The Footprints of Ancient Civilization, Seen from Space

Posted on Monday, April 9th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
link Categories: Long Term Science, Technology   chat 0 Comments

It seems that our ancestors left behind a bit more than the pyramids and temples we still enjoy today.

Using satellite photos and digital mapping technology, a group of archaeologists has discovered traces of ancient life on a much smaller scale. A recent article in Nature reported on the finding, quoting one of the study’s researchers:

“Traditional archaeology goes straight to the biggest features – the palaces or cities – but we tend to ignore the settlements at the other end of the social spectrum,” says Jason Ur, an archaeologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is co-author of the study. “The people who migrated to cities came from somewhere; we have to put these people back on the map.”

Rather than palaces, these rural communities have left their mark in the form of “anthrosols.” Think of these as a type of footprints: anthrosol is soil that has been altered by the presence of human life. Communities built mud-brick houses, left behind organic waste, and fertilized agricultural fields – all of which brought about a permanent change in the makeup and texture of the soil.

To see these footprints, you may need an archaeologist’s eye – or alternatively, a spy satellite. Developing new imaging technology and methods for digital analysis, this group of archaeologists has been able to use satellite photos not only to map patterns of small-scale settlement, but also to measure the size of these ancient communities. This virtual form of archaeology promises to revolutionize the field, and has already drawn into question a few stalwart theories about the dynamics of urbanization.

It’s a new way of chronicling the history of civilization, reminding us that our legacy is not just told through books and architecture; it’s written in the earth.

  • Fascinating. Makes one wonder what else we could learn if the instruments had greater sensitivity and higher resolution. Could there be other markers of human (and other animal) habitation still to be discovered? How far back in history can this go?

  • Spy satellites that travel in time! 

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