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Ancient Island Trash becomes Treasure for Archaeologists

by Devin Reese -- Oct 14, 2014

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

You may be parked next to your ancestors’ trash, such as these layers of oyster shells discarded by humans living in the Chesapeake Bay hundreds to thousands of years ago. Photo from Smithsonian Institution.
You may be parked next to your ancestors’ trash, such as these layers of oyster shells discarded by humans living in the Chesapeake Bay hundreds to thousands of years ago. Photo from Smithsonian Institution.

Did Native Americans and other people who lived thousands of years ago influence the biodiversity around them? Islands are a great place to answer that question. Like fishbowls, islands have fewer inputs from the outside, so it is easier to interpret changes on the inside.

Archaeologists studying islands learn how humans interacted with natural resources by digging for clues. Tools and cooking pots may reveal what people ate. But, the most powerful evidence turns out to be in people’s trash – the remains of animals and plants they used. Island and coastline people have left a record of their lives in the marine food resources, such as oysters and abalones.

Evidence shows that even the earliest Americans made an ecological footprint. Consider that beginning about 5,000 years ago, people living on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland were harvesting oysters (Crassostrea virginica) heavily enough to cause population ebbs and flows. They left behind huge trash piles of oyster shells that today give shape to the landscape.

So, when we look backward in time to understand what a “natural” ecosystem was like, humans are part of the picture. The ability of humans to alter their landscapes has caused “natural” baselines to shift repeatedly over time.

Find out more about the intimate relationships of humans with the natural resources of islands and coastlines. Watch a “Smithsonian Science How” webcast titled Island Biodiversity – Tracking Human Influences on the Q?rius website. Dr. Torben Rick, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History, will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.

 

 

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