Where Palaeoecology leads us 1: Guns



Our quest for understanding the past, using sediments pushes us to find ways to extract the information in what is sometimes quite an exotic manner, as well as making us visit unexpected and fun places (soon to come, a blog post about the places we have visited lately in our field trips). Here is an example of the fun things we get to do.


No blood involved

One fun activity we have been doing is: holding a gun. Not any gun, but a galactic-looking laser-shooting one. I am talking about the portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyser (Thermo), a fantastic piece of technology that allows us to analyse a wide range of elements from the Periodic Table (Figure 1). The gun is very easy to use, with touch-screen and flexibility to customise it, depending of the nature of your sediments. Beware that, because of the nature of this piece of kit, you will need to undertake training in radiation. And: make sure that if you are using it in hand-held format for long periods, that you have strong biceps!



Figure 1. The portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyser (Thermo) in action. Russian core being measured.



Results from this technique have several applications that go from cross-correlating cores within a site to understanding the past environmental characteristics and deposits of the sediments. The fast processing time and resolution available with this method (1cm) enable results to be obtained very quickly, and allow one to understand the nature of the sediments in a non-destructible way (which is very much appreciated when you have only small volumes of sediments at your disposal with Russian cores!). The results can be imported into the computer and easily opened in an excel spread sheet (Figure 2).



Figure 2. Excel spreadsheet with XRF results from a bog core


Next steps will be correlating the XRF results with other analyses, such as magnetic susceptibility and pollen analysis. I am really looking forward to seeing what these multi-proxy analyses reveal.


By Macarena Cárdenas



Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change Conference




27-29 May 2016


Aimed to understand past vegetation and its interaction with human, our group was moved to propose a panel in this conference where multiple disciplines of research as well as the private sector could come together to discuss about the environment-human relationship.


About the panel:


 Indigenous populations-vegetation-climate relationship in the past: what can this teach us about sustainable vegetation use in the present? (P31)



This panel invites multiple research disciplines and concerned private and public sectors to share evidence and discuss how knowledge of past climate change and past land use by indigenous cultures help us to understand what affects the vegetation and how this information can be used to protect it.

To know more about the conference, click here

Or contact us for more information about this panel



Panel abstract:

Threats of climate change and expanding human urbanisation makes the future of worldwide vegetation uncertain. Increasing demands of land for the growing global human population adds pressure to people and governments to protect the remaining native vegetation. Nevertheless, are the large efforts of protecting what seems to be the last places of “pristine” vegetation adequate or enough?


Understanding the impact of different factors in changing the vegetation is crucial for their protection. Although modelling is becoming a valid methodology to determine the main factors involved in vegetational change, it is still not specific enough to account for individual communities. Specific information of how the vegetation responds to climate change and human impact can be found in palaeoecological, palaeoclimatic and archaeological studies; these studies give us clues to how the vegetation responds to main factors from millennial to centennial time scales. Combining these disciplines we can also help us to understand the role that past human populations had within a specific landscape allow us to evaluate the role that past humans played in shaping the vegetation we see today.


Here we propose a discussion amongst archaeologists, palaeoecologists, palaeoeclimatologists, human geographers, anthropologists, policy makers and NGOs to share both evidence and techniques as well to discuss to what extent past cultures and climate modulated the vegetation we see today in areas considered pristine or well preserved. Special emphasis is to evaluate what can be learned about past cultures and their vegetation/landscape use to help land management and conservation today. We expect this discussion to help integrate valuable knowledge and facilitate decision making today in creating, protecting and improving endangered vegetation communities.






Prof Frank Mayle at the Dome

Amongst the many other activities that our members of TPR do, enlightening young people about the great opportunity of studying environmental sciences is one of them.

Today we found our Principal Investigator Professor Frank Mayle  (photo below) taking part in this important task.



With just some hours left before he goes on field trip Frank is found with hands on flyers and coffee and a large smile at the Dome, University of Reading


Open Days are great opportunities for young students that are considering to study with the university and that want to talk to the academics that teach and do research here. They can also find many current students of the university from the various qualifications offered to ask questions related to modules, living in reading, about social life and other activities.

A full-on and sunny day for Frank (who is due to leave to Fieldtrip in Bolivia 2016 in just some hours!)


The Dome at the University of Reading Open Day



Busy inside the Dome!



Display of flowers and their pollinators at the Dome


by Macarena Cardenas

Fieldtrip SE Brazil

TPR to the South East of Brazil: Je Landscape Palaeo fieldtrip



Pedra Furada, Sao Joaquim National Park (1890masl), Urubici area


It is not long since I came back from the Jê landscapes Project field trip in the South east of Brazil.

The experience was truly fantastic. I had the pleasure to meet and know incredible landscapes and generous people. As a result we found fantastic sites and collected what we believe are the best representative materials for our project.

Focusing in the vegetational, environmental and climate reconstruction during the existence of the Proto- Jê culture, the aim of the field trip was to collect sediments from bogs at the main three geographical areas where the project is studying the Jê culture: Urubici (Highlands), Rio Fortuna (were the Atlantic forest is) and Campo Belo do Sul (Highlands). Armed with dutch gauge and Russian corer, me and my fantastic assistant Álvaro Costa toured over 200 kilometres within Santa Catarina region looking for deep bañados.

Alvaro Costa_Macarena Cardenas

In the Atlantic forest, fundamental piece of the field trip Álvaro Costa next to myself

Our experience in Urubici started very challenging. The very first bog we tried coring was what  I would say the most difficult of the whole trip. We simply couldn’t extrude it. It was a clay and silt grey sediments with a large proportion of silica that would stick to the inside of the Russian corer like leeches, and not even using spatulas to do toggle we could extrude them. Long story short, we managed to find a way to extrude without disturbing the sediments and from that moment onward nobody stopped us. We cored 13 sites within the area, all with overlapping and duplicate drives.

Disturbed Araucaria forest

Human impact is evident in this Araucaria forest, Urubici area (800masl)

peat bog

Santa Bárbara peat bog, at 1800masl in the Araucaria forest-Campos (grasslands) boundary

Santa Barbara_core

Like black butter. Sediments from Santa Barbara peat bog


Our experience in Rio Fortuna, towards the littoral side of Santa Catarina, was indeed a very different but not an easier landscape to core. To find a bog that didn’t suffer the consequences of agriculture or cattle, or that wasn’t converted in a fish tank to grow trout was the first but not only barrier; being able to cut across with the Russian corer the dry and sandy sediments was another one.  We would not give up, and using as much of our patience as well as our weight to push we recovered sediments from four sites very close (~100m) to archaeological finds.

flecha rio fortuna

Arrow point found as we were walking by one of the study sites in Rio Fortuna area

drive_rio fortuna

Sediments from one of the Rio Fortuna sites (600masl)


Campo Belo do Sul gave us a little truce. Thanks to Frank Mayle, who already went to the area in April 2014 and cored eight fantastic sites, we weren’t in much need to core much more. I personally enjoyed this part of the field by joining to the archaeological team that was in the site excavating Abreu e Garcia (funerary) and Baggio (oversized pit-house) sites. An army of students, plus researchers Dr Mark Robinson, Dr Rafael Corteletti, PI Professor Jose Iriarte, PhD students Jonas Gregorio and Priscila Ulguim and of course, loads of yerba mate there were many hours of tireless digging.

Abreu e Garcia

Students working at Abreu e Garcia funerary site, Campo Belo do sul

Another fruitful stop was in Gateados farm, a timber company committed to preserve and protect native vegetation. With the crucial help of Professor Lauri Schorn and his student Alyne Rugiero from University of Blumenau, we collected moss pollsters from the most pristine Araucaria forests available in the area. We will use the pollen rain contained in these natural traps to understand how modern Araucaria forest vegetation expresses in the pollen record.

It was almost two very intense months of travelling, coring and falling, but I would definitely do it again. Now the next step is face the many hours of work in the field translated in sediments to unveil what the past of vegetation and climate was like when Jê culture inhabited these areas.


Almost forgot… I also found mosquitos…

mosquito bite

One mosquito bite in my arm, above my wrist… unfortunately not the only one I had



Post by Macarena







Fascinating Plants

Fascinating result: Fascination of Plants Day

A total success was the outcome of the fascinating international day event co-organised by our laboratory (School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES)) and the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) the on 18th May.

It was a very windy and rainy day, but nothing stopped the team.

FoD_teamThe unstoppable Fascination of Plant event team on the day


University staff, undergraduate students, schools with around 130 kids and University of Reading Vice-Chancellor visited the event getting fascinated by the fantastic world of plants.

This was the first time where these two schools worked together to create an event that  came alive after Dr Macarena Cárdenas (SAGES)and Dr Jonathan Mitchley (SBS)  shared their passion for plants. The result of combining knowledge about the past of plants trough the fossil record and the present modern plants happened to be an enlightening experience for who visited the event.


FoDP_Macarena Cardenas

Dr Macarena Cárdenas fascinating students with microscopic samples of fossil pollen


JonathanMitchleyDr Jonathan Mitchley un-puzzling students with modern plant material

Keep your senses awake and your eyes on the green as there are plans for more events like this!


For more details and information contact:

Dr Macarena Cárdenas m.l.cardenas@reading.ac.uk


Fascination of Plants

The Palaeoecology Research Group in conjunction with the Schools of Biological Sciences is organising a day event to celebrate the third international Fascination of Plants day.

Come and witness the fascination of plants, showcasing a captivating and puzzling plant and its relationship with people past, present and future. Enjoy hands-on activities, guided walks and dramatic historical re-enactment!


Click the image for further details



Fun and field work

If you wonder how the life of a Palaeoecologist is in the filed, look below for graphic scenes.


rainforest tree Acre2

How about this for a tree? Prof Mayle at the Rainforest in Acre, Brazil. Courtesy of Prof F. Mayle


Best transport system for coring equipment, 4×4. In Bolivia. Courtesy of Prof F. Mayle



John Carson and the piranha

Proteins are not scarce in the field. Piranha for lunch. John can’t wait to sink his teeth!. Bolivia. Courtesy of Prof F. Mayle



As it was 2,000 years ago, eating Pinhao (Araucaria tree seed) in the field at Santa Catarina State, Brazil. Courtesy of Prof. Mayle