Remote Sensing Reveals Lasting Legacies of Land-Use by Small-Scale Foraging Communities in the Southwestern Indian Ocean

Dylan S. Davis, Kristina Douglass

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Archaeologists interested in the evolution of anthropogenic landscapes have productively adopted Niche Construction Theory (NCT), in order to assess long-term legacies of human-environment interactions. Applications of NCT have especially been used to elucidate co-evolutionary dynamics in agricultural and pastoral systems. Meanwhile, foraging and/or highly mobile small-scale communities, often thought of as less intensive in terms of land-use than agropastoral economies, have received less theoretical and analytical attention from a landscape perspective. Here we address this lacuna by contributing a novel remote sensing approach for investigating legacies of human-environment interaction on landscapes that have a long history of co-evolution with highly mobile foraging communities. Our study is centered on coastal southwest Madagascar, a region inhabited by foraging and fishing communities for close to two millennia. Despite significant environmental changes in southwest Madagascar’s environment following human settlement, including a wave of faunal extinctions, little is known about the scale, pace and nature of anthropogenic landscape modification. Archaeological deposits in this area generally bear ephemeral traces of past human activity and do not exhibit readily visible signatures of intensive land-use and landscape modification (e.g., agricultural modifications, monumental architecture, etc.). In this paper we use high-resolution satellite imagery and vegetative indices to reveal a legacy of human-landscape co-evolution by comparing the characteristics – vegetative productivity and geochemical properties – of archaeological sites to those of locations with no documented archaeological materials. Then, we use a random forest (RF) algorithm and spatial statistics to quantify the extent of archaeological activity and use this analysis to contextualize modern-day human-environment dynamics. Our results demonstrate that coastal foraging communities in southwest Madagascar over the past 1,000 years have extensively altered the landscape. Our study thus expands the temporal and spatial scales at which we can evaluate human-environment dynamics on Madagascar, providing new opportunities to study early periods of the island’s human history when mobile foraging communities were the dominant drivers of landscape change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number689399
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
StatePublished - Sep 3 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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