The Quaternary period (the last 2.6 million years) is characterized by significant climatic oscillations, switching between intense cold periods and warm interglacials. Despite the European Quaternary geological records being extensively studied (providing a detailed history of these climatic and environmental changes), they have little meaning without a secure chronology, and direct dating of fossil material is extremely difficult beyond the limit of radiocarbon dating (c. 40,000 years). The student will use recent advances in amino acid geochronology, pioneered on the British record, e.g. Penkman et al. (2011, Nature), to construct this essential chronology for the interglacials of the European Pleistocene.
Key to the approach is the discovery that commonly occurring calcitic biominerals (snail opercula) provide a closed system repository for amino acids over Quaternary timescales. The amino-acid based chronology that will be constructed in this PhD project, will refine our understanding of European palaeoenvironments over the last 2 Ma, across a transect from Britain to the Black Sea. The student will analyse archive material from sites that have already been identified in which opercula are abundant. The project will provide a secure interglacial chronology for Europe, enabling clearer understanding of the differences between different interglacial events, often used as analogues for future climate change. It will also inform key archaeological debates about factors driving human population movements during the Pleistocene.