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Fragility and sustainability in restricted island environments: adaptation, cultural change and collapse in prehistory (Fragsus)
Start date: May 1, 2013, End date: Apr 30, 2018 PROJECT  FINISHED 

Sustainability of societies in a restricted or fragile environment forms a perpetual question, past and present underpinning questions of the rise and fall of civilisation. Today, the eroded Maltese islands support one of the densest human populations in the world. When first colonised in the 6th millennium BC, pristine soil and forest covered the landscape, but within centuries the landscape was bare and under intensive cultivation. The Neolithic perpetrators of the original clearance developed a sophisticated if isolated island civilisation in the face of the precarious environment and limited natural resources. Their megalithic temples focused on ritual feasting whilst complex social organisation controlled food distribution. Over centuries, Malta maintained an intensive subsistence economy and a controlled population, but 2500 years after the first settlement that socio-economic system seems to have imploded resulting in the collapse of its island civilisation.What precise conditions led to this collapse, and was there complete or only partial economic and cultural failure? Did external factors - episodes of climatic instability, sea-level change, disease, invasion – impact irreversibly on the island inhabitants, or did over-intensification cause internal political and economic failure? Were the islands abandoned or was life sustained on them? Were other small islands affected in similar ways? These questions underpin my investigation which aims to extract eroding and fragile environmental and archaeological evidence from rapidly deteriorating landscapes. The goal is to understand the relationship between environmental change, stress and cultural continuity or collapse. I will address these questions through application of modern interdisciplinary environmental sciences (including palynology, climate studies, dating, dietary isotopes and landscape archaeology) to establish the impact of environmental change on island populations.

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