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Frank Mayle

Photograph of Frank Mayle
  • +44 (0) 118 378 6260
  • Professor in Tropical Palaeoecology

Areas of interest

  • Millennial, Holocene and Quaternary-scale interactions between pre-Columbian societies, climate change, fire, and tropical ecosystems in tropical South America, especially Amazonia.
  • Key techniques: analysis of fossil pollen, charcoal, and phytoliths from lake sediments and soils.

Research questions of current interest

  • What are the long-term relationships between pre-Columbian (pre-AD1492) human societies, climate change, and natural resource availability in Amazonia through the Holocene (last 12,000 years)?
  • How did millennia of pre-Columbian land use alter tropical forest biodiversity in South America, and what are the implications for conservation policy and land use?
  • What lessons can we draw from pre-Columbian human-environment relationships in Amazonia - with respect to resilience, sustainability, thresholds, and 'tipping points'?

Postgraduate supervision

Frank is keen to discuss proposals for research within the broad themes of tropical palaeoecology, palaeoclimatology, and past human-environment interactions.

Current projects

  • Joe Hirst – The domestication of Amazon rainforests by pre-Columbian societies. ('SCENARIO' NERC DTP award, 2020-2023).
  • Millennial-scale history of Amazon forest dynamics. (‘SCENARIO’ NERC DTP award, 2017-2020).
  • Oliver Wilson – Assessing the resilience of Brazil’s iconic Araucaria forest to past and future climate change. (University of Reading GTA award, 2017-2021).
  • Are we reinventing the wheel on environmental sustainability? A comparative archaeological analysis of the tropical forest landscapes of the pre-Columbian Maya lowlands and the Amazon basin. (AHRC DTP award, 2019-2022).

Completions in past three years

  • Smith - Amazonia under Mid-Holocene Drought. ('SCENARIO' NERC DTP award, 2014-2017).
  • Plumpton - Amazonia and the 6K Drought. (UoR Faculty of Science & SAGES award, 2014-2017).

Current postdocs


Frank Mayle has a BSc in Botany from the University of Reading (1986), an MSc in Palynology from the University of Sheffield (1988), and a PhD in Palaeoecology from the University of New Brunswick, Canada (1993), where he studied the impact of abrupt late-glacial climate change upon vegetation of Atlantic Canada.

He was a NERC-funded PDRA at Royal Holloway, University of London (1993-94), where he worked with John Lowe on late-glacial environmental change in Scotland. Shortly after taking up his first academic post at the University of Leicester in late 1994, Frank's research focus shifted to tropical South America, where he has worked ever since, examining the impacts of past climate change and human land use upon tropical forest ecosystems, especially in the Bolivian Amazon.

He moved to the University of Edinburgh in 2004, before returning to Reading in June 2013.

His earliest forays into the Amazon, published in Science (2000), demonstrated the responsiveness of southern Amazonian forests to millennial-scale climate change. Since then, his interests have evolved to consider, not only the impacts of past climate change upon rainforests, but also pre-Columbian land use and fire.

Since 1995, he has led 14 field expeditions to remote corners of lowland Bolivia, in collaboration with the 'Noel Kempff Mercado' Natural History Museum of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. His lab has assembled a Neotropical pollen reference collection of over 1500 Amazonian taxa and has made important methodological advances in pollen analysis and other palaeoenvironmental techniques.

Frank’s interests in Holocene human-environment interactions in the South American tropics have led to fruitful, inter-disciplinary, collaboration with palaeoenvironmental scientists, archaeologists, and biologists across the world – in the UK, Europe, USA, Bolivia, and Brazil.

He is currently leading a large international research project, co-funded by the UK and Brazil, entitled Human-Environment Relationships in pre-Columbian Amazonia - HERCA (AHRC-FAPESP, 2019-2023).

Previous research grants include: 

  • Je Landscapes of southern Brazil: Ecology, History and Power in a transitional landscape during the late Holocene (AHRC-FAPESP, 2014-2017)
  • Origin of Biodiversity in the Central Atlantic Forest of Brazil (CNPq, Brazil, 2014-2016)
  • Environmental Impact of the Pre-Columbian geoglyph builders in western Amazonia (National Geographic, 2012-2013)
  • The Origins of Plant Domestication in the Upper Madeira river basin in lowland South America (Newton RCUK-CONFAP, 2015-2016)
  • Pre-Columbian human land-use and impacts in the Bolivian Amazon (The Leverhulme Trust, 2010-2013).

Frank is Associate Editor for The Holocene (2006-present) and was a member of the NERC Environment radiocarbon panel from 2014-2020.


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