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Past cultural adaptation to abrupt Holocene climate change in the Peruvian Andes

   School of Geography and Environmental Science

   Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

The relatively stable climate of the Holocene period has been interspersed with abrupt climate events (ACEs) – periods often lasting as little as 100 years with significant reduction in temperature. This project will evaluate the impact of these ACEs on the environment and human communities of the Peruvian Andes.


Global palaeoclimate reconstructions based upon a variety of proxy data have identified periods of abrupt millennial-centennial scale climate change occurring between 9000-8000, 6000-5000, 4200-3800, 3500-2500, 1200-1000 and 600-150 years ago. We know from recent history that such events can have major environmental impacts, while predicted climate change suggests ACES will increase in their frequency and severity, with consequences for human communities throughout the world. The Peruvian Andes is a particularly threatened region, where an understanding the past impact of ACES may help develop plans to mitigate against future impacts. Existing evidence already suggests that abrupt climate changes at 1400-1000 cal. BP led to the implementation of highly sophisticated, widespread adaptive strategies including technological innovation in water management and agricultural terrace construction. Given that the human history of the Peruvian Andes extends back to the Early Holocene, the region presents an excellent opportunity to investigate the long-term resilience and adaptive capacity of human communities and their mountain ecosystems to abrupt climate change events.

Research Questions

The following research questions will be addressed:

• What was the precise timing and nature of abrupt climate change in the Peruvian Andes during the Holocene based upon    lacustrine and peatland records? What was the cause of these abrupt climate changes?

• What was the impact on mountain ecosystems and the palaeoeconomy?

• Is there evidence for social and technological changes including water management infrastructure and cultural practices?


The project will couple palaeoenvironmental and palaeoeconomic records with agent-based modelling to advance our understanding of climate-environment-human interrelationships. It will improve our understanding of the timing of key events, and quantify the impact of climate change on the landscape. Research methods will include:

(1) The collection of continuous, undisturbed sediment core samples from lakes and peatlands (bofedales) in three climatically distinct zones - Cordillera Blanca (northern), Cordillera Viuda (central), Cordillera Huanzo (southern). Core samples have already been collected. Initial laboratory analysis demonstrates sufficiently high temporal resolution to detect millennial-centennial scale events.

(2) Laboratory analysis of the geochemical and sedimentary properties using ITRAX (NOC Southampton), X-ray particle size analysis and mineral magnetics as indicators of landscape erosion, lake water level change, and sub-fossil pollen grains and spores, non-pollen palynomorphs and testate amoebae as indicators of vegetation succession, land-use change, and palaeohydrology. The application of testate amoebae analysis is new in a Peruvian context and will involve the development of a new transfer function. This will be challenging but groundbreaking research.

(3) Age modelling based on a high-resolution radiocarbon chronology using Oxcal/Bacon to enable spatial and temporal correlation of events. Critical to the research is integration of secondary data from archaeological sites.

(4) Having correlated environmental change with regional socio-economic development and cultural history, palaeo-agent-based modelling will be used to explore environmental and socio-economic responses to climate change. Models will be developed in the Netlogo programming environment to assess the implications of the combination of climate changes and resource strategies for the distribution and structure of humans in the landscape. The project will use existing palaeoclimate reanalyses, in conjunction with information derived from the lakes and wetlands to provide climatic boundary conditions, overlain on high-resolution topography and land cover.

Candidates should have at least a 2.1 degree in Environmental Science or Geography, ideally combined with an MSc in a relevant subject area. Prior experience of sedimentary analysis and agent-based modelling would be an advantage, but not essential. While remaining within the overall aims of the project, candidates have the opportunity to shape the project to meet their own particular interests and expertise.  

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