Preserving the Legacy of Early Humans: Scientists Combat a Growing Menace

History

Preserving the Legacy of Early Humans:

Archaeologists are working to preserve human history as climate change poses a threat to its destruction.

At the Jamestown Rediscovery site, archaeologist Dave Givens and his crews are bracing for a battle against a formidable foe – water. Sandbags are being piled up around what look like foxholes and trenches as the water levels continue to rise, putting them on the front lines of an existential fight intensified by the climate crisis.

At the Jamestown Rediscovery site, archaeologist Dave Givens and his crews are bracing for a battle against a formidable foe – water. Sandbags are being piled up around what look like foxholes and trenches as the water levels continue to rise, putting them on the front lines of an existential fight intensified by the climate crisis.

The climate crisis is posing a serious threat to what has been preserved for centuries. The rising sea levels and increased groundwater levels beneath Jamestown, coupled with erratic and heavy rainfall, have put Jamestown’s archaeologist, Dave Givens, and his team in a fight for the site’s survival. The excess water has no place to drain, leading to the transformation of most of the Jamestown site into a marshland. As a result, some of the excavations at the outer parts of the old James Fort have been filled with sandbags to salvage whatever remains for the future. Givens describes the situation as perilous, with the site frequently flooding every tidal cycle and necessitating the continuous pumping of water.

According to Givens and Michael Lavin, the director of collections at the site, their work at the Jamestown Rediscovery site has been overshadowed by efforts to prevent climate-related damage, including flooding. They are forced to attend meetings and seek Congressional support, taking time away from their primary task of delving into the past. The situation is not unique to Jamestown, as archaeological sites worldwide are at risk due to rising water levels, fires, and erosion. As humanity faces an uncertain future, archaeologists are working hard to safeguard invaluable aspects of our history.

The Swallowing Sea

The end of the last Ice Age caused a rise in sea levels, damaging many historic human sites, such as the earliest Aboriginal settlements in Australia and likely the first human footprints in North America. Today, the oceans are rising about 20 percent faster than at the end of the last Ice Age, with current predictions estimating a little more than a meter rise by 2100 due to warming water and melting ice. This poses a significant threat to humanity’s clustered coastal past. The University of Tennessee’s David Anderson and colleagues warn that this rising sea level will cause the “loss of much of the record of human habitation of the coastal margin in the southeast [U.S.] within the next one to two centuries.” Entire Pacific Island nations are also at risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels.

The rising seas pose a threat to the famous monolithic Moai statues and ceremonial platforms on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the Pacific Ocean. The structures are increasingly at risk of erosion from the waves, with some Moai already having to be relocated away from the shoreline. The local people have also seen their ancestors’ graves eroded. Furthermore, the Moai on clifftops and centuries-old rock paintings on caldera walls high above the water are also in danger of falling into the ocean due to the waves eroding the rock supporting them.

It’s unfortunate that rising sea levels are threatening the Gorham’s Cave Complex and the valuable insights it provides into the lives of Neanderthals. The potential loss of this site highlights the importance of understanding and addressing the underlying causes of climate change. While there are many factors contributing to rising sea levels, including natural cycles and human activities, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver of global warming and its associated impacts, including sea level rise.

Efforts to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change are crucial in order to protect not only cultural heritage sites like the Gorham’s Cave Complex, but also the livelihoods, homes, and ecosystems of millions of people around the world. This requires a concerted effort from governments, businesses, and individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, shift to renewable energy sources, and invest in climate resilience measures.

A race against time

The potential impact of changing weather patterns on the Flores Man and other important archaeological sites is concerning. The study of human evolution and the diversity of ancient hominins is critical to understanding our place in the world and how we have evolved over time.

It’s essential that we take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in climate resilience measures. This will not only help protect cultural heritage sites but also ensure the long-term sustainability of our planet and the communities that depend on it.

In addition to climate action, it’s crucial to support research and conservation efforts to protect important archaeological sites like those on Flores. This includes working with local communities to ensure that cultural heritage is valued and protected, while also supporting sustainable economic development and livelihoods. By taking a holistic approach to conservation and climate action, we can help ensure a better future for both people and the planet.

The discovery site of H. floresiensis, Liang Bua cave, is situated 500 meters above sea level in the mountainous region of the island and is protected from sea-level rise. However, the increased strength of future monsoons could lead to erosion of the fossil-bearing deposits due to heavy rainfall penetrating the cave roof, warns University of Wollongong archaeologist Richard Roberts.

Other archaeological sites on the island closer to the coast may be threatened by flooding. If these sites are lost, the chance to learn more about the Flores hominins and their relationship with humans could disappear in the coming decades.

While some areas are affected by rising sea levels, others are facing the opposite problem of droughts caused by dry weather patterns. Nonetheless, researchers must remain vigilant and take action to protect vulnerable archaeological sites from the adverse effects of climate change.

The recent hot and dry summers across Europe have uncovered long-buried archaeological sites, such as Bronze Age fortresses, Roman villas, and Renaissance gardens. The heat-absorbing properties of stone cause the surrounding soil to bake and turn a lighter color, exposing the outlines of submerged walls. In times of drought, ancient ditches retain more moisture than the packed soil around them, leading to taller and greener plants that mark the outlines of Iron Age burial mounds and Roman fortifications.

These rare weather events make it seem like the past has been drawn on the landscape in invisible ink, with unusual features becoming suddenly visible from above.

As lakes and reservoirs dry up, they too offer glimpses into the past. The drought in Iraq in 2022 led to the draining of the Mosul Dam reservoir, revealing an entire ancient city destroyed by an earthquake in 1350 BCE. This lost city, likely called Zakhiku, was part of the Mittani Empire, and its discovery is just one of many fascinating finds revealed in shrinking lakes and reservoirs, such as shipwrecks and stone circles.

Triage

Uncovering archaeological sites like Zakhiku during certain climate conditions presents a double-edged sword. While these sites provide valuable insight into the past, they are also vulnerable to looting and erosion, and sudden changes in climate conditions can potentially destroy artifacts. Objects that have been stable underwater for centuries may crumble when exposed to air, and long-buried artifacts can rapidly decay when exposed to sunlight and air. These risks underscore the importance of proper preservation and documentation of newly uncovered archaeological sites, as well as the need to balance scientific curiosity with responsible management of these cultural resources.

Indeed, archaeologists face a race against time to study, map, and preserve these newly uncovered sites, as well as document them for future generations. In the face of climate change and its unpredictable effects on the environment, it is more important than ever to prioritize responsible and thorough archaeological investigation and preservation efforts. This includes using state-of-the-art technology and techniques to accurately document and preserve artifacts and archaeological sites, as well as collaborating with local communities to ensure that cultural heritage is protected and valued.

The urgency to study and preserve archaeological sites is heightened in the East African Rift Valley, where fossils of our early human ancestors have provided valuable insights into our evolution. However, these sites are at risk of erosion and weathering. While many hominin sites in southern Africa are found in caves, those in east Africa are often discovered on the surface, making them more vulnerable to weather conditions such as drought. This is particularly concerning as local farmers depend on the already parched landscape to feed their livestock, which can exacerbate the effects of drought by causing soil erosion.

According to anthropologist Hawks, overgrazing and rainfall changes can have a significant impact on east Africa’s hominin sites. Insufficient rainfall and excessive grazing lead to soil erosion, which can easily destroy layers of earth that provide crucial information about human remains and stone tools. Fossil human remains are rare, and their significance lies in their ability to reveal a page of our history, only if scientists can determine their age relative to other artifacts found in the same place. The loss of this information can have severe consequences for farmers, scientists, and animals alike. The task of archaeologists is to salvage as much as they can and extract data from artifacts before they are lost. However, the shortage of archaeologists poses a significant challenge to this endeavor. As Hawks puts it, “We’re doing triage, and there are not enough archaeologists to do it.”

After the storm

Archaeologists at Jamestown and other sites face a significant challenge in determining the extent of the problem and identifying which areas require the most urgent attention. They need to assess the situation before planning excavations and implementing new infrastructure, such as drainage, to protect sites from the effects of the changing climate.

At Florida’s Cape Canaveral, rocket launch platforms stand alongside 10,000-year-old Indigenous shell middens and the remains of 200-year-old fishing towns, presenting a unique challenge for archaeologists. While the launch complexes may not be as obviously significant as the oldest human fossils in Africa and Neanderthal caves in Eurasia, they are an important part of humanity’s history.

One such complex, NASA’s former Launch Complex 34, now a memorial to the Apollo 1 crew who died in a fire in 1967, was built just a few hundred meters from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the edges of the complex are underwater at high tide due to the increasing frequency of category four and five hurricanes.

University of South Florida archaeologist Lori Collins explains that “once it was almost unheard of to have those [category] fours and fives coming in. It seems like we’re having multiple fours and fives every year.” The launch complexes along the coastal zone are experiencing damages and structural loss due to the erosion caused by the storms. The erosion activity is gradually moving up the shore with every storm, putting the launch complexes in danger of being washed away. Additionally, the storms strip sand away from some places and redeposit it in others, burying some sites while exposing others.

According to Lori Collins, archaeologists at the Cape Canaveral Archaeological Mitigation Project are now spending a lot of time documenting the aftermath of major storms. During post-storm surveys, they often discover new things that have been pushed up or exposed. Collins and her colleagues are using laser scans to map historic rocket launch complexes along the coast and monitor how the shoreline beneath them is eroding with each passing storm. In some cases, when archaeologists know a site is doomed, they gather as much detailed information as they can, creating a digital reconstruction for posterity.

Mapping and monitoring can help engineers stabilize historic structures, which may involve shoring them up against erosion or painting them to prevent rusting. However, Collins believes that this work is not just a salvage effort but critical for a scientific approach to a response instead of a reactive one. She sees it as building resiliency.

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