Professor explores human effects on landscape in ancient China

Leslie Zhang

Humans have been altering the environment and unknowingly documenting changes to the landscape since the beginning of our existence, according to anthropology professor Arlene Rosen.

Rosen’s work, presented during a lecture Friday, examined the relationships between the Chinese people and regional landscapes from the middle to late Holocene period — spanning from 6,000 to 3,000 B.C. — by infusing elements of both anthropology and archaeology.

Working around the Yiluo River valley and Qufu — a city in southwestern China that was the home of Chinese philosopher Confucius —  Rosen and her team probed the spread of rice and millet cultivations.

Seemingly minute actions may leave a trail of consequences, she said.

“The minute you cut down a tree, you are not only reducing the vegetation,” Rosen said. “You’re also opening the landscape for soil erosion. You’re making the water table drop because there are no longer roots there to suck in the water that falls from the rain.”

Even small human actions are documented in the research, Rosen said, but preserving a complete record of changes in the landscape is unrealistic. 

She said her work is not typically considered archaeology because it focuses on what is underground rather than on the surface.

“I was looking at whole, buried landscapes, [and] that isn’t normally considered archaeology, so you can’t halt construction and say, ‘oh, there was an ancient river under there, maybe an irrigation canal, so you can’t build a shopping mall here,’” she said.

Rosen, who specializes in the study of ancient civilizations through archaeology, said she believes her work is relevant today.

“You hear about [climate change] on the news all the time,” Rosen said. “What are we going to do? It’s like we’re alone in the world, but that’s not right. Many civilizations have dealt with climate change and learned to adapt to it.”

Geography senior William Crites-Krumm said he attended the lecture because it involved his interests in China, geography and photography. 

“I’m interested in geography because of photography,” Crites-Krumm said. “My goal is to do something related to landscape photography, so this was a good background of information to have that I can apply later on.”

The talk was sponsored by the department of geography and the environment. Geography professor William Doolittle said the series is aimed towards graduate students who want to explore academic subjects related to environmental transformations around the world. Doolittle said the lecture series exposes graduate students to faculty in their areas of study.

“I like to bring in people who are reasonably close, other scholars on the faculty in different departments or [from] nearby universities to expose them to our graduate students,” Doolittle said.