Human response to palaeoenvironmental change and the question of temporal scale

S. J. Holdaway*, P. C. Fanning, E. J. Rhodes, S. K. Marx, B. Floyd, M. J. Douglass

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Investigating past human-environment interactions requires not only suitable environmental proxies and well-dated archaeological records, but also a uniform temporal resolution between the two. In the arid interior of Australia, the archaeological record of human occupation is known only from relatively few locations, and palaeoenvironmental records with resolution on timescales akin to human lifetimes are rare. Even where detailed archaeological and palaeoenvironmental studies have been undertaken concurrently, it has proven difficult to match the temporal resolution of both the archaeological and sedimentary records. One approach is to make use of the extensive surface archaeological record and match it to high-resolution palaeoenvironmental records from elsewhere. Here, we utilise radiocarbon age determinations on charcoal from the deflated remains of heat retainer hearths from surface archaeological contexts in western NSW. Correlations with two different but related sets of environmental proxy data (sea surface temperature fluctuations from the western Pacific/South China Sea and Australian dust deposition records from southern New Zealand) allow investigation of human responses to global environmental changes at a common temporal scale. The correlations suggest a relationship between rapid climatic changes occurring over the last 3000 years and occupation by Aboriginal people in the arid region of western New South Wales. Aboriginal people abandoned large regions during times of lower rainfall and increased dust transport, with some but not all regions reoccupied during periods of increased summer rainfall. Environmental fluctuations during the late Holocene are likely to have posed marked challenges for Aboriginal populations who occupied the region. The patterns of radiocarbon assays from hearths provide a window into the nature of their response.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)192-200
Number of pages9
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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