Department of Archaeology

Quantifying the mosaic

Quantifying the mosaic: testing modern analogues for African palaeoenvironments is a Leverhulme funded project that has received £222,700 over two years.

With researchers based at the University of Nottingham and Liverpool John Moores University the team are working together to interpret ancient landscapes by examining modern vegetation patterns across Africa and then applying this knowledge to the past.










Project overview

In what habitat types did our earliest ancestors live? This is a fundamental question in human evolution as many of the features that are regarded as making us special (such as walking two legs, making and carrying tools, etc.) have been related to our move from the forests to the grasslands several million years ago. When we describe where our ancestors lived using the evidence from the fossil record (such as fossilised plants and animals) we often end up describing their habitats as ‘mosaic’ (mosaic in this sense means a mix of trees, grassland and open water). But did they really live in such environments, or is the mosaic just a result of our not being able to refine the information we get from fossils. For example, the remains of a hippo and crocodile would suggest open water, while a giraffe would suggest trees, and a zebra the open plains. If we find them all together as fossils, is that evidence of a mosaic, or just that our fossils are all mixed up?

Our project is stepping back from the fossils and taking a ‘top-down’ approach (literally), using remote sensing and satellite images to examine parts of Africa to see where the mosaics are, and at what scale. Scale is really important in these analyses – after all a mosaic for a beetle will be much smaller than the mosaic for an elephant. The great advantage of remote-sensing is that we can scale up or down, depending on our question. We are classifying the landscapes into a number of distinct landcover classes (such as dense woodland, open grassland and open water) and then examining where we find these landcover types and where in Africa these ‘mosaic’ landscapes exist. These results, of where the mosaics are and which factors may help them to form, will then be used to help us to interpret the past.


Project team

The researchers working on the project
Hannah O'Regan
Principal Investigator
Dr Hannah O'Regan - University of Nottingham
An archaeologist and Quaternary palaeontologist with a particular interest in hominin palaeoenvironments.

Co Investigator
Dr David Wilkinson - Liverpool John Moores University
An ecologist with wide interests covering key questions in ecology and evolutionary biology – from the biogeography and biodiversity of free living microorganisms to the ecological background to human evolution.

Postdoctoral Research Associate
Dr Sally Reynolds - University of Nottingham
Sally is a South African-born vertebrate palaeontologist with a background in African Earlier and Middle Stone Age archaeology and hominin evolution. She is associated with the University of the Witwatersrand, where she was a former student and NRF Postdoctoral Fellow (School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand Medical School). She has conducted fieldwork at the Lincoln Cave, Sterkfontein (South Africa), has been involved in fieldwork in Kanjera, Kenya. Sally is interested in identifying and explaining larger patterns of faunal and hominin evolution in different African regions. 

Postdoctoral Research Associate
Dr Chris Marston - Liverpool John Moores University
Dr Christopher Marston is a remote sensing specialist with several years' experience in both academia and industry of using satellite and airborne remote sensing datasets for environmental and ecological applications. Examples include used multi-platform satellite imagery for landscape characterisation and land cover mapping for applications such as linking the distribution of key land cover types to disease transmission foci of the parasitic tapeworm Echinococcus multiloculars in central Asia, and the production of the UK Land Cover Map 2007. He has particular research interests in using remote sensing for large scale spatio-temporal landscape analysis and in the novel application of these techniques such as those being investigated in the ‘Testing modern analogues for African palaeoenvironments’ project.

Felix Eigenbrod
External Advisor
Dr Felix Eigenbrod - University of Southampton
A spatial ecologist, with particular interests in ecosystem services.

Julien Louys

External Advisor

Dr Julien Louys - Australian National University, Canberra
A palaeontologist with particular interest in palaeoenvironments and quantification

External Advisor
Professor Graeme Ruxton - University of St Andrews
A mathematical modeller with broad interests including behavioural ecology, experimental design and human evolution. 



Public engagement 

5-10 August 2013
Sally Reynolds presenting in Manchester, UK.: 'The role of landscapes in shaping hominin habitats in Africa'
International Union of Anthropological and Ethnographic Sciences Congress

Sally Reynolds presenting in Manchester, UK:

4-6 September 2013
Chris Marston presenting: 'Quantifying the mosaic: remote sensing analysis of modern analogues for African palaeoenvironments' 
Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society Conference, Glasgow, UK

20-21 September 2013
Hannah O’Regan presenting: 'Mosaic habitats and human evolution at the European Society'
Study of Human Evolution Conference, Vienna, Austria

In the press

Times Higher Education, June 2012

Featured in the Levehulme Trust newsletter, April 2012PDF file icon


The LeverhulmeTrust



Department of Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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