Archaeological Research

Globalisation of the Distant Past

About Nicole Boivin, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology at University of Oxford

5.5.2016 | Archaeologist Nicole Boivin studies how humans have become connected across the world, using plant, animal and linguistic evidence as well as material artefacts. Soon she will start as Max Planck director at the Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.
The world is very interconnected in the 21st century, with the internet enabling people to chat online with family hundreds of miles away and multinational corporations allowing people in Japan to buy the same products as people in Argentina. But research by archaeologist Dr. Nicole Boivin, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, has shown how globalisation emerged as long ago as the Bronze Age.

Dr. Nicole Boivin
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Dr. Nicole Boivin
"Connectivity between human beings goes back really early," says Dr. Boivin. "We came together for many of the same reasons that people do today – for trade, to discover new things and new technologies, and to interact with new people," she adds. "It's a fundamental part of human nature to form relationships and to connect."
And just as in modern times, technology has always been a key facilitator of globalisation. "Today it's things like mobile phones, the internet and aeroplanes that allow us to be really connected up," explains Nicole Boivin. "In the past it was other kinds of technological changes, such as when we domesticated animals. This meant we could use animals like horses and camels as transport, and could therefore move much further across the landscape and trade further afield."

Maritime technology in particular has always been important in enabling humans to connect with each other – both in the premodern era and today. The Sealinks Project, which Dr. Boivin has been director of since 2008, studies the earliest maritime connections that linked up and gradually transformed societies around the Indian Ocean.

One strand of the Sealinks Project involves excavations at coastal and island sites in various regions around the Indian Ocean. But it's not just material artefacts, like tools or pottery shards, that the group is looking for. "We're very interested in the way that plants and animals were also moved around in the Indian Ocean," says Dr. Boivin. "Plants and animals can provide very important insights into all kinds of things – the kind of food people were eating, the nature of their agricultural systems, and the impact people had on the local ecology. Early processes of globalisation moved new plants and animals around, and thus impacted all of these things and more."
Sealinks Project students
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(© Sealinks Project)

Sealinks Project students | undertaking flotation to recover ancient botanical remains on Pemba island, eastern Africa. In the background are several types of boats not dissimilar to those that have been used to connect up different parts of the coast and islands for many centuries.

Although not new, this approach of looking for plant and animal remains at excavation sites as well as material items is somewhat unusual in archaeology. "I think that there's still a real bias towards material culture: things like structural remains, statues, pot shards and metal artefacts," says Nicole Boivin. "These items are the focus of so much attention and end up in museums, it's what people are fascinated by." The Sealinks Project, however, puts archaeobotany and zooarchaeology at the forefront. "For us in a way it's all the artefacts that are secondary," says Boivin.

Sealinks also considers cultural aspects of globalisation, in particular the how language can help us to understand trade and globalisation in the Indian Ocean. Nicole Boivin and her team have studied the words used for specific plants can be used to physically trace the movements of people, and to provide insights into, for example, the question of how Madagascar was colonised, one of the outstanding mysteries of human history. "What we have seen is that new plants show up in the archaeological record of sites on the island that are native not to Madagascar or even Africa but to Southeast Asia. Words for some of these types of plants seem to have reached Madagascar via different routes," she says. "Some words came from Southeast Asia, then there will be another word for that plant or a different component of that plant that may have come from a different part of the world, like the Arabian peninsula or India."

She adds: "With Madagascar, it was actually the languages that first and foremost pointed to how people came to colonise the island. And now the linguistics is helping us to fine tune our understanding of some of the plant translocations that took place, which gives us another dimension, another set of data."
Artefacts imported
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(© Sealinks Project)

Artefacts imported | from around the Indian Ocean to eastern Africa. They date to the 8-9th centuries CE and were recovered from a Sealinks Project excavation at the site of Unguja Ukuu on the island Zanzibar.

What really stands out from these projects is how multidisciplinary Dr. Boivin's career is, adding linguistics, botany and zoology to traditional archaeology. Another discipline she brings to archaeology is molecular genetics: a result of her undergraduate studies in cellular, molecular and microbial biology at the University of Calgary, Canada. "The molecular biology that I did was a long time ago, but I think has given me the confidence to engage with the discipline in a way that some of my colleagues don't," she says. "I would say that background is also critical to help me see the potential of these other disciplines in terms of what they can tell us about the past."

A lifetime in the lab didn't appeal to Dr. Boivin, however, so her further studies led her to the field of archaeology. "By the end of my bachelor of science degree, I was very much feeling the need for some humanities elements in my life. And now I have come full circle and have come back to engaging with the natural sciences," she says. "I think I'm most happy working between the humanities and the natural sciences, rather than in one world or the other. And archaeology is a discipline that really allows me to do that."

Nicole Boivin will soon take up a new role as Director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. This new directorship will allow her to further advance her very multidisciplinary approach to archaeology. "The institute is a wonderful opportunity to start to bring these disciplines that are working on the same kinds of questions closer together and really allow people to work side by side in a way that's very difficult if not impossible when we're physically separated into different departments and institutions the way that we normally are," she says.
  (© AcademiaNet)
Helen Jaques

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