Palaeoenvironment Studies

Research Goals

The palaeoenvironmental group’s overarching research goal is to evaluate the importance of environment on changes in the complexity (level of social, political, and economic development) of Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite polities.  To contribute to that objective, we are building palaeoenvironmental records that can be coupled with the archaeological findings of the Eastern Tigrai Archaeological Project.  Our working definition of environment is the climatic and land cover characteristics of an area. We particularly focus on reconstructing rainfall, vegetation, and fire history from proxies (substitutes for direct environmental measurement) we extract from soil archives.

Figure 1. Example of base studded with mountainous relief that contributes to large variation in environments on the Tigrai plateau. Yellow box surrounds Mezber, a Pre-Aksumite settlement excavated by ETAP.

Eastern Tigrai has a combination of environmental and human settlement history characteristics that promise understanding not only of their local degrees of interaction but with widespread implications for both ancient and present-day civilisations.  Literature about ancient Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite polities has assumed that their periods of growth, equilibrium, and decline were significantly shaped by environmental forces. Such assumptions are logical because the Tigrai plateau region, which was the base for these polities, would certainly have exposed its peoples to large environmental variations across space and over short to long time scales. The following are particularly relevant examples. At roughly 2000 m a.s.l., of a steep rise from the sometimes below sea level Ethiopian Rift Valley, the “tabletop” portion of the plateau is studded with over half of Africa’s peaks higher than 2500 m a.s.l. (Figure 1.) The resulting large variations in environment over small distances may be amplified or attenuated by human activities that affect land cover, particularly by altering mass wasting and erosion rates.  The Tigrai plateau region encompasses the northernmost oscillations of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone ensuring decadal-scale changes in rainfall extremes that, in turn, alter land cover and its influences on food availability.

Nonetheless, although it is certain that Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite peoples were exposed to significant environmental variations, both their contingent palaeoenvironmental and human settlement histories have been so under-researched that assumptions about the importance of environment in shaping the complexity of their polities have been predominantly speculative. Consequently, our research objectives do not assume causative relationships between environment and the polities but seek instead to understand whether such relationships existed and if they did; what, how important, and how repeatable they were. 

The links below describe our research findings and current directions.