Jennifer is the winner of the 2013 Scopus Young Researcher of the Year for Arts and Humanities.

Jennifer Watling

By looking at fossilised plant remains in the Amazon rainforest University of Exeter researcher Jennifer Watling hopes to answer questions about how ‘man made’ the Amazon is and how it has affected current biodiversity.

Jennifer recently won the Arts and Humanities Scopus Young Researcher 2013 award for her environmental archaeology research. We caught up with her to fins out more about her research.

Can you tell us more about the Scopus award?

I was nominated on the quality of my publications. To be eligible for the award, you had to have been published no earlier than 2010 in a in high impact journal.

The paper I was nominated for was as a culmination of work archaeobotanists, archaeologists, ecologists and soil scientists. We researched ancient agricultural systems on the French Guiana coast and the extent of landscape transformation associated with them.

It was the first time an interdisciplinary approach had been used to study these systems, which are found all over the Americas.

The paper was published in 2012 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) and was titled 'Fire-free land use in pre-1492 savannas'.

A panel of judges, all of whom had Arts and Humanities affiliations, chose the winner based on  the quality of the research and how interesting they thought it was.

I was and still am, to a large extent, extremely surprised to receive the award but I am very thankful for it.

What do you think stood out about your research to the judges?

I think it was partly that it was something very new, the project looks at plant remains from the Amazon to reconstruct the way humans have interacted with the planet, historically. I’m using scientific methods of studying plant remains to test assumptions about how much humans deforest the landscape.

In Acre state, Brazil, where I'm conducting my PhD, more than 400 geometrically-patterned ditch and bank earthworks have been discovered in areas where the rainforest has been cleared for cattle ranching. The existence of these structures, under what would otherwise be intact forest, raises questions over the nature of the landscape at the time they were built and whether their construction involved clearing large areas.

The research is ground breaking because we’re linking the archaeology and the paleoecology [plant remains and environmental history] which hasn’t been done very much before in the Amazon basins.

Who or what has inspired you to do this research?

The work itself inspires me. It sounds cheesy but I like the fact that there are these big unknowns and that the Amazon itself is an amazing landscape.

We can hopefully learn from the past; if we see how rainforest ecosystems responded to human impact in the past it could have implications for modern day practice of conservation.

If the Amazon is more man-made than pristine and the current biodiversity is an effect of humans altering the landscape then we need to rethink how we conserve it.

How can a member of the public understand the impact of your research?

We need to learn from the past in order to know what to do today. The Amazon has the greatest biodiversity of anywhere in the world and it needs looking after properly.

Looking at how humans in the past used the landscape and how it responded can help us in the future.

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to get a Post-doc in Brazil and do some more research in a similar area.

I want to keep working in the Amazon with plant remains; there’s a lot that my work can hopefully shed light on over there. To actually set up a base in the Amazon would be cool.

How has the University’s support helped your research?

My supervisor, Prof Jose Iriarte, has worked with human-environment interactions all over South America and the inter-disciplinary and cutting edge nature of his work has been an inspiration for me.

I have a lot of contact with him and he has a lot of good ideas.

The University have also supported me in a practical way; the Archaeology department and College of Humanities have supported me financially to carry out my research.

What makes you tick?

I think it’s two things. One; the level of independence you have as a researcher to carry out your work and two; that discovery is just round the corner.

You are always finding out new things that no one has known before and seeing things that no one has seen. That is what gets me going.