Conversations with: Professor Felix Riede

Today’s guest is Professor Felix Riede, a climate change archaeologist at Aarhus University! Felix’s research concerns the shifting interactions between humans and the environment, exploring how environmental changes, especially extreme events like volcano eruptions, have impacted past human societies as well as how humans have impacted the environment. He also promotes environmental ethical engagement and Open science. At Aarhus University, Felix leads the Laboratory for Past Disaster Science, which focuses on cultural transmission and climatic resilience within prehistoric European populations, as well as an ERC funded project CLIOdynamic ARCHaeology (CLIO-ARCH), which is developing computational approaches to Final Palaeolithic/earliest Mesolithic archaeology and climate change.

Prof. Felix Riede from Aarhus University in Denmark

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

My research has two main trajectories. On the one hand, I try to understand how past climates and environments have interacted with past humans and, on the other, what role archaeology plays in contemporary climate change. All of this is bound together by an underlying evolutionary framework that sees culture as the product of evolutionary processes and that sees humans as sometimes subtle sometimes powerful niche constructors (the so-called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis or EES approach). 

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

This is a great question! I was born and raised in Germany where at that time you had to pick four subjects for your final school-leaving exams. I chose Latin, English, History and Biology. My school background is really very much in the Classics – I took Latin, Ancient Greek as well as, for my sins, also Ancient Hebrew – but got entirely hooked on the Palaeolithic and on palaeoanthropology during my first few weeks as a bushy-tailed Joint Honours Arch & Anth BA student in Durham. So, while I was never, somehow, really in doubt about pursuing a career in archaeology, I found myself surprised just how fascinated I became with our earliest prehistory. But then again, it did allow me to in fact continue the blend of interests that I had already hit upon in my last years at school!

The interesting thing is that I then quite early on in my studies also came across the EES or, as it then was known, niche construction theory. This has really stuck and provided an Ariadne’s thread throughout most of my career.

What was your PhD topic? How did you choose this and who was your supervisor?

I took my PhD at Cambridge, dabbling in archaeogenetics, and looking at the human re-colonisation of Northern Europe at the end of the Pleistocene. Peter Forster was my supervisor in the lab – and it was really instructive to experience bench science – and Preston Miracle my supervisor in all things archaeological. As much of my work goes across the biological and environmental sciences, and as I draw a lot on North American approaches, this was a fairly good combination. Guided by niche construction theory, I used genetic, palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data in parallel to juxtapose these three foundational domains of change and inheritance. The attempt to really bring these data into sync failed, I think, but tons of interesting new insights arose nonetheless. I did find a neat method to study niche construction archaeologically using quantitative comparative approaches and, most productively of all, discovered the presumably causal connection between the Laacher See volcanic eruption some 13,000 years ago and cultural change in southern Scandinavia. That discovery – made in triangulation between volcanological insights, models of cultural evolution and the data I had collected – has since stayed with me and has given rise to follow-up projects that are keeping me busy even today. What more can you ask from a PhD thesis?

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

The week after I handed in my thesis, I took up a non-stipendiary Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge – all glory, no money – and also served as Faculty Teaching Assistant on the old Cambridge Tripos. Rob Foley at the then shiny new Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies kindly took me in and gave me an office, which I shared with like-minded graduate Stephen Lycett. I was desperately writing up my papers and applying for jobs and fellowships. After getting close at both UCL and Durham, I landed a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship – that was amazing! After a final post-PhD year in Cambridge then, I began this new role, which took me to Stephen Shennan’s AHRC-funded Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity at UCL. And while commuting was hard, this was an intellectual home-coming. It really was a hive of cultural evolutionary thinking with a lively journal club, superb seminars and conferences. A great bunch of bright minds were there at the time, for instance, Fiona Jordan and Enrico Crema whom you’ve also interviewed but many more. Besides the intellectual atmosphere, it was also the first time I really experienced the power of team science in archaeology – and that has really stuck with me as well.

In late 2008, merely a year and a bit into my three-year fellowship, I got offered, to my honest surprise, a tenure-track Assistant Professorship at Aarhus University. There was a lot of ‘right time, right place’ to this appointment, but it was just perfect. My wife is half-Danish and I do focus on this region in much of my research. Thanks to an extended data collection stay in Denmark during my PhD – and my persistence – I also spoke some Danish. The department there was going through a critical generational change at that time and my appointment was part of this process. Over my ten-plus years I have now been here – with sabbatical stints at Cambridge, MA (Harvard Anthropology) and at Cambridge, UK (Geography) – I have been fortunate enough to witness, contribute to and partly shape that development. We’re now an international and diverse Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, rank 27 globally, and have active research in an exciting variety of fields – not least the Palaeolithic. Since 2019, I also hold a secondary affiliation with the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities where I’m working actively to bring more deep-time perspectives to our new understanding of human-environment relations. I call it the Palaeoenvironmental Humanities.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m an ideas person, so I’m involved in a bunch of awesome projects at any one time and definitely also now. Some projects are big, others small. I get excited about all of them. For some years now and almost without interruption, I’ve had funding from the Independent Research Fund Denmark to pursue this hypothesis about the Laacher See eruption and its human impact. My current project on this called “Apocalypse then? The Laacher See volcanic eruption (13,000 years before present), Deep Environmental History and Europe’s geo-cultural heritage” not only seeks to better understand the ecological and cultural relations at this time but to use the isochron of the ash fallout to think hard about what may have made Final Palaeolithic societies resilient or not to such sudden impacts. The project is its final phase and we’ll end on a special exhibition at the amazing Moesgård Museum here in Aarhus and an edited volume to be published with Berghahn Press. What we’re trying with both the exhibition and the edited volume is to translate some of our scientific insights into public debate and actionable insights with regard to future vulnerability. The COVID-19 crisis really highlights just how poorly also European society actually is prepared for major shocks and even mild prognoses of future environmental change foresee many more extreme events. The archaeological record of the deep past can, we argue, be used to help prepare for these.

The other main project I direct at the moment is called CLIOARCH funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant. This really is a dream project that combines my interest in cultural evolution, classification, computational archaeology and environmental archaeology to address some major outstanding issues in the Late Palaeolithic of Europe. You can read a crash summary of the project in Antiquity’s Project Gallery. The generous funds from the ERC have allowed me to put together a great team and we’re having a blast doing really good science. It’s still early days in that project, but major papers addressing foundational conceptual and research historical issues have already appeared.

Beyond those, I’m also involved in some more applied work, where we provide a climate-historical perspective as part of the large EU-funded project Coast to Coast Climate Challenge. Based on the insight that narrative is an effective way of discussing and debating climate issues and of stimulating action, we present coupled climate-culture stories from Central Jutland’s past. I’m also involved with some nifty Neanderthal work spearheaded by my former PhD student Trine Nielsen. Starting whenever COVID-19 allows, that project will look further into the northern range expansions and contractions of Neanderthals and what these can tells us about their adaptive envelopes. I’m so excited to be part of this project because Neanderthals are really what got me properly hooked on the Palaeolithic in the first place and because the project’s PI Trine was my first PhD student – she’s now becoming a PI in her own right and that makes me quite so proud.

But there are more projects still, on prehistoric play objects and how they feature in cultural evolution, on culture change in Arctic Norway, on individual material culture signatures in the Hamburgian culture, on Anthropocene archaeology, and not least on early cognitive evolution – I’m excited about all of them, but let’s leave these for another time.

A silly photo of an eager young Felix sorting animal bone fragment at the post-ex station at Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), one of the many amazing sites Palaeolithic archaeology can take you. The other person in the picture is the formidable and fun Manda Maples, now curator of African art at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Why is your research important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour?

I seek to combine to combine an attention to theory (especially epistemology and systematics) and research history with solid empirical work. I do think that Palaeolithic archaeology needs theory – cultural evolutionary theory – and properly, logically consistent systematics. I also believe that much of the method development we’re engaged in at the moment, exploring phylogenetic and comparative methods as well as distribution models, can lead to much wider applications and major insights.

I also do believe that what we do isn’t just important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour but also for understanding our present quandaries vis-à-vis climate and environmental change. There’s a clear ethical dimension to what we do.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Eek, you’re asking me to pick a favourite amongst my little darlings! In terms of sheer effort, it’s got to be my monograph – but I’m not sure this is the text I most enjoyed writing…

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

In thinking about this question, I read Enrico Crema’s excellent answer. He recounted how he relatively late in his archaeological career discovered quantitative approaches and how he has learned to love them. I have had precisely the same experience – and beyond some important theoretical developments and of course the refinement of natural science techniques and field discoveries, I think the true frontier of archaeological research rests in quantitative, data-driven approaches; and I’m all in. But Enrico also referred to the difference between (domain-specialist) T- and (domain-specialist plus quantitatively enabled) π-shaped researchers. To this I would add that we really no longer can see researchers, of whatever shape, as individual units anymore and that all these T- and π-shaped folks now need to get much better at holding hands: at pooling their skills and do good archaeological team science. The world as such and archaeology as well have become so complex in data and methods that individuals no longer can do it alone anymore. So, my advice to students would be to take collaborative work seriously, try to join a research team, and to seek out a good mentor.

Felix’s cartoon of π-shaped researchers that boast both knowledge (K) breadth and depth as well as statistical acumen learning to ‘hold hands’ and do archaeological team science, also with colleagues of others shapes

What is your favourite thing about being an academic in archaeology? What would you change if you could?

My favourite thing about being an academic is the privilege of learning something new every single day. I have had jobs previously that were mere routine and I quickly discovered that I just can’t hack it. Being in a position, paid no less, to actively seek knowledge about a subject that I am passionate about makes me profoundly happy. What would I change? Well, there are many structural problems in academia on the whole and also in archaeology. There are still very uneven conditions for men and women, for scholars from different nationalities, ethnicities, languages and life orientations. It’d be nice to see such matters change for the positive. I would also very much like universities and the archaeological sector to take more a more forceful stance on sustainability and climate change.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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