We are living in the most happening as well as the most recent era of the geological time scale, spanning upto the last 2 million years or so. It is not only known to be the coolest part of Cenzoic period, but also is marked by massive global climatic changes during which glaciers are known to have destroyed and then again formed globally on numerous occasions. For Archaeologists, this era is of particular interest because of the appearance and evolution of man as he is presently and the formation of civilizations, cultures and societies too! This is quaternary period.

Moreover, given the impact of Quaternary climate changes on plant and animal communities, on sea level, on rivers, on lakes, and on all other components of the environment, human prehistory must be inextricably linked to Quaternary environmental changes, although the degree and nature of the linkages are hotly debated.

The Earth sciences historically have been employed in archaeology along traditional sub disciplinary lines, such as stratigraphy, geophysics, geomorphology,, pedology, sedimentology, and geochronology (e.g., Shackley and Davidson, 1976; Herz and Garrison, 1998; Rapp and Gifford, 1985; Rapp and Hill, 1998; Waters, 1992), but Quaternary geologists have been key players in the development of geoarchaeology (Rapp and Hill, 1998, pp. 1-17).

Rapp and Hill further argue that Quaternary geoscience, similar to geoarchaeology, crosscuts the usual subdivisions of the Earth sciences and indeed goes beyond these sub disciplines to include aspects of the biological sciences, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and geography. Quaternary geosciences are an important component of the “contextual archaeology” so eloquently and forcefully advocated by Butzer (1982). Studies of the Quaternary period and more typically and explicitly the Pleistocene epoch have long been a component of archaeological research.

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However, discussions of the significance of Quaternary studies or the basic principles of Quaternary research as a body of knowledge similar to, for example, botany or pedology, are rarely addressed in the archaeological literature, including environmental archaeology and geoarchaeology. A sampling of introductory texts on archaeological method and theory, world prehistory, and North American archaeology published since the mid-1980s (Table 1.1) shows that generally one percent or less of text space is devoted to a discussion of the Pleistocene epoch.

The Holocene epoch fares worse, which is startling given the archaeological record of the Holocene, and the Quaternary generally is not mentioned at all (Table 1.1). This tendency is not confined to archaeology texts, however. Most of the few comprehensive volumes on geoarchaeology (Herz and Garrison, 1997; Rapp and Gifford, 1985; Rapp and Hill, 1998; Waters, 1992) have no explicit discussion of Quaternary geoscience, though the topics they do cover would fall under this heading.

The notable exceptions are the classic volumes by Butzer (1964, 1971, 1982), which deal directly with concepts of Pleistocene research as a component of geoarchaeology. Some, especially older texts on dating methods in archaeology also included discussions of Pleistocene and Holocene stratigraphy and geochronology (e.g., Oakley, 1964; Wagner, 1998; Zeuner, 1958). Volumes on Quaternary geoscience vary in the amount of attention paid to human evolution and archaeology. Those focusing specifically on Quaternary geology (Bowen, 1978; Dawson, 1992; Ehlers, 1996) pay scant attention to these topics, whereas more comprehensive volumes do (Nilsson, 1983; Williams et aI., 1993), though not necessarily in any detail (e.g., Andersen and Borns, 1994; Flint, 1971; ).

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This chapter discusses some principles of Quaternary geoscience that have an impact on the study of and understanding of human prehistory. The discussion includes seemingly mundane topics such as the geologic time scale and stratigraphic nomenclature, which are important to understand for precise and accurate communication, similar to an understanding of basic cultural chronologies and associated terminology in archaeology. The chapter also includes a review of current understanding of the Quaternary climate record as revealed in cores from the ocean floors and ice sheets, the mechanisms that forced the climate changes that characterize the Quaternary period, and contemporary approaches to reconstructing Quaternary environments.

These issues are important for providing a context for pursuing archaeological questions and for understanding human prehistory.

Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Earth Science.