Collaborative Research Reassessing the settlement history of the Faroe Islands using lipid biomarker

Lead PI: Dr. William J. D'Andrea

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

September 2016 - August 2018
Atlantic Ocean ; Faroe Islands
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: A team of scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Columbia University and William and Mary College will use new molecular techniques to reconstruct the past history of environmental changes in the Faroe Islands, a key location in the migration of people across the North Atlantic. Recent archeological research has found intriguing evidence that the first settlers on the islands arrived before the 9th century Norse settlers, but little is known about their impact on the environment, and what animals they might have brought with them. The research will focus on lake sediments that provide a record of natural and human-induced environmental changes over time. The research will contribute to studies of how humans adapt to environmental changes in marginal island environments, by examining the timing and history of environmental impacts, and the development of strategies that have allowed limited natural resources to be used sustainably for more than a thousand years. The project will involve collaboration with archeologists in the Faroe Islands, to prepare related educational materials for display in their National Museum, and will provide unique opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in the research and public outreach activities.

The Faroe Islands represented an important "stepping stone" in the westward migration of people into Iceland, Greenland, and North America, so the timing of settlement in the Faroes has particular significance for an understanding of North Atlantic colonization. The research will provide new information about when settlers first arrived in the Faroe Islands, the type of animals that accompanied them, their use of fire to modify the local vegetation cover, and how these events relate to past climate variations in this remote region. The researchers will extract organic molecules preserved in lake sediments to obtain records that indicate the presence of human settlers. This will include compounds that are produced in the intestines of people, pigs and grazing animals (sheep, goats and cattle), and molecules related to the burning of peat and shrubs. Other compounds will indicate changes in the composition of vegetation. The research will also focus on DNA in the sediments, to identify the presence and types of animals that may have been brought to the islands by the first settlers. The sediments will be dated using radiocarbon, and volcanic ash from Icelandic eruptions of known age.