Project Highlights:

  • Work as part of a multidisciplinary and international team, drawing on expertise from palaeobiology, ecology, landscape evolution, environmental change and the humanities
  • Be the first to establish a precise chronology of biological change in the lead-up to, and within the Anthropocene, for one of the world’s most biodiverse regions
  • Undertake fieldwork in Indonesia and use a range of analytical techniques to integrate data from historical, cultural and geological records


The human impact on the biosphere is profound and has been expressed in terms of species introductions, extirpations and extinctions, command of production, and the ability to modify species and whole ecosystems for human use. This project aims to investigate the geological signature of how this process has unfolded in a species-diverse region with a long record of human impact. It focusses on two regions of Indonesia: West Java, particularly the area around Bogor; and Buton Island, SE Sulawesi.

Why Indonesia? Indonesia is one of the most biodiverse regions of planet Earth, indeed it is ‘mega diverse’. It contains diverse populations of flowering plants, reptiles, mammals and birds, all in excess of 10% of the documented species diversity of these groups on Earth. Because Indonesia is an archipelago of some 17,000 islands, much of its indigenous flora and fauna is endemic, making it potentially susceptible to environmental change. Indonesia has a long geological record of occupation by hominins, most famously indicated by the ca. 1.5 million-year old fossils of Homo erectus (‘Java man’) at Sangiran in central Java. Recent evidence for occupation of Australia by 65,000 years ago suggests that Indonesia was colonised by behaviourally modern humans (Homo sapiens) before that time. The impact of these early humans on their landscape and environment remains largely unquantified, but they were essentially hunter-gatherer cultures. Extensive agricultural development of Indonesia began with the arrival of ‘Austronesian’ peoples about 2000 BCE. These peoples brought with them an ability for wet-rice cultivation and animal husbandry, for example the use of water buffalo. During the first millennium CE, sophisticated states developed, evidenced by stone inscriptions in the Jakarta and Bogor areas of West Java. These states were able to build and plan on a large scale, and for example, may have constructed extensive irrigation systems. Indonesia’s later history is associated with major indigenous kingdoms in Java and Sumatra, later with Arab and European influences. The latter Dutch influence is responsible for much of the early introduced species to the Indonesian archipelago.

Figure 1: Wet-rice cultivation in West Java. What is the geological (biostratigraphical) signature of these types of cultivation in Indonesia, and what part do they form in the transformation of the Indonesian biosphere?


The project is focussed on two areas; Bogor, West Java, and Buton Island, SE Sulawesi. These have different histories of human occupation, and are situated to the west and east of the Wallace line respectively, demarcating Asian ecologies from those of Wallacea. The project will use evidence from historical records to construct a history of introduced species for both regions. Major sources of data will be from the archives of the Botanical Garden (Kebun Raya) in Bogor, and through data collected by Operation Wallacea. These data will be used to construct a ‘theoretical biostratigraphy’ of species introductions, and key taxa will be identified through primary fieldwork analysis of sedimentary archives in Indonesia to groundtruth this stratigraphy. This will provide a physical record of species introductions that will be correlated to the human history of the two regions, including events often associated with species invasion such as trade, globalisation, and migration.

Training and Skills

Core training: analysis of archival museum datasets, and the development of a range of biostratigraphical techniques for micro- and macropalaeontology (including U/G level modules on this as appropriate). The student will be trained as an expert palynologist (identification of key micorflora) and scanning electron microscopist. The emphasis will be on robust biostratigraphical analysis to recognise patterns of species transformation that relate to indigenous, Middle Eastern, European, and post-colonial influences. The student will be trained to prepare peer-review articles and conference presentations, and will benefit from a multidisciplinary team with a strong track record of engaging in public understanding of science.


Year 1: basic research training; familiarization with literature, and training on biostratigraphical and palynological techniques. Analysis of archival datasets (Kebun Raya, Operation Wallacea, other sources). Organisation of data collecting visits to West Java and Buton Island, Sulawesi. Collection of data from sedimentary archives from West Java and Buton Island.

Year 2: Analysis of sedimentary archives from West Java and Buton Island and identification of key species inventories for biostratigraphy. Targeted recollection of sedimentary archives during a second field season to hone the biostratigraphical record of introduced species.

Year 3: Development of an integrated (micro- and macrofossil) biostratigraphy of species introductions linked to the historical development of the two regions (West Java, Buton Island). Writing papers for publication and completion of thesis.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This is a multidisciplinary team of experts in palaeobiology, stratigraphy, ecology, and human – biosphere interactions. The Leicester team are experts in the evolution of the Anthropocene biosphere (Profs Williams, Zalasiewicz), taphonomy (Prof Gabbott), land use in Indonesia (Prof Page) and palynology (Dr Berrio). Bogor Agricultural University is the leading centre for evaluating landscape change in Indonesia (Prof Iskandar) and is situated in West Java. Operation Wallacea (Drs Exton and Martin) leads a long-standing project evaluating the biosphere on Buton Island. The Halle-Wittenberg team (Prof Everts, Michael Wollrath) lead ground-breaking work to understand human interaction with changing ecologies in Indonesia.

Further Details

School of Geography, Geology and Environment, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH. Emails: mri@le.ac.uk (Williams); sg21@le.ac.uk (Gabbott); jaz1@le.ac.uk (Zalasiewicz); mri@le.ac.uk (Williams); Page (sep5@le.ac.uk); Berrio (jcb34@le.ac.uk).