Senckenberg Research

Symposium 1
Symposium 1 (Mon, Oct. 2nd, 10:30-12:00):

Human-environment interactions: past and present


This symposium will address the impact of human population on the environment from prehistory onwards. Two main perspectives will be addressed: the impact of climate change, resource availability and competition on past human groups and the impact of human populations on other organisms and ecosystems. The role of human population size and reproductive biology, the impact of technological development and innovation and human management of ecosystems in the past are among the themes to be explored. Understanding how these processes may have operated and affected humans in the past offers an invaluable perspective going forward in the Anthropocene.



10:30 - 10:50

The Neanderthal extinction: the role of climate change and competition
  • Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou (Senckenberg & University of Tübingen)

The Neanderthal extinction is one of the most discussed, yet unresolved, topics in human evolution. Most scenarios for their demise center around themes common to a large part of the extinction literature: climate change and competition from a closely related, invasive species – in this case our own ancestors, early modern humans dispersing to Eurasia from Africa some 45 thousand years before present. This talk will present an overview of the most important extinction scenarios proposed. It will discuss the potential role of climate change on the Neanderthal lineage, especially in light of the small Neanderthal overall population size. The forms that competition with modern humans may have taken and the impact of the modern human reproductive biology on population size and population growth will be explored.


10:50 - 11:10

Aboriginal Australian ecosystem engineering and the maintenance of complexity under climatic uncertainty
  • Rebecca Bliege Bird (Penn State University)

The structure of the ecological networks in which humans are embedded may be critically important for the long-term sustainability in the face of climatic change. Ecological networks incorporating human-resource interactions in hunter-gatherer societies may be more stable over the long term due to the particulars of the unique human foraging niche, which incorporates a high degree of omnivory, as well as positive inputs through ecosystem engineering. Nowhere is this more likely than in Australia. Aboriginal social networks are inextricably linked to ecological networks, providing feedbacks and entanglement that may have resulted in long-term socio-ecological equilibrium. Since colonization, the loss of Aboriginal social complexity and its ecosystemic interactions, enhanced by increased climatic variability and the spread of invasive species, may be one of the most significant forces affecting the rapid and unprecedented decline in the continent's indigenous biota.


11:10 - 11:25

Human-environment interactions in the pre-Colombian Bolivian Amazon
  • Heinz Veit (University of Bern)

The Llanos de Moxos, a huge seasonally flooded area in SW-Amazonia, are today sparsely populated. Pre-Colombian earthworks indicate far higher population densities and sophisticated agricultural systems in the past since the first centuries AD, with raised fields and canals for water management. In the most fertile areas with the best natural drainage, monumental mounds have been built over more than 1000 years, reflecting societies with hierarchical structures. This “Moxos Culture” between ca. 2000-600 yr. BP is stratigraphically separated by older anthropological remains of hunter-gatherers reaching back to the Early Holocene (10.500 yr. BP). This hiatus was originated by intense flooding and corresponding sediment aggradation between 4000-2000 yr. BP. Most probably climate change with increased precipitation during the Mid-Holocene caused the depopulation of the Llanos de Moxos at ca. 4000 yr. BP, and the repopulation with reduced river dynamics since 2000 yr. BP.


11:25 - 11:40

Shellfish diminution in (pre)history: human collection and overharvesting
  • Britt Starkovich (Senckenberg & University of Tübingen)

Today, we think of human impacts on coastal environments as a modern phenomenon, though this behavior actually has its roots in the Pleistocene. Indicators of marine resource overharvesting in the past include changes in the taxonomic composition of mollusks collected by human foragers, and population-wide size diminution of mollusks. In this paper, I review four case studies that provide evidence for humans impacting marine ecosystems in the past: Middle to Late Stone Age, South Africa; Mesolithic to Neolithic, Portugal; Epipaleolithic to Roman period, Libya; and Viking Age, Scotland. Despite the seemingly disparate nature of these examples, all of the studies implicate humans as the likely force behind shifts in mollusk species composition and size diminution, irrespective of changing shorelines and environmental conditions. The eventual rebound of some of the mollusk populations discussed here reflects the resilience of marine ecosystems under pre-industrial levels of exploitation.


11:40 - 11:55

The Elemental Fingerprinting Method: a new method to link human elemental patterns to the environment and its biotic and abiotic conditions
  • Melanie Bäuchle (Senckenberg & New York University)

Among the materials that humans consume in their environment are inorganic elements derived from the litho-, hydro- and atmosphere. Hence, elemental composition and patterns in humans should reflect the environment they live in, their diet, life style, and aspects of life history. Yet, baseline concentrations or patterns of the complete relevant inorganic spectrum of elements (from 6Li to 238U) are not known; in neither the biotic nor the abiotic sphere.
The Paleobiomics Project has developed a method for utilizing simultaneous-ICP-MS to quantify 71 elements from 6Li to 238U in fluids. We present pilot study data of elemental fingerprints in human saliva and environmental waters, as well as emerging elemental patterns. We also show how qualitative elemental data in human bone tissue reflects rain fall data.
Our method has implications for understanding elemental distribution and concentration for many fields, including studies of the biosphere, paleobiology, paleobiomics, and more.