Review of ‘Quaternary Environments’ by M.A.J. Williams, D.L. Dunkerley, P. De Deckker, A.P. Kershaw and T. Stokes

05th January 2014

‘Quaternary Environments’ by M.A.J. Williams, D.L. Dunkerley, P. De Deckker, A.P. Kershaw and T. Stokes.  Edward Arnold 1994 xviii + 330 pp. ISBN 0-7131-6590-1 (pbk).

Review by F. Donald Pate

Quaternary Environments provides an excellent background text for undergraduate topics in environmental archaeology and Quaternary ecology. It also serves as a valuable postgraduate reference book. The book reviews the key types of evidence employed to reconstruct global and regional environmental changes associated with the series of glacial and interglacial periods of the past 2 million years. In addition, models developed from past environmental change are offered as a means to predict future climatic and ecological conditions. The authors provide a select but representative bibliography.

Chapter 1 offers a detailed summary of the aims of the text and the contents of each chapter. It concludes with a list of related publications in the general area of Quaternary environments.

Chapter 2 addresses the relationships between global tectonic events of the Tertiary and major regional episodes including the Himalayan uplift, North American ice sheet accumulation, and the expansion of savanna relative to tropical rainforest. Chapter 3 provides a more detailed examination of major ice sheet buildup in the Northern Hemisphere as a case study of the characteristic process of slow ice accumulation to glacial maxima followed by rapid ice melting and sea level rise. Changes in global and regional sea levels associated with:

1. bedrock depression in response to the weight of extensive ice masses and

2. changes in water availability related to cycles of ice accumulation and melting are reviewed in Chapter 4.

The importance of oxygen isotope analyses of calcareous benthic and planktonic foraminifera to reconstructions of past ocean water temperature and salinity, ice volume and sea levels is addressed in Chapter 5. Deep sea cores and ice cores provide long-term sequences of oxygen isotope data that can be employed to address the magnitude and timing of glacial cycles in various regions of the earth. Oxygen isotope analyses of foraminifera and ice complement traditional sedimentological and microfossil studies. In contrast, Chapter 6 focuses on changes to local and regional terrestrial landscapes as reflected in variations in sediments deposited by rivers and lakes in response to changing evaporation, precipitation and groundwater regimes.

As periods of cold temperature associated with glacial maxima are correlated with terrestrial aridity and desert expansion, studies of desert landforms provide important information about changes in past global and regional climates. Chapter 7 addresses geomorphological studies of desert landforms and associated invertebrate and vertebrate fossils as a means to reconstruct aridity. Environmental evidence derived from analyses of terrestrial plant and animal remains (microfossils and macrofossils) is addressed in Chapter 8.

Chapter 9 provides a brief overview of hominoid and hominid evolution from the Miocene to the Holocene. Hominid biological and cultural evolution from 4 million years ago to the Neolithic is reviewed in a dynamic context involving biological, social-cultural, economic, technological and environmental variables. This chapter includes a brief review of research addressing Pleistocene faunal extinctions. In order to provide explanations for spatial and temporal variability in faunal extinctions, the authors support the use of more complex and multi-causal models employing climate variability, changes in vegetation distribution and abundance and human agencies including hunting, burning and deforestation.

Chapter 10 addresses changes in global atmospheric circulation patterns in the Quaternary. As the most complete palaeoclimatic evidence is restricted to the past 20,000 years and this period includes climatic extremes, a glacial maximum at ca. 18 ka BP and the early Holocene ‘climatic optimum’ at ca. 9ka BP, this time period is employed to test global atmospheric circulation models. These models involve dynamic relationships between ocean, atmosphere and land.

More recent impacts of human behaviour on the natural environment are discussed in Chapter 11. The authors argue that human impacts on the global climate system have increased dramatically following the domestication of plants and animals in the early Holocene. Land clearance, cultivation, overgrazing, increased sedentism and population growth led to greater soil erosion and nutrient depletion, salinization, water pollution and loss of native floral and faunal species. These impacts have been more severe since the Industrial Revolution and affected a wider range of habitats and ecosystems including the global atmosphere. Atmospheric, marine and terrestrial pollution and deforestation have been accelerated significantly in recent years.

Finally, a brief summary of a range of Quaternary dating methods including a table comparing various techniques (Table A.1) is provided in the Appendix. Dating methods discussed include radiocarbon, electron spin resonance (ESR), thermoluminescence (TL), amino acid racemization (AAR), uranium series, potassium-argon (K-Ar), palaeomagnetism, fission track, obsidian hydration, dendrochronology and varve dating. This section provides a good basic introduction to dating methods with references to more specialized texts for the various methods. Due to the recent attention to optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating in archaeology and environmental science, any revised editions of this text should include a section on OSL dating.

In conclusion, the book provides an excellent overview of the core theories and methods employed in Quaternary environmental reconstruction, including case studies from various regions of the world. Rather than attempting to cover the entire range of environmental processes and analytical methods, the authors focus on key concepts and techniques. Complex concepts and methods are presented in a clear manner, and a large number of relevant figures are employed to demonstrate principles and improve understanding. The primary strength of the volume is its ability to present dynamic processes in a simple yet comprehensive format. Although the book does not focus on Australian environmental reconstruction, it provides a sound understanding of the principles and methods that can be employed by archaeologists and environmental scientists in Australia. If you want a coherent and cogent introduction to Quaternary environmental reconstruction, this is a great place to start

Pate, F. Donald
Review of ‘Quaternary Environments’ by M.A.J. Williams, D.L. Dunkerley, P. De Deckker, A.P. Kershaw and T. Stokes
June 1999
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