Lake sediment fecal and biomass burning biomarkers provide direct evidence for prehistoric human-lit fires in New Zealand

E. Argiriadis, D. Battistel, D. B. McWethy, M. Vecchiato, T. Kirchgeorg, N. M. Kehrwald, C. Whitlock, J. M. Wilmshurst, C. Barbante

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Deforestation associated with the initial settlement of New Zealand is a dramatic example of how humans can alter landscapes through fire. However, evidence linking early human presence and land-cover change is inferential in most continental sites. We employed a multi-proxy approach to reconstruct anthropogenic land use in New Zealand’s South Island over the last millennium using fecal and plant sterols as indicators of human activity and monosaccharide anhydrides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, charcoal and pollen as tracers of fire and vegetation change in lake-sediment cores. Our data provide a direct record of local human presence in Lake Kirkpatrick and Lake Diamond watersheds at the time of deforestation and a new and stronger case of human agency linked with forest clearance. The first detection of human presence matches charcoal and biomarker evidence for initial burning at c. AD 1350. Sterols decreased shortly after to values suggesting the sporadic presence of people and then rose to unprecedented levels after the European settlement. Our results confirm that initial human arrival in New Zealand was associated with brief and intense burning activities. Testing our approach in a context of well-established fire history provides a new tool for understanding cause-effect relationships in more complex continental reconstructions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12113
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC Grant agreement n° 267696 – EARLYhumanIMPACT. The research was also supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation (0966472 and 1024413). Elga Lab water, High Wycombe UK, supplied the pure water system used in this study. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Author(s).

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • NZ13
  • HFNZ2

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