Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 3–31 | Cite as

Using multiple archives to understand past and present climate–human–environment interactions: the lake Erhai catchment, Yunnan Province, China

  • J. A. Dearing
  • R. T. Jones
  • J. Shen
  • X. Yang
  • J. F. Boyle
  • G. C. Foster
  • D. S. Crook
  • M. J. D. Elvin
Deevey and Frey Review


A 6.48 m sediment core sequence from Erhai lake, Yunnan Province, provides a multi-proxy record of Holocene environmental evolution and human activity in southwest China. These sedimentary records provide proxy time series for catchment vegetation, flooding, soil erosion, sediment sources and metal workings. They are complemented by independent regional climate time-series from speleothems, archaeological records of human habitation, and a detailed documented environmental history. The article attempts to integrate these data sources to provide a Holocene scale record of environmental change and human–environment interactions. These interactions are analysed in order to identify the roles of climate and social drivers on environmental change, and the lessons that may be learned about the future sustainability of the landscape. The main conclusions are: lake sediment evidence for human impacts from at least 7,500 cal year BP is supported by a terrestrial record of cultural horizons that may extend back to ∼9,000 cal year BP. A major shift in the pollen assemblage, defined by detrended correspondence analysis, at ∼4,800 cal year BP marks the transition from a ‘nature-dominated’ to a ‘human-dominated’ landscape. From 4,300 cal year BP, a change in river discharge responses may signal the beginning of hydraulic modification through drainage and irrigation. Major increases in disturbed land taxa and loss of forest taxa from 2,200 cal year BP onward, also associated with the start of significant topsoil erosion, register the expansion of agriculture by Han peoples. It is also the start of silver smelting linked to trade along the SW Silk Road with Dali becoming a regional centre. Peak levels of disturbed land taxa, topsoil and gully erosion are associated with the rise and fall of the Nanzhao (CE 738–902) and Dali (CE 937–1253) Kingdoms, and the documented environmental crisis that occurred in the late Ming and Qing dynasties (CE 1644–1911). The crisis coincides with a stronger summer monsoon, but exploitation of marginal agricultural land is the main driver. These historical perspectives provide insight into the resilience and sustainability of the modern agricultural system. The largest threat comes from high magnitude-low frequency flooding of lower dry farmed terraces and irrigated valley plains. A sustainable future depends on reducing the use of high altitude and steep slopes for grazing and cultivation, maintaining engineered flood defences and terraces, and anticipating the behaviour of the summer monsoon.


Erhai lake Yunnan China Climate–human–environment interactions Lake sediment Palaeohydrology Vegetation and land use Erosion Metal workings Resilience Sustainability 



This study was funded and supported by the Leverhulme Trust (Grant No. F00025/E), the National Nature Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 40331003), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. KZCX1-10-01), and the Royal Society (London). It represents a contribution to the IGBP-PAGES PHAROS Programme ‘Past Human–Climate–Ecosystem Interactions’ that seeks to inform about the sustainable management of environmental systems from studies of past ecosystems. We thank Jiang Xuezhong, Xia Weilan, Wu Yanhong, Zhang Enlou and Zhang Gaoping for help during fieldwork; Carolyn Dykoski and Sun Donghuai for discussions about Asian monsoon records; Eldon Worrall for help in dating ceramics; Masayuki Hyodo for making available susceptibility data from core ER3; and Frank Oldfield for insightful comments on a previous version of the paper. As ever, many thanks go to Sandra Mather for her excellent artwork.


  1. Allen CR, Gillespie AR, Han Y, Sieh KE, Zhang B, Zhu C (1984) Red River and associated faults, Yunnan Province, China: quaternary geology, slip rates, and seismic hazard. Geol Soc Am Bull 95:686–700CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson NJ, Bugmann H, Dearing JA, Gaillard-Lemdahl M-J (2006) Linking palaeoenvironmental data and models to understand the past and to predict the future. Trends Ecol Evol 21:696–704CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Boyle JF (2001) Inorganic geochemical methods in palaeolimnology. In: Last WM, Smol JP (eds) Tracking environmental change using lake sediments: physical and chemical techniques. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, pp 83–141Google Scholar
  4. Bradshaw EG, Nielsen AB, Anderson NJ (2006) Using diatoms to assess the impacts of prehistoric, pre-industrial and modern land-use on Danish lakes. Reg Environ Change 6:17–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brenner M, Dorsey K, Xueliang S, Zuguan W, Ruihua W, Binford M, Whitmore TJ, Moore AM (1991) Paleolimnology of Qilu Hu, Yunnan Province, China. Hydrobiologia 214:333–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bureau of Geology, Mineral Resources of Yunnan Province (1990) Regional geology of Yunnan Province. Geological Publishing House, Beijing, 728 ppGoogle Scholar
  7. Chen X, Yu G, Liu J (2002) Paleoclimate simulation of mid Holocene for East Asia, and discussion of the temperature change. Sci China Ser D 32:335–345Google Scholar
  8. Chen J, Wan G, Zhang DD, Chen Z, Xu J, Xiao T, Huang R (2005) The ‘Little Ice Age’ recorded by sediment chemistry in Lake Erhai, southwest China. Holocene 15:925–931CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Christensen JH, Hewitson B, Busuioc A, Chen A, Gao X, Held I, Jones R, Kolli RK, Kwon W-T, Laprise R, Magaña Rueda V, Mearns L, Menéndez CG, Räisänen J, Rinke A, Sarr A, Whetton P (2007) Regional climate projections. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen Z, Marquis M, Averyt KB, Tignor M, Miller HL (eds) Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  10. Dearing JA (1997) Sedimentary indicators of lake-level changes in the humid temperate zone: a critical review. J Paleolimnol 18:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dearing JA (1999) Holocene environmental change from magnetic proxies in lake sediments. In: Maher BA, Thompson R (eds) Quaternary climates, environments and magnetism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 231–278Google Scholar
  12. Dearing JA (2006) Climate–human–environment interactions: resolving our past. Clim Past 2:187–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dearing JA (2008) Landscape change and resilience theory: a palaeoenvironmental assessment from Yunnan, SW China. Holocene 18:117–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dearing JA, Zolitschka B (1999) System dynamics and environmental change: an exploratory study of Holocene lake sediments at Holzmaar, Germany. Holocene 9:531–540CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dearing JA, Dann RJL, Hay K, Lees JA, Loveland PJ, Maher BA, O’ Grady K (1996) Frequency-dependent susceptibility measurements of environmental samples. Geophys J Int 124:228–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dearing JA, Hannam JA, Huddleston AS, Wellington EMH (2001) Magnetic, geochemical and DNA properties of highly magnetic soils in England. Geophys J Int 144:183–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dearing JA, Battarbee RW, Dikau R, Larocque I, Oldfield F (2006a) Human–environment interactions: learning from the past. Reg Environ Change 6:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dearing JA, Battarbee RW, Dikau R, Larocque I, Oldfield F (2006b) Human–environment interactions: towards synthesis and simulation. Reg Environ Change 6:115–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dearing JA, Graumlich LJ, Grove R, Grübler A, Haberl H, Hole F, Pfister C, van der Leeuw SE (2006c) Integrating socio-environment interactions over centennial timescales: needs and issues. In: Costanza R, Graumlich L, Steffen W (eds) Integrated history and future of people on earth. Dahlem workshop report 96. The MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 243–274Google Scholar
  20. Deevey ES Jr (1984) Stress, strain and stability of lacustrine ecosystems. In: Haworth EY, Lund JWG (eds) Lake sediments and environmental history. Leicester University Press, pp 203–229Google Scholar
  21. Dykoski CA, Edwards RL, Cheng H, Daoxian Y, Cai Y, Zhang M, Lin Y, Qing J, An Z, Revenaugh J (2005) A high resolution, absolute-dated Holocene and deglacial Asian monsoon record from Dongge Cave, China. Earth Planet Sci Lett 233:71–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Elvin MJD, Crook DS (2003) An argument from silence? The implications of Xu Xiake’s description of the Miju river in 1639. In: Yunnan University History Department (eds) Anthology of essays in commemoration of Professor Li Ting’s ninetieth birthday. Yunnan University Press, Kunming, 3 ppGoogle Scholar
  23. Elvin MJD, Crook DS, Jones RT, Dearing JA (2002) The impact of clearance and irrigation on the environment in the lake Erhai catchment from the ninth to the nineteenth century. East Asian Stud 23:1–60Google Scholar
  24. Fang JQ (1991) Lake evolution during the past 30,000 years in China, and its implications for environmental change. Quaternary Res 36:37–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Foster DR, Swanson F, Aber J, Burke I, Brokaw N, Tilman D, Knapp A (2003) The importance of land-use legacies to ecology and conservation. Bioscience 53:77–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gunderson LH, Holling CS (eds) (2002) Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, 507 ppGoogle Scholar
  27. Guodong Z, Takano B, Kuno A, Matsuo M (2001) Iron speciation in modern sediment from Erhai Lake, southwestern China. Redox conditions in an ancient environment. Appl Geochem 16:1201–1213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Higham C (2005) East Asian agriculture and its impact. In: Scarre C (ed) The human past. Thames and Hudson, London, pp 234–263Google Scholar
  29. Hodell DA, Brenner M, Kanfoush SL, Curtis JH, Stoner JS, Song XL, Wu Y, Whitmore TJ (1999) Paleoclimate of southwestern China for the past 50,000 yr inferred from lake sediment records. Quaternary Res 52:369–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Homer-Dixon T (2006) The upside of down: catastrophe, creativity and renewal of civilisation. Island Press, Washington, 448 ppGoogle Scholar
  31. Hu WY, Hu HY, Pan HX (1989) Chemical characteristics of water in Erhai Lake. In: Shen LX (ed) Collected scientific works on Erhai Lake in Yunnan. Yunnan National Press, Yunnan, pp 118–128 (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  32. Hyodo M, Yoshihara A, Kashiwaya K, Okimura T, Masuzawa T, Nomura R, Tanaka S, Xing TB, Qing LS, Jian LS (1999) A late Holocene geomagnetic secular variation record from Erhai Lake, southwest China. Geophys J Int 136:784–790CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Institute of Archaeology, Yunnan Province (1990) Excavations of ancient tombs on Aofengshan hill, Jianchuan County, Yunnan. Acta Archaeologica Sinica 2:239–265 (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  34. Institute of Botany, CAS (1960) Plant pollen morphology of China. Science Press, Beijing (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  35. Institute of Botany, CAS (1976) Sporae pteridophytorum sinicarum. Science Press, Beijing (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  36. Institute of Botany, South China Institute of Botany, CAS (1982) Angiosperum pollen flora of tropic and subtropic China. Science Press, Beijing (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  37. Jarvis DI (1993) Pollen evidence of changing Holocene monsoon climate in Sichuan Province, China. Quaternary Res 39:325–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Johnson KR, Ingram BL (2004) Spatial and temporal variability in the stable isotope systematics of modern precipitation in China: implications for paleoclimate reconstructions. Earth Planet Sci Lett 220:365–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kharakwal JS, Yano A, Yasuda Y, Shinde VS, Osada T (2004) Cord impressed ware and rice cultivation in South Asia, China and Japan: possibilities of inter-links. Quaternary Int 123–125:105–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lin X, Walker D (1986) The plant geography of Yunnan Province, southwest China. J Biogeogr 13:376–397Google Scholar
  41. Lin X, Qiao Y, Walker D (1986) Late Pleistocene and Holocene vegetation history at Xi Hu, Er Yuan, Yunnan Province, southwest China. J Biogeogr 13:419–440CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Liu J, Yu G, Chen X (2002) Paleoclimate simulation of 21Ka for the Tibetan Plateau and Eastern Asia. Clim Dyn 19:575–583CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Long R, Li B, Brenner M, Song XL (1991) A study of late Pleistocene to Holocene vegetation in the Jilu Lake area of central Yunnan. Yunnan Geol 10:105–118 (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  44. Messerli B, Grosjean M, Hofer T, Núñez L, Pfister C (2000) From nature-dominated to human-dominated environmental change. Quaternary Sci Rev 19:459–479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Moberg A, Sonechkin DM, Holmgren K, Datsenko NM, Karlén W (2005) Highly variable Northern Hemisphere temperatures reconstructed from low- and high-resolution proxy data. Nature 453:613–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Oldfield F, Dearing JA (2003) The role of human activities in past environmental change. In: Alverson K, Bradley R, Pedersen T (eds) Paleoclimate, global change and the future. IGBP Synthesis Book Series, Springer Verlag, pp 143–162Google Scholar
  47. Pelejero C, Grimalt JO, Heilig S, Kienast M, Wang L (1999) High resolution UK37-temperature reconstructions in the South China Sea over the past 220 kyr. Paleoceanography 14:224–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Scheffer M, Carpenter SR (2003) Catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems: linking theory to observation. Trends Ecol Evol 18:648–656CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Shen J, Yang L, Yang X, Matsumoto R, Tong G, Zhu Y, Zhang Z, Wang S (2005) Lake sediment records on climate change and human activities since the Holocene in Erhai catchment, Yunnan Province, China. Sci China Ser D Earth Sci 48:353–363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Shen J, Jones RT, Yang X, Dearing JA, Wang S (2006) The Holocene vegetation history of Erhai Lake, Yunnan Province southwestern China: the role of climate and human forcings. Holocene 16:265–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Socquet A, Pubellier M (2005) Cenozoic deformation in western Yunnan (China-Myanmar border). J Asian Sci 24:495–515CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sun X, Wu Y, Qiao Y, Walker D (1986) Late Pleistocene and Holocene vegetation history at Kunming, Yunnan Province, southwest China. J Biogeogr 13:441–476CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sun S, Zhang C, Eisma D, Thomasse E, Song XL (1999) Recent sedimentation and suspended matter in Erhai lake, Yunnan Province, China. Chin J Oceanol Limnol 17:1–8 (in Chinese with English abstract)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tan M, Cai B (2005) Preliminary calibration of stalagmite oxygen isotopes from eastern monsoon China with Northern Hemisphere temperatures. PAGES Newsl 13:16–17Google Scholar
  55. Walker D (1986) Late Pleistocene-early Holocene vegetational and climatic changes in Yunnan Province, southwest China. J Biogeogr 13:477–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wang E (ed) (1998) Late Cenozoic Xianshuihe-Xiaojiang, Red River, and Dali fault systems of southwestern Sichuan and central Yunnan, China. The Geological Society of America, Special Paper 327. Boulder, Colorado, 106 ppGoogle Scholar
  57. Wang J, Lu H, Shen C (1990) Factor interpretation method and quantitative analysis of climatic changes over the past 12,000 years in China. In: Lu C et al (eds) Global changes and environmental evolution in China. Science Press, Beijing, pp 63–68 (in Chinese with English abstract, cited by He Y, Theakstone WH, Zhang Z, Zhang D, Yao T, Chen T, Shen Y, Pang H (2004) Asynchronous Holocene climatic change across China. Quaternary Res 61:52–63)Google Scholar
  58. Wang F, Qian N, Zhang Y, Yang H (1995) Plant pollen morphology of China, 2nd edn. Science Press, Beijing (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  59. Wang X, Yu S, Huang GH (2004) Land allocation based on integrated GIS optimization modeling at a watershed level. Landsc Urban Plan 66:261–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wang Y, Cheng H, Edwards RL, He Y, Kong X, An Z, Wu J, Kelly MJ, Dykoski CA, Li X (2005) The Holocene Asian Monsoon: links to solar changes and North Atlantic climate. Science 308:854–857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Whitmore TJ, Brenner M, Engstrom DR, Song XL (1994) Accelerated soil erosion in watersheds of Yunnan Province, China. J Soil Water Conserv 49:67–72Google Scholar
  62. Whitmore TJ, Brenner M, Jiang Z, Curtis JH, Moore AM, Engstrom DR, Wu Y (1997) Water quality and sediment geochemistry in lakes of Yunnan Province, southern China. Environ Geol 32:45–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wu Z, Zhu Y, Jiang H (1987) Vegetation of Yunnan Province. Science Press, Beijing (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  64. Xu S, Zheng G (2003) Variations in radiocarbon ages of various organic fractions in core sediments from Erhai Lake, SW China. Geochem J 37:135–144Google Scholar
  65. Yang B (2004a) Military campaigns against Yunnan: a global analysis working paper series No. 30. Asia Research Institute, National University of SingaporeGoogle Scholar
  66. Yang B (2004b) Horses, silver and cowries: Yunnan in global perspective. J World Hist 15:281–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Yu L, Oldfield F, Wu Y, Zhang S, Xiao J (1990) Paleoenvironmental implications of magnetic measurements on sediment core from Kunming Basin, Southwest China. J Paleolimnol 3:95–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Yu G, Harrison SP, Xue B (2001) Lake status records from China: data base documentation. Technical reports—Max-Planck-Institute für Biogeochemie 4, 243 ppGoogle Scholar
  69. Zhang Z (1990) Archaeology of the peoples of southwest China. Yunnan Museum Research Series. Yunnan People’s Publishing House, Kunming (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  70. Zhu HH (ed) (1989) Sediments and environments of fault lake in Yunnan Province. Science Press, Beijing, pp 185–200 (in Chinese)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. A. Dearing
    • 1
    • 2
  • R. T. Jones
    • 3
  • J. Shen
    • 4
  • X. Yang
    • 4
  • J. F. Boyle
    • 1
  • G. C. Foster
    • 1
  • D. S. Crook
    • 5
  • M. J. D. Elvin
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK
  2. 2.School of GeographyUniversity of SouthamptonSouthamptonUK
  3. 3.Department of GeographyUniversity of Exeter, Cornwell CampusPenrynUK
  4. 4.Nanjing Institute of Geography and LimnologyChinese Academy of SciencesNanjingChina
  5. 5.Department of GeographyUniversity of HertfordshireHatfieldUK
  6. 6.Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian StudiesAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

Personalised recommendations