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How archaeology can help future proof against natural disasters

Insights from the past to transform our environmental future
Archaeology can help us understand how climate and environmental change in our recent and distant past shapes our future. Join us as we delve into the little-known world of environmental archaeology, during National Archaeology Week.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, but it's not an isolated phenomenon. The world has experienced climate and environmental upheaval before, with varying impacts, and archaeology can unlock insights into how we can prepare our communities against such threats. 

Archaeology can fill in many important historical blanks about the influence of our environment on human history and evolution, on both a small and large scale. Consider, for example, how very small things such as shells, microscopic pollen grains and even chemical isotopes in soil or bones can reveal insights into our lifespan and way of life.

On a larger scale, archaeology can help us to better understand what happened right below our feet, even under the streets of big cities like Sydney. It reconstructs past environments to explain how humans shaped, adapted to, and managed their local ecosystems, even as climate upheaval happened around them. Sometimes this change was rapid and dramatic and often it was confined to specific regions. 

This event brings together three archaeologists working on different types of evidence – from Sydney and tropical northern regions – to reflect on what they have learned about the continent’s environmental history and explain what it means for today and the long-term future.

This event was held on Wednesday 22 May at the University of Sydney.

The speakers

Katherine is a PhD student at the University of Sydney who specialises in zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains from archaeological sites.  Her research focusses on how large-scale environmental changes impacted the economic practices of groups living in Northern Australia 8000-2000 years ago. Katherine’s talk will discuss how long-term environmental change influenced food selection and landscape use for groups living in this region, and the adaptations they made to navigate and survive these shifting environments.

Tim is a heritage principal at GML Heritage and research affiliate of Flinders University. Tim works in Sydney and Adelaide in both Aboriginal and historical archaeology.  He undertakes scientific research into palaeo-diets and cultural landscapes, investigating stable isotopes from bone and teeth to infer interactions between humans, places and landscape.  The outcomes are often surprising and provide unique perspective into human behaviour, often as a response (but often not) to environmental conditions. Tim will reflect on what the environmental record of Sydney Cove tells us about the long history of land use in the area, from Aboriginal management to European invasion.  

Stephen Gale is interested in environmental change over timescales extending up to hundreds of millions of years. Most of his work, however, deals with the last few decades and centuries, and with the environmental impact of human activity over this period. He is interested in dating the recent past and in reconstructing detailed records of environmental change in order to tackle modern environmental problems. He has worked in glaciated, karstic and alpine terrains, in tropical humid landscapes, on tropical coasts and in arid and lacustrine environments. Stephen will discuss ‘A short (and very partial) environmental history of Sydney.’

James Flexner is senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on how people managed the landscapes of island and coastal environments in the Pacific Islands and Australia, particularly in situations of cultural contact and European colonialism. He has current research projects in Vanuatu, Tasmania, and central Queensland.

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