How Studying Paleolakes Can Help Us Understand Climate and Cultural Change

The arid lands of western North America contain many dry lake beds that typically hold water for only a few weeks or months of the year. However, at various times in the past, when precipitation was more abundant and evaporation was less severe, these areas (paleolakes) were inundated to create large and relatively stable inland bodies of water that supported high biodiversity in an otherwise arid landscape.

As such, people lived and worked along these lake shores, leaving behind a rich material record of their activity. The distribution of this material tracks change in the depths of these lakes over the past approximately 13,000 years and therefore provides an excellent record of climate and cultural change through the Holocene.

In a recent article, “Paleolakes, archaeology, and late Quaternary paleoenvironments in northwestern Mongolia,” published in Quaternary Research by Cambridge University Press, Dudek Research Archaeologist Loukas Barton and co-authors from the University of Nevada, Reno and the National Museum of Mongolia illustrate how archaeological data can be used to help refine our understanding of paleoenvironment, in this case by looking at where dateable sites sit relative to proposed lake levels. The team reconstructed the climatic, hydrographic, and environmental regimes of terminal Pleistocene and Holocene northwestern Mongolia using archaeological and pedological data sets at Bayan Nuur, a lake on the northwestern perimeter of the Altan Els dune field in eastern Uvs Province, Mongolia.

Though the research presented in this paper was conducted in northwest Mongolia, the environmental context is very similar to locations in western North America, particularly the terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene lakes of the Great Basin and Mojave. As such, the research methods described in this paper are relevant to the study of cultural resources and climate change in the Colorado and Mojave Deserts and throughout the Great Basin.

Want to learn more about this research effort? Read the full paper, “Paleolakes, archaeology, and late Quaternary paleoenvironments in northwestern Mongolia.”

Morgan, C., Jamsranjav, B., Tumurbaatar, T., & Barton, L. (2022). Paleolakes, archaeology, and late Quaternary paleoenvironments in northwestern Mongolia. Quaternary Research, 1-15. doi:10.1017/qua.2022.9

For more info, contact Archaeologist Loukas Barton and learn more about our cultural resources services.