PhD opportunity: the domestication of Amazon rainforests by pre-Columbian societies

The domestication of Amazon rainforests by pre-Columbian societies 

Lead Supervisor: Francis Mayle, Department of Geography & Environmental Science, University of Reading. 

Email: f.mayle@reading.ac.uk 

Application details: http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/nercdtp/home/available/ 

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOqdGeNe4L0 

Co-supervisors: Joy Singarayer, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading; Richard Walters, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Reading. 

Background: 

The extent to which pre-Columbian (pre-AD1492) human societies transformed Amazonia from a virgin wilderness into a domesticated landscape is one of the most contentious debates in tropical ecology.  The old paradigm of Amazonia as a pristine wilderness, little impacted by millennia of human occupation, has been challenged in recent years by remarkable discoveries of monumental earthworks across much of southern Amazonia.  However, although it is clear that these ancient ‘earthmoving’ societies transformed their physical landscape, the extent to which they also domesticated their forests – e.g. via burning, deforestation, agroforestry – is highly contentious.  The degree to which the biodiversity of Amazonian rainforests was shaped by millennia of human land use is highly relevant for understanding current patterns of biodiversity, rainforest resilience and land-use sustainability.     

The overall aim of this project is to determine the impact of Pre-Columbian societies upon Bolivian Amazonian rainforests – with respect to scale of deforestation, use of fire, and enrichment of forests with economically useful species. 

Approach and Methods: 

This project focuses on the monumental mound region of Amazonian Bolivia – a mosaic landscape of rainforests and seasonally-flooded savannas.  A dual data-modelling approach will be undertaken by the student:   

a)Palaeoecology– fossil pollen and charcoal will be analysed from lake-sediment cores to reconstruct local- and regional-scale histories of pre-Columbian forest impact over the last  2,000 years; i.e. scale of forest clearance and type of forest management (e.g. agroforestry, fire) associated with this mound-building culture.   

b) Modelling–an agent-based model will be developed (using NetLogo) to provide insights into the process by which this ancient culture domesticated these rainforests, and the extent to which a legacy of this ancient land use exists in today’s forests.  The student will parameterize the model using their palaeoecological data, together with previously published palaeoecological, archaeological and anthropological data, as well as floristic data from the RAINFOR ecological plot network.  

Training opportunities: 

Training in field- and lab-based palaeoecological techniques will be provided by Mayle, which will include a 4-week fieldtrip to the Bolivian Amazon.  Training in agent-based modelling will be provided by Singarayer and Walters.  Further training may be acquired via relevant NERC Advanced Training Short courses if need be.  

Student profile: 

At least a 2.1 BSc degree in biology/geography/environmental science is required.  A strong background in numerical/statistical techniques is essential.  Knowledge of ecology and microscopy would be advantageous. 

A summer of conferences

As a new academic year begins, students return and trees get geared up for autumn, it feels like a good time to look back at the various things that have happened over the summer months. Josie kicked off this mini-series with a post on her fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes and James is working on one about his research trip to Bolivia with Frank, so for a bit of variety I thought I’d give an overview of my summer of conferences. It’s less exotic than going to South America, sure, but I still had a good time! And there have been quite a few to report on…

The season’s first conference was Intact Forests in the 21st Century, at Magdalen College Oxford. I have to admit, initially I felt like a bit of an impostor – after all, I work on Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, one of the most fragmented forests in the world – but I was there in connection with a side project we’ve been working on looking at Amazonia. There’s a long, ongoing and quite contentious debate about where the biome sits on a scale from ‘pristine’ to ‘anthropogenic’, so for a few months we’ve been surveying researchers about their definitions of key terms used in these discussions. Do these differ with the respondent’s disciplinary background? Is my perception of a ‘natural’ forest the same as yours? And – relevantly for this conference – what do people mean when they write or read ‘intact’? Our poster had some results from a preliminary analysis of the survey, showing the diversity of opinions among our 30-odd respondents – if you haven’t taken part and would like to, then get in touch!

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A high-level assignment: fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes

During my two-week fieldwork trip to Peru this summer, I visited two of my PhD study areas, the Ancash District and the Chillón Valley. The Chillón Valley is home to one of the three main rivers that provide water for Lima and activities in this valley can have major effects on Lima’s water supply. Ancash on the other hand is home to two of the main mountain ranges in Peru, the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, so called because the former is unglaciated whilst the latter is formed of a number of glaciated peaks. It is thought that the Cordillera Blanca may one day look like the Cordillera Negra if glacial retreat continues at its current rate; this contrast between the two was interesting to see as the absence/presence of glaciers also affects the availability of water for irrigation and farming.

Whilst in Ancash we held a community workshop with representative from the local communities around the village of Pamporamas, in the Cordillera Negra, and a representative from a local NGO focused on rural development. This workshop discussed the issues surrounding water availability, and changes in this availability, as well as agricultural productivity within the highly sensitive Cordillera Negra. Following our workshop we visited a number of sites within the Cordillera Blanca, this involved visiting farming communities and seeing how agriculture is practiced today but also saw evidence for past agricultural practices in the form of relic terraces and field systems which would have been in cultivation during pre-Columbian times. We also interviewed local farmers whilst in the field to discuss the present day issues effecting agriculture productivity and sustainability within the study areas. This was an excellent opportunity to record local oral histories about changes in farming practices within living memory, to go alongside the deeper history perspective provided by the sediment core records we also collected.

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Fossil pollen at the Royal Institution

When was the last time you looked around you and wondered, ‘How on Earth did I get here?!’

I had one of those moments – possibly the biggest of my career so far – on April the 10th, in the Royal Institution‘s iconic lecture theatre. In one sense I knew the answer (from Kent via Victoria and Green Park underground station), but even now, two weeks after the event, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how I came to talk about my PhD research from the same spot as such renowned science communicators as David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan.

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Collaboration and training in Exeter and Southampton

Last month I was lucky enough to undertake a phytolith training placement at the University of Exeter in the Department of Archaeology, working with my second PhD supervisor, Professor Jose Iriarte, and his project team, PAST (Pre-Columbian Amazonian Scale Transformations).

During my four-week stay in Exeter, I processed and extracted phytoliths from a soil profile in the Upper Tapajos Basin of the Amazon, associated with a ditch enclosure. Once extracted, I then analysed and got training in the identification of the phytoliths. The phytolith extraction process can be quite lengthy and so it was great to have a lot of time to work through each of the stages properly. I had previously done some phytolith extractions for my master’s dissertation, however, I wanted to learn the methodology most suited to the tropics and South American samples.

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All change please

September is nearly over, the trees and weather have decided to get autumn underway, and campus is again buzzing as thousands of new and returning students arrive for the start of a new term. It seems like an appropriate time to reflect on a summer of changes here in the TPRG.

The first change, and possibly the biggest, was Macarena leaving us for pastures new at Earthwatch in Oxford. Since starting her post-doctoral research post in 2014, Maca had been a popular and integral part of many areas in SAGES (the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences) – to say nothing of her roles in the TPRG, managing the lab and running the blog. Small wonder, then, that so many people came to her farewell celebration!

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TPRG in PAGES Magazine

The latest edition of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) Magazine was published yesterday, on the theme of ‘Sustaining Earth’s Biodiversity’, and it features three contributions from the TPRG team.

The sites discussed in Maca and Bronwen’s article, and their main plant species

The first, by Macarena and Northumbria University’s Bronwen Whitney, looks at how palaeoecology can shed light on the legacies of pre-Columbian people in Latin America’s modern ecosystems. It highlights Maca’s research on southern Brazil’s unique and ancient Araucaria forests (which has been part of the Jê Landscapes project, and which I’m continuing for my PhD), as well as Mayan breadnut palms in central America, and the chocolate forest islands and ice-cream bean cultivation of south-western Amazonia. It’s well worth a read, as are the research papers it discusses.

Heather also has two contributions in a mini-section reflecting on the PAGES Young Scientists’ Meeting 2017, an event she’s blogged about previously here (Palaeo-science in the Pyrenees). Her first article addresses the whys and (perhaps more importantly) hows of effective communication for palaeoscientists. Her second – equally important and closely linked – discusses the challenges of communicating the societal relevance of palaeo research, especially to funders and policymakers. Communicating research and its relevance is essential, and the insights and suggestions in these articles should be helpful starting points when considering it.

If you’ve got any questions or comments about the pieces, you can get in touch with Maca and Heather on twitter: @DrMacarenaLC and @HeatherPlumpton. The whole magazine edition can be read or downloaded here.

Oli

@olijwilson

Ancient human impacts in Amazonia – the debate continues…

How well can you ever really know 5.5 million km2 of hyperdiverse forest? The Amazon region, and this question, are at the heart of several ongoing debates in the natural sciences – why are there so many species? how much carbon can the forest store? how much did ancient humans impact the forests, and can we still see their effects today?

How fully can you really know a forest as huge and diverse as the Amazon?

This last question was the subject of a paper by Caroline Levis and colleagues published in the prestigious journal Science in March this year, which caused significant ripples within and outside the scientific community. In a nutshell, the article found that tree species humans have cared for are five times more likely to be forest ‘hyperdominants’ than you’d expect. Past human impacts also help explain where these species are found now, accounting for up to 20% of the variation in their distribution (for comparison, environmental factors explained up to 30%). The paper’s conclusion, as picked up by the media, is that “modern tree communities in Amazonia are structured to an important extent by a long history of domestication by Amazonian peoples.”

So, debate settled? Not quite.

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Palaeo-science in the Pyrenees at PAGES YSM 2017

Morillo de Tou – the beautiful location of the YSM

I recently attend the PAGES (Past Global Changes) YSM (Young Scientists Meeting) as well as the OSM (Open Science Meeting) 2017 in sunny Spain. The YSM was particularly exciting – a group of 80 early career researchers met in the Pyrenees, at the restored village of Morillo de Tou.

Morillo de Tou

Morillo de Tou

 

The spectacular surroundings were matched by spectacular science, with a combination of great talks and posters as well as breakout group discussions and workshops. The schedule was pretty packed, but we made time for some star gazing with local astronomers and a night of traditional Aragon music and “dancing” in the moonlight. Overall, I thought the YSM was an excellent opportunity to meet other young scientists, and discuss issues of particular import to our community.

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The Big Reveal – Our Tropical Phytolith Reference Collection goes live!

I just thought I’d have a little brag, and celebrate the fact that I have produced a tropical phytolith reference collection here at the University of Reading in the TPR lab. The full collection (as it stands until the next PhD student comes to help build it!) contains 152 taxa, sampled from various Herbaria around the world. My thanks go to Prof Jose Iriarté at the University of Exeter for lending me some of his material, as well as Dave Harris at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh who let Dr John Carson sample their herbarium and live specimens. The spread of taxa includes all those denoted as diagnostically useful by Piperno’s 2006 book ‘Phytoliths’ (the bible of tropical phytolith studies) plus some extras which may turn out to be useful.

The online database of our phytolith reference collection is now available on our Palaeobank website. Feel free to take a browse!

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