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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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

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

Notes

Acknowledgements

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.

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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

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