The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Using GIS for paleoecological reconstructions: a case study from Laetoli, Tanzania


1Anthropology, University of New Mexico, 2Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College

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The Pliocene site of Laetoli in northern Tanzania has produced a large and varied faunal assemblage, including specimens of Australopithecus afarensis. In contrast with most contemporary East African hominin sites, the depositional environment of the Upper Laetoli Beds (~3.5-3.8 Ma) is unique due to a lack of evidence of permanent large bodies of water. Thus, a deeper understanding of the paleoecology of Pliocene Laetoli may be illuminating with regard to questions of habitat access, use, and preference of A. afarensis. Attempts to reconstruct the paleoenvironment of the site, however, have yielded a wide variety of interpretations regarding habitat composition. These differing reconstructions may partly be due to the coarse resolution of the available data. The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology has not been fully explored in paleoecological analyses, but has great potential in helping to resolve these issues. GIS analysis was conducted on various paleoenvironmental indicators from the Upper Laetolil Beds, including faunal indicator species, stable oxygen and carbon isotopes, and geologic data. These analyses support previous evidence of habitat heterogeneity at Laetoli, suggesting that central areas of the site principally consist of mixed habitat including grassland, bushland, woodland, and some wet areas. Indicators also suggest less heterogeneous habitat types near the margins of the site, with perimeter localities mapping as predominantly wooded or open. This novel use of GIS allowed for better visualization of geographic and temporal relationships among the paleoenvironmental indicators and provided greater resolution when considering questions of habitat composition and distribution during Pliocene Laetoli.

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