Environmental archaeology is just what its name suggests, a branch of archaeology that focuses on how humans have over time impacted and been impacted by their environment. Today environmental archaeology is a part of most excavation projects but that's not always been the case because it's a relatively new discipline that has only been in existence for a little over thirty years. Now many universities offer courses and even degree programs in environment archaeology.
The human race has had a love/hate relationship with its environment since the beginning. Our environment has provided both nourishment and danger and we in turn have worked to bend it to our will only to abandon it when it finally succumbed. We have struggled in some areas to clear trees only to discover that without the trees the land would wash away, we have planted fertile land year after year until it was not longer fertile; and so we would move on to new land to tame.
The building of structures for shelter or storage, the clearing forests, tilling of fields or diverting water to irrigate have all left evidence that an archaeologist can use to find out about the lives of people who lived long ago. Fires, droughts, floods and storms can change the way a population gathers food or finds shelter or can even dictate that a group of people will have to pull up stakes and move on to a more charitable environment. When people move from one location to another they sometimes have to adopt new life styles in order to survive and thrive in their new environment and this is something else that environment archaeologists take note of.
While some archaeologists specialize in Archaeopedology which is the study of ancient soil and whether it was formed naturally or created by human activity, others concentrate on plant remains. The analysis and interpretation of plant remains is called Archaeobotony and likewise the interpretation of how humans impacted and interacted with animals is called zooarchaeology.
The environmental movement, while still quite young, gave birth to environmental archaeology which has grown quickly and will continue to increase in popularity with the growing interest in global warming and climate change theory as it is one of the few disciplines that is able to provide data showing how humans have responded to rapid climate change in the past. Learning how our ancestors coped with both man made and natural changes to their world will hopefully give us the tools to deal equally successfully with whatever changes the human race faces in the future.