Human Adaptation to Coastal Evolution: Late Quaternary evidence from Southeast Asia (SUNDASIA)
Changing sea levels have had a significant impact on human evolution and history in Southeast Asia and continue to affect the lives of people living there today. Within the region, Vietnam ranks as the country most likely to be affected by predicted future sea level rise, with 70% of its population living in coastal communities and major centres of economic activity in the low-lying Mekong and Red River deltas.
Centred in the Tràng An Landscape Complex World Heritage Site on the southern edge of the Red River Delta, the SUNDASIA project (2016-21) has integrated digital terrain mapping with archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence to create a detailed landscape-scale picture of how prehistoric communities and the forested karst landscape in which they lived responded to coastal inundation.
Data arising from this wide-ranging interdisciplinary project cover the period between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the mid-Holocene (c. 19,000-5000 years ago) in particular; a time of enormous landscape change, climate shift and rising seas – culminating in a regional marine high-stand 2-5 metres above modern sea level. Research by SUNDASIA, its spinouts into biodiversity conservation and ecotourism and Follow-On funding for outreach, are helping to create and present a more comprehensive understanding of adaptation to sea level change in the past, and how that knowledge can be used to better inform the public, landscape management practice and socio-economic activity during the 21st century climate crisis.
Principal Investigator: Ryan Rabett (QUB)
Co-Investigator: Fiona Coward (BU)
Co-Investigator: Tran Tan Van (VIGMR)
Principal project consultants
Nguyen Thi Mai Huong (Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, QUB) – Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction
Natalie Ludgate (Queen Mary, University of London) – Geochemistry
Bui Van Manh (Director, Ninh Binh Province Department of Tourism)
Pham Sinh Khanh (Deputy Director, Tràng An Landscape Complex, World Heritage Site)
Postdoctoral Research Assistants
Christopher Stimpson (QUB, OUMNH) – Site Director; Zooarchaeology
Thorsten Kahlert (QUB) – Digital terrain mapping and 3D modelling; sea level reconstruction
Shawn O’Donnell (QUB) – Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction
Evan Hill (QUB) – Archaeomalacology; 14C dating
Benjamin Utting (University of Cambridge, PhD)
Ioanna Bachtsevanidou Strantzali (QUB, MPhil – completed March 2020).
Impact of Research
A defining role in developing management strategies for Tràng An and recognition by UNESCO as a model for future research.
Instrumental involvement in a collaborative drive to trial the reintroduction of a Critically Endangered primate into the property.
High resolution models of prehistoric sea level rise against which predictions of modern coastal flooding can be compared to aid management planning.
Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction suggesting forest persistence (including mangrove) across past climate and environmental thresholds, with considerable relevance to long-term conservation and towards mitigating the damaging effects of future coastal flooding.
Evidence for a significant loss of animal diversity over time that can aid reasoning for further targeted species reintroductions.
Contributions towards an innovative outdoor exhibition space that will showcase Tràng An’s archaeological and natural heritage to raise understanding about its nature among the visiting public.
Knowledge exchange promoted through archaeological training of members from local collaborative institutions, and provision for conservation (62 local staff), custodial and tour-guide training (72 local staff).
Project impact is also evident through the involvement and subsequent achievements of the eight UK undergraduate students, five of whom have gone on to Masters, PhD or RA positions within the lifetime of the project.
Major grants and funding
AHRC/GCRF Standard Grant.
UKRI Covid-19 Extension Allocation Fund.
AHRC Follow-On funding.
GIAA (Global Impact Acceleration Award).
DfE (Department for Economy)/GCRF grant.
Xuan Truong Construction Enterprise funding (research, teaching replacement, studentships).
Recent papers published by the Research group:
Kahlert, T., O’Donnell, S., Stimpson, C., Mai Huong, N.T., Hill, E., Utting, B., Rabett, R. (in review). Mid-Holocene coastline reconstruction from geomorphological sea level indicators in the Tràng An World Heritage Site, Northern Vietnam. Quaternary Science Reviews.
Nadler, T., Rabett, R., O’Donnell, S., Mai Huong, N.T. 2020. Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri) reintroduction program: A preliminary report on the trial release into the Trang An UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam. Vietnamese Journal of Primatology 3(2): 39-48 (OA).
Rabett, R. 2018. The success of failed Homo sapiens dispersals out of Africa and into Asia, Nature: Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0436-8
Rabett, R., Ludgate, N., Stimpson, C., et al. 2017. Tropical limestone forest resilience and late Pleistocene foraging during MIS-2 in the Tràng An massif, Vietnam Quaternary International 448: 62-81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2016.06.010
Shawn O’Donnell, S., Mai Huong, N.T., Stimpson, C., Holmes, R., Kahlert, T., Hill, E., Vo Thuy, Rabett, R. 2020. Holocene development and human use of mangroves and limestone forest at an ancient hong lagoon in the Tràng An karst, Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Quaternary Science Reviews 242: 106416. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106416
Stimpson, C.M., Utting, B., O’Donnell, S., Mai Huong, N.T., Kahlert, T., Manh, B.V., Khanh, P.S., Rabett, R.J. 2019. An 11 000-year-old giant muntjac subfossil from Northern Vietnam: implications for past and present populations. Royal Society Open Science 6: 181461. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.181461 (OA).
This project involves wide-ranging collaboration between Queen's University Belfast and the following organisations:
- Trang An Landscape Complex World Heritage Site Management Board
- Xuan Truong Construction Enterprise
- Ninh Binh Province Department of Tourism
- Bournemouth University (BU)
- Vietnam Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (VIGMR)
- University of Cambridge
- Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH)
- Vietnam Institute of Archaeology
- Museum für Naturkunde–Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science
- Cuc Phuong National Park
- Endangered Primate Research Center
- SOAS, University of London
- Munasinghe Institute for Development
- Queen Mary, University of London
Sustainable Development Goals
- Principal SUNDASIA project (AHRC/GCRF/UKRI): SDG Targets 1.5, 6.6, 11b, 13.1, 15.4, 15.5
- Reintroduction spin-out (GIAA): SDG Targets 12.8, 15.4, 15.5, 15c, 17.17, Aichi Biodiversity Strategic Goal C (Target 12)
- Exhibition spin-out (AHRC Follow-On funding): SDG Targets 11.4, 12.8, 13.3, 15.5, 17.17
- Ecotourism spin-out (DfE/GCRF): SDG Targets 8.9, 11.4, 12b, 13b, 15c
Find out more
UK undergraduate dissertations on field data obtained by the SUNDASIA project
- Rachael Holmes (formally BU, now PhD candidate at University of Leicester)
- Emilie Green (formally QUB, now PhD candidate at University of Aberdeen)
- Meghan McAllister (formally QUB, now PhD candidate at Flinders University)
- Ciaran Kelly (QUB, now RA on Ecotourism project)
- Aaron Redmond (QUB)
- Amy Jennings (QUB)
- Sarah Kirk (QUB)
- Liam Magill (QUB, now MRes student)
Delacour’s langur trial reintroduction (QUB; Smithsonian Institution Facebook page)