in order to reconstruct environmental change on scales of thousands to millions of years.

PROJECTS

Recent grants

2017-2021 ARC Future Fellowship $652,000

Sumatra's role in ancient human movements and evolution

This project aims to test whether humans moving through Southeast Asia used a savannah corridor, facilitating their migrations into Sumatra and Java, and examine the effect of rainforests on human movements and evolution. This will be accomplished by examining ecological proxies from vertebrate remains found in established and newly identified fossil sites in Sumatra. These results are expected to provide a new understanding of the environmental context of human evolution in Asia, and identify routes ancient people took as they moved south through Asia and into Australia.

Sole investigator: Dr Julien Louys

2013-2016 Australian Research Council Linkage Project, $204,000

Kiacatoo Man: biology, archaeology and environment at the Last Glacial Maximum

The recent excavation of Kiacatoo Man from ancient river sands in central NSW provides an opportunity to shed new light on the nature and origins of the earliest Australians. This extremely large, robustly built, >26,000-year-old fossil, may represent the closest individual to those people who left the shores of Southeast Asia to colonise Australia. Using state-of-the-art earth sciences and dating techniques, this project reconstructs the glacial-age cultural and physical landscape of the Murray Basin riverine plains, characterises patterns of biological similarity among ancient remains, and explores the relative influence of climatic adaptation, gene flow, diet and human ancestry on glacial-age human morphologies.

Collaborators: Dr Colin Pardoe (Australian National University), Associate Professor Allen Gontz (University of Massachusetts Boston)

Grant details

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Relevant publications

Our publications

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