DR PATRICK ROBERTS
Research Group Leader and Director of the Stable Isotope Laboratory
Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
I received a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology and an MSc in Archaeological Science at the University of Oxford. I completed my DPhil in Archaeological Science, entitled ‘Fruits of the Forest: Human stable isotope ecology and rainforest adaptations in Late Pleistocene and Holocene Sri Lanka’ at the same institution. This focused on using stable isotope analysis of human and faunal fossil remains to elucidate Late Pleistocene human rainforest adaptations in Sri Lanka, and the relationship of this data to wider debates regarding the viability of rainforest habitats for long-term foraging by our species.
My thesis stimulated a wider interest in human adaptations to tropical forest environments and in 2019 I completed the first global archaeological review of human relationships with these environments in a book entitled 'Tropical Forests in Human Prehistory, History, and Modernity', published in Oxford University Press. This book ranges from analysing the relationship of our earliest hominin ancestors with tropical forests resources, through to the development of ancient urban settings in these environments, and onto 21st century conservation issues.
I am passionate about bringing archaeology and palaeoenvironmental science to bear on modern policy and conservation (both heritage and environmental) priorities and I have taken part in UNESCO symposia that bring together archaeologists and anthropologists together to discuss potential solutions for the conservation of ecological and cultural heritage in the tropics. Such work is also the more pressing given the fragile status of tropical forests, some of the oldest terrestrial environments on the face of the planet.
I am a keen proponent of using multidisciplinary approach in the study of the human past, including application of LiDAR remote sensing, palaeoenvironmental archives, historical records, Earth's systems modelling, and archaeobotany and archaeozoology. As Group Leader and Director of the Department of Archaeology’s stable isotope research group, I am particularly committed to applying stable isotope methods within diverse research programmes that are focused on human palaeoclimates, palaeoenvironments, palaeodiets and palaeomobility.
I have a number of international peer-reviewed publications that use stable isotope analysis in a variety of archaeological research contexts: from reconstructing palaeoenvironmental conditions in East and South Africa, South Asia, and Saudi Arabia associated with human habitation of these regions during the Pleistocene to dietary complexities in 18th and 19th century historical populations. Beyond human-tropical forest interactions, my other primary interests include early human cognition, hominin dispersals, megafaunal extinctions, and the relationship between climate change and cultural change in our species.
STUDYING PAST HUMAN RELIANCE ON TROPICAL FOREST RESOURCES
Until very recently, tropical forests were thought to be barriers to human settlement and dispersal. I have been applying stable isotope analysis to human and animal tissues from across Africa, Asia, and the Americas in order to demonstrate that this is not the case and understand how humans have differentially relied on environments once thought to have been 'pristine', from our evolution c. 300,000 years ago until the industrial era. Collaborators include the University of Exeter, Australian National University, University of Otago, the Department of Archaeology, Government of Sri Lanka, and Griffith University, Australia.
'OFF' AND 'ON'-SITE PALAEOENVIRONMENTAL ARCHIVES
Climatic and environmental change has always had impacts on human society. In turn, humans have influenced the climate and environment around them. I am committed to promoting palaeoenvironmental proxies developed in natural archives and archaeological sites to produce new, multi-resolution insights into the interaction between our species, vegetation, animals, and precipitation and temperature, in different parts of the world at different points in the past. I ask how did different societies respond to climate changes? Did different subsistence, economic, and political structures provide greater resilience?
THE 'ANTHROPOCENE' AND TROPICAL FORESTS: PAST AND PRESENT
The 'Anthropocene' concept states that we have now entered an epoch in which human activity is the dominant impact on the operation of earth systems. Tropical forests sit at the heart of the water cycle, the regulation of atmospheric composition, soil nutrient cycling, and have a biased proportion of the world's biodiversity. As a result, combined local human impacts can have cascading effects on regional and even global scales. With this in mind, did pre-industrial impacts on tropical forests initiate earth systems changes? If so, how did they lay the groundwork for the processes of change we experience today?
A LIVING ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE AMAZONIAN RAINFOREST
After the ice caps tropical forests are the most threatened terrestrial environments. Modern trees are not just witnesses to growing modern threats, but are also legacies of millennia of human management. This project works across three Max Planck Institutes and key Institutes in Brazil to apply tree DNA, radiocarbon analysis, stable isotope analysis, and dendrochronology to interrogate ancient tree management in the Amazon Rainforest. The applicability of these methods across prehistoric, historic, and post-industrial periods means they have the potential to elucidate evolving anthropogenic threats and conservation priorities in rapidly vanishing environments.
LINKING OCEANOGRAPHY AND MULTI-SPECIFIC, SPATIALLY-VARIABLE INTERACTIONS OF SEABIRDS AND THEIR PREY IN THE ARCTIC (LOMVIA)
Arctic marine animals are under increasing threat from climate change. Its impacts are not merely physical, such as seas becoming too warm or sea ice melting, but also biological as climate can alter how different species interact with one another. In particular, the ranges of temperate species can expand northward and bring them into increasing contact with Arctic species. The newcomers may start to prey on the Arctic species, or outcompete them for food or breeding sites. Project LOMVIA uses biomolecular methods to investigate these interactions for a pair of closely related seabird species in Iceland.
PREHISTORIC URBAN RESILIENCE AND CLIMATE CHANGE IN SRI LANKA
The Indian Ocean Monsoon (IOM) system dictates precipitation across South Asia, and variability in its temporal and spatial operation has led to documented disruptions to dense, sedentary human populations. The IOM was also important to human societies in Sri Lanka in the past, particularly the earliest urban societies in its arid Dry Zone. This project will obtain new multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental records from lakes, lagoons, and anthropogenic tanks in Sri Lanka to test whether IOM operation played a major, more attritional, or negligible role in the formation and collapse of earliest examples of urbanism in Sri Lanka.