Dr. Suzanne Pilaar Birch: Understanding the Past to Inform the Future: How Environmental Archaeology Research Can Guide Approaches to Climate Change

October 20, 2022

By Kristen Morrow

Dr. Suzanne Pilaar Birch is an Associate Professor in Anthropology and Geography. She is the Director of the Quaternary Isotope Paleoecology Lab, the Director of the Center for Archaeological Sciences, and the Coordinator of the Georgia Museum of Natural History Internship Program. Dr. Pilaar Birch earned her Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 2012 studying human adaptations to climate change and sea level rise in the Northeastern Adriatic region around 11,000 years ago.

This time period is known as the Pleistocene-Holocene transition and was marked by rapid changes in ecological conditions as the last ice age ended and we entered the current, warmer geological epoch. Focusing on the period between the end of the last ice age and the arrival of farming allows Dr. Pilaar Birch to examine how our past responses to unpredictable environments can inform current approaches to contemporary climate change.

“I think it’s essential to understand the long-term nature of climate and environmental change and the different (and sometimes unexpected) adaptations that human groups had to those changes. It’s so important to step outside even just the last couple hundred years…to realize that there’s no “perfect” state to return to and that systems are always in flux,” Pilaar Birch shares.

This line of research allows Dr. Pilaar Birch not only to contribute to archaeological knowledge, but also to climate policy, including her recent invited talk at the “Groundcheck: Climate, Crisis, Archaeology” workshop hosted by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and German Archaeological Institute. Drawing on archaeology and biogeochemistry provides a powerful conceptual framework to examine patterns in diet, mobility, settlement systems, and domestication of livestock. Methodologically, Dr. Pilaar Birch draws heavily on zooarchaeology—the study of animal remains at archaeological sites—and stable isotope analysis in her research.

Stable isotope analysis is based on the idea that “you are what you eat.” By analyzing samples of bone, teeth, and shell, Pilaar Birch can measure ratios of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen isotopes to evaluate the extent to which people relied on foraged food, cultivated food, and different protein sources. Combining these data with details about the archaeological context and local ecology can help shed light on which resources people turned to as local environments shifted.   

Integrative research approaches are key to unearthing details about prehistoric people’s resource use and resilience to changing environments. Bridging the gaps between different disciplines requires thoughtful study design and reflexivity in interpreting results, but offers ample opportunities to learn from, interact with, and collaborate with colleagues from different departments. “It’s so much fun to see how others approach a problem, and [to] learn about the research they have done and how it can possibly inform something that I’m interested in,” Pilaar Birch states.

Dr. Pilaar Birch credits her integrative and interdisciplinary research program to her broad interests in anthropology, ecology, natural history, and earth science. Her undergraduate degrees in Evolutionary Anthropology and Human Paleoecology and internship experience at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History provided a strong background in human prehistory and ecology, while her graduate training in Archaeological Science integrated additional perspectives from geography. Being exposed to so many disciplines, especially as an undergraduate student, was key to her career development.

“I think this is also why I am really passionate about fostering undergrad research and coordinating our Georgia Museum of Natural History internship program, because it was so transformative for my own development, and natural history collections are absolutely indispensable to understanding biodiversity and ecology,” Dr. Pilaar Birch states.

In addition to supporting undergraduate research and training experiences, Dr. Pilaar Birch has played an active role in supporting women in science. As one of the four co-founders of TrowelBlazers, Pilaar Birch has drawn attention to the pivotal role of women in advancing archaeological sciences.TrowelBlazers’ influential work has been covered by NPR’s All Things Considered, CNN, and The Guardian. Dr. Pilaar Birch’s outreach efforts have also helped spark discussions about pregnancy during fieldwork, foster more inclusive narratives about being a scientist, and draw attention to the barriers faced by women and early career archaeologists.

During the 2021-2022 academic year Dr. Pilaar Birch was a Faculty Fellow at UGA’s Willson Center, which provided support for her writing on the role of animals in our shared past. This work will draw on evidence from zooarchaeology to go beyond the idea of animals as meat and examine their roles as “symbols, co-workers, and companions from the earliest prehistory with relevance for multispecies relationships today and in the future.” Currently, Dr. Pilaar Birch is a Faculty Fellow through the National Science Foundation’s Open Science Alliance. Her current projects include collaborating with colleagues from University North Carolina Charlotte and California State University San Marcos on reconstructing changes in past Mediterranean environment and its impact on agricultural adaptations on Cyprus, Sicily, and Sardinia. She is the invited editor of a 2022 special issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on recent advances in archaeological science . In the coming years, she aims to work with colleagues to start a new long-term field project in Croatia, returning to the region she studied for her dissertation research.