Environmental archaeology

Environmental archaeology is a sub-field of archaeology which emerged in 1970s[1] and is the science of reconstructing the relationships between past societies and the environments they lived in.[2][3] The field represents an archaeological-palaeoecological approach to studying the palaeoenvironment through the methods of human palaeoecology. Reconstructing past environments and past peoples' relationships and interactions with the landscapes they inhabited provides archaeologists with insights into the origin and evolution of anthropogenic environments, and prehistoric adaptations and economic practices.[4]

Environmental archaeology is commonly divided into three sub-fields:

Other related fields include:

Environmental archaeology often involves studying plant and animal remains in order to investigate which plant and animal species were present at the time of prehistoric habitations, and how past societies managed them. It may also involve studying the physical environment and how similar or different it was in the past compared to the present day. An important component of such analyses represents the study of site formation processes.[6] This field is particularly useful when artifacts may be absent from an excavated or surveyed site, or in cases of earth movement, such as erosion, which may have buried artifacts and archaeological features. While specialist sub-fields, for example bioarchaeology or geomorphology, are defined by the materials they study, the term "environmental" is used as a general template in order to denote a general field of scientific inquiry that is applicable across time periods and geographical regions studied by archaeology as a whole.[7]

Environmental archaeology has emerged as a distinct discipline in the course of the last 50 years.[8] In recent years it has grown rapidly in significance and is now an established component of most excavation projects. The field is multidisciplinary, and environmental archaeologists as well as palaeoecologists work side by side with archaeologists and anthropologists specialising in material culture studies in order to achieve a more holistic understanding of past human lifeways and people-environment interactions.

A notable pioneer of environmental archaeology has been Karl Butzer.[9]



Animal remains

Archaeobotany is the study and interpretation of plant remains. By determining the uses of plants in historical contexts, researchers can reconstruct the diets of past humans, as well as determine their subsistence strategies and plant economy. This provides greater insight into a people's social and cultural behaviors.[10] Analysis of specimen like wood charcoal, for example, can reveal the source of fuel or construction for a society. Archaeobotanists also often study seed and fruit remains, along with pollen and starch.[11] Plants can be preserved in a variety of ways, but the most common are carbonization, water logging, mineralization, and desiccation.[10] A field within archaeobotany is ethnobotany, which looks more specifically at the relationship between plants and humans, and the cultural impacts plants have had and continue to have on human societies. Plant usage as food and as crops or as medicine is of interest, as well the plants' economic influences.[12]


Zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains and what these remains can tell us about the human societies the animals existed among.[13] Animal remains can provide evidence of predation by humans (or vice versa) or domestication. Despite revealing the specific relationships between animals and humans, discovery of animal bones, hides, or DNA in a certain area can describe the location's past landscape or climate.[13]


Geoarchaeology is the study of landscape and of geological processes. It looks at environments within the human timeline to determine how past societies may have influenced or been influenced by the environment.[14] Sediment and soil are often studied because this is where the majority of artifacts are found, but also because natural processes and human behavior can alter the soil and reveal its history.[14] Apart from visual observation, computer programming and satellite imaging are often employed to reconstruct past landscapes or architecture.[15]