Welcome

Welcome to our website! We’re the University of Reading’s Tropical Palaeoecology Research Group. Here you can find out more about us – who we are and what we do – as well as what research projects we’re currently working on. You can also explore our recent publications, and the impacts they’ve made beyond the scientific community. Have a look at our blog posts below to learn more about what we’re up to at the moment, and feel free to get in touch with us if you want to learn more about us and our research.

The TPRG team

 

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. 

Chaos and order in ecology: the rise of the myth of the superorganism

This is a story about the rise of ecology and our belief in the balance of nature. How the idea of the superorganism was invented, how it inspired us, and how it wasn’t even true.

Cowboys and superorganisms

In the 1890’s, an ecologist named Frederic Clements set out on horse and mule train to explore the wilderness state of Nebraska. The Indian wars had recently come to an end, opening the region to scientific study. Clements saw how the old way of life in these parts, the trails, camps and fields, abandoned because of the fighting, had been re-claimed by wild vegetation. This sparked an idea that would revolutionise the science of ecology. Clements overturned the paradigm of static, unchanging vegetation, with his theory of succession, the idea that ecological communities change over time in response to disturbance through a highly deterministic and predictable process called “succession”.

Frederic Clements, founding father of superorganismic succession

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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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Anthropogenic Araucaria forests? New evidence published

A thousand years ago in southern Brazil, the unique Araucaria forest expanded rapidly over highland grasslands (campos), a change that’s largely been attributed to climate changes. At the same time, the southern proto-Jê people, whose diets and culture were interwoven with Araucaria trees, flourished. Given the close connections between the people and trees, and the timings of their expansions, might the Jê have been more important for that last forest expansion than the climate? So far, concrete evidence to address this question has been lacking – but two recent studies set out to provide just that. 

 

Araucaria forest at sunrise. Photo by Douglas Scortegagna (CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

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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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‘Backwards research’ to move forwards with policy

This post originally appeared on the Walker Institute community blog: http://www.walker.ac.uk/news-events/backwards-research-to-move-forwards-with-policy/

Just before Christmas last year I was offered a place on the first Climate Services Academy Training (CSAT) programme. As someone who has been interested in the science-policy interface for a long time, particularly around climate issues, I was delighted with my early Christmas present from the Walker Institute (@WalkerInst on Twitter).

When the programme kicked off in mid-January, I knew I was in for a treat. The first two weeks were spent at the University of Reading where we were taken on a whirlwind tour of the topics we’d need to understand to work on ‘climate services’ (think ecosystem services, but for the climate). Topics included communication for development, international risk management law and governance, livelihoods analysis, politics and political economy, and knowledge exchange. This was followed up by a week of intense ‘scenario days’ where we were given a real-life climate or environment related issue that is currently ongoing in one of the programme’s partner countries (Senegal, Malawi, Ghana and Uganda) to read up on and report back on at the end of the day. I learnt an enormous amount in those two weeks, but we were just getting started.

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A Jungian take on tropical forest palaeoecology (part 2)

(This is part 2 of a 2-part post where a Jungian psychological approach is taken to analysing the history of the West’s relationship with the Amazon rainforest. I recommend you read part 1 if you have not already done so.)

In the late 19th century thinkers like Muir and Thoreau fused insights from Eastern philosophy, Romanticism and natural science, sparking a public interest in ecosystems as spiritual and leisurely places. President Roosevelt established the National Parks system, officially designating certain landscapes as protected wilderness. Designations were partly pragmatic decisions to conserve resources but perhaps more importantly made on a landscapes ability to ignite the feeling of awe. Yellowstone National Park was the first wilderness protected area in the world, but the model spread rapidly across the globe making its way to the Amazon. From this combination of ideas rose the applied science of biological conservation. In the same way Amazonia became the archetypal frontier to Imperial expansionists due to its size and vegetative fecundity, it became the ultimate wilderness in need of protection, in the minds of the conservationists.  

Roosevelt and Muir stand on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park (1906).

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A Jungian take on tropical forest palaeoecology (part 1)

Humans throughout history have dedicated immense amounts of energy to understanding forests. When we think of human-forest interactions, often cited are the direct products we take from forests, the indirect benefits environmental services and the issues of sustainability. Yet rarely mentioned is the psychological relationship we have with the forests and the potential implications on forest management. In this blog I take a mythological Jungian approach in analysing the history of Tropical Palaeoecology, so we might better understand the unique psychological link that the West shares with Amazonia. This blog is part 1 of 2. It is a briefing of my ideas and as a result touches only shallowly on the highlights of my thinking. I hope to go deeper into these thoughts in future blogs.

The way we perceive the world has been shaped by our evolutionary history within and later outside of the forest environment. In negotiating trees, we started to see in three dimensions, so we would not fall from branches. It was only when leaving the forest that we broke free of our primate shackles, stood upright and became Homo sapiens. As a result, the dualistic nature of the forest as both a nurturer and tyrant are burnt deep into our subconscious.   

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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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