The Archaeological and Ecological Applications of Faecal Biomarker Analysis

Human impact on the planet is often associated with European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, but a too narrow focus on these recent changes overlooks how humans have transformed ecosystems in the past, especially in relation to our history of domesticating animals and cultivating the land. Searching for major thresholds of human impacts on earth systems in the past has been hindered by a lack of suitable markers of anthropogenic change that can be applied globally. This project seeks to develop a method in which to extract and measure human and animal faeces from archaeological and natural sediment accumulations to understand shifts in human presence and environmental impacts.

Faecal biomarker profiles specific to humans and different animals are being increasingly used to determine the presence of different taxa and their palaeodemography through time. Faeces contain unique biochemical tracers that may preserve for millennia under favourable conditions. However, to gain a better understanding of preservation processes, faecal biomarker transport, and landscape-level variation in faecal accumulation, it is essential to develop modern baselines for specific geographical, climatic, and anthropological contexts.

Much of this baseline work is yet to be done in an anthropological context, meaning that interpretations of such proxies in the archaeological record remain tentative. We are currently developing innovative baseline studies in a variety of climatic settings, in close collaboration with a number of diverse local communities, in order to determine how faecal biomarkers are preserved and presented across modern anthropogenic, particularly pastoral, landscapes.

In tandem, we are also beginning to initiate a series of projects that investigate the demographics of wild and domesticated animals in response to human hunting and domestication using faecal biomarkers (bile acids and stanols) recovered from well-dated sediments. We will be applying these methodologies in areas where active archaeological research is being undertaken by the Department of Archaeology, and where we have solid existing contextual knowledge in relation to the presence of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers in different regions through time. However, we will also expand our scope based on sample availability and the regional and temporal interests of members of the department at any given time.

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