Dissertation Award for Justin Carlton : Middle to Late Holocene (8000-3000 B.P.) Environmental Change and Human Ecosystem Management in South-Central Kentucky

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Landscape modification predates the industrial age by thousands of years, and few ecosystems are truly pristine (Denevan 1992). Recent research has demonstrated that prehistoric groups modified landscapes in a variety of ways: through irrigation systems, creation of rich, organic soils, and land burning. While examples of environmental degradation are evident, many modifications had beneficial ecological effects including increasing floral and faunal diversity or overall ecosystem productivity (Håkansson and Widgren 2014). In the Interior Low Plateaus and Southern Appalachian regions of the Eastern United States, marked increases in fire activity, changes in vegetation patterns, independent domestication of native plants, introduction of ground stone tool technology, and the diversification of food resources occurred between the Middle and Late Archaic periods (ca. 8000-3000 B.P.) (Delcourt et al. 1998; Jefferies 2008; Smith 2006; Wilkins et al. 1991). These significant changes suggest that hunter-gatherers were impacting surrounding ecosystems in complex new ways. South-central Kentucky is characterized by caves, rockshelters, sinkholes, karst valleys, and underground rivers. The earliest European visitors to the region in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century noted a prairie-like landscape characterized by expansive grasslands composed of herbs, shrubs, and few trees, calling it the "Big Barrens". Initially formed during the warm and dry Middle Holocene (8000-5000 B.P.), the barrens and cedar glades scattered across the Interior Low Plateaus continued to be maintained despite wetter forest conditions beginning in the early Late Holocene (5000-2000 B.P.). The continuation of grasslands is striking, and suggests prehistoric indigenous populations may have perpetuated these grasslands by land burning (Baskin et al. 1994; Delcourt et al. 1998; Hart et al. 2008; Fesenmyer and Christensen Jr. 2010; White 2007; Wilkins et al. 1991). However, few researchers have comprehensively incorporated the archaeological record into their discussions (see Delcourt et al. 1998 for an exception). I employ an historical ecological approach that challenges the nature-culture dichotomy, and recognizes that humans and the environment are not disconnected, but rather are historically intertwined (Balee 2006). It also acknowledges that even small-scale societies, such as hunter-gatherers, can transform the environment resulting in persistent ecosystem legacies (Lightfoot et al. 2013). However, identifying the archaeological footprint of prehistoric forest management can prove difficult, requiring interdisciplinary approaches. Along with the archaeological record, I am using soil geomorphology to reconstruct the paleoenvironmental history and evolution of a karst landform in relation to climatic change and human land burning in south-central Kentucky (Holliday 2004).
Effective start/end date9/1/1611/30/17


  • Felburn Foundation: $10,000.00


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