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Elisabeth and Karl Butzer (Newfoundland, 1999)

Karl W. Butzer

In general, Karl Butzer’s research has focused on the relationships between the environment and prehistoric people or more recent societies. Geomorphology, sedimentology, and fossil soils offer powerful tools to reconstruct environmental and landscape change, while providing micro-stratigraphic frameworks for dating of human evolution and culture. In collaboration with a wide range of paleoanthropologists and archaeologists, he worked at both larger, regional scales and at the site-specific micro-level. He applied his empirical results to examine or model the paleoecology of the African australopithecines and Homo erectus, Neanderthal spatial behavior, and the first appearance of anatomically-modern people. His arguments that Homo sapiens sapiens was first present in South and East Africa during the Early Upper Pleistocene (135,000-65,000 years ago) are supported by the biomolecular evidence (the ‘Eve hypothesis’).

During the second half of his career Karl Butzer turned to more recent, prehistoric and historical time ranges, in order to capture a finer-grained resolution on environment-society relations, especially when they can be informed by written records. His lifelong interest in Ancient Egypt and the skills of Elisabeth Butzer in archival research and interviewing have been key factors in facilitating this change of direction. Karl remains deeply engaged with an interdisciplinary environmental history, critical of the recent turn to a simplistic environmental determinism, and concerned about the prospects of global warming.

His choice of study areas reflects problems of particular interest, and a comparative approach to arid and strongly seasonal environments on four continents.

Elisabeth K. Butzer

Karl’s co-author on various publications and long-term collaborator. She has published a micro-study of human ecology: Historia social de una comunidad tlaxcalteca (Saltillo, Mexico, 2001). This book reflects Elisabeth’s experience as a specialist in Medieval archives and anthropology, with extended research in Spain. Currently she is a Research Fellow in the Department of Geography and the Environment, at the University of Texas, Austin.

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