Collaborative Research: Examining Pyrotechnology and Ecosystem Change in the Archaeological Record

Lead PI: Kevin Uno

Unit Affiliation: Biology and Paleo Environment, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

August 2020 - July 2024
Africa ; Lake Turkana
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: Knowing when humans began using fire allows us to better understand our evolutionary and biological history. This project will explore the question of early fire use through archaeological investigation of human activities from 1 to 2 million years ago. The investigators will use ancient archaeological and environmental data, along with modern data, to simulate how human exposure to landscape fire would influence behavior and how human use of fire would have affected landscapes. This research will provide insights into human relationships with fire and help clarify the extent to which fire was a catalyst for human cultural and biological development. The project will support early career researchers, efforts to broaden participation in paleoanthropology, and research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. The research will be used to develop an educational outreach program with the American Museum of Natural History that is focused on increasing scientific participation of economically and educationally diverse middle and high school students.

Archaeological excavation and sampling will be used to identify fire 1 to 2 million years ago in a region with a vast fossil and archaeological record that spans between 4 and 1 million years ago. The investigators will study burning of organic matter using polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, plant waxes, infrared spectroscopy of bone and sediment, identification of microscopic charcoal, and microscopic plant fossils. They will investigate these proxies at archaeological sites, in fossil soils, and a sediment core from a body of water that borders the research area. Investigations of these patterns at small scales (within archaeological sites) and at local to regional ecosystem levels (paleosols and sediment core) will be used to develop agent-based models of ecosystem responses to human fire use and generate predictions about the frequency and origin of landscape fires. This project combines experimental and archaeological advances with targeted field studies to address these questions and provide insights into this critical adaptation in human technology.