Despite its constant presence beneath feet, few people recognize that soil is the key to both humanity’s past and future — but one UCSB professor is trying to change that.

Environmental Studies professor Oliver Chadwick said his research is working to correct the misconception that it was only through human labor that early farmers were able to create successful agriculture that lead to the development of early civilizations. He said his research shows that the soils people farmed had equal impact on societal growth. The most recent of Chadwick’s findings have been published in the scientific journals, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and Science in the past year.

To understand changes to soil nutrients, Chadwick and a team of ecologists from Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin used the Hawaiian Islands as a model of research. Although his research began two decades ago, Chadwick said he has wanted to research the islands since he was a young adult.

“I recognized that the Hawaiian Islands are perfect for this type of research because of their relatively recent human settlement and the variety of climates the islands have to offer,” Chadwick said. “Also, the chain-formation of the islands allows us to see a change in the soil content over time, even at a visible level – as the iron content of the earth oxidizes with time, we see the islands’ soil change from black to a reddish color, as if the soil were literally rusting.”

Chadwick said his analysis of Hawaiian soil content can help people understand why the early inhabitants of the islands chose their settlements, and how our current and future actions are affecting the surface of the earth.

“Soil helps define what society is and was,” he said. “Culture grew out of man’s ability to create a surplus and thus the quality of the soil was key to the center of every society, as seen in nutrient-rich soil in the areas of early settlements on the islands.”

Modern humans are interacting with soil in a completely different way, Chadwick said.

“Every time we turn on our car or dump some pollution we end up changing the earth’s natural filter at its surface, yet we don’t even understand how,” he said.

In conducting his research, Chadwick sends out 80-pound backpacks filled with soil samples from plots on most of the major Hawaiian Islands back to UCSB laboratories for analysis. In addition, researchers collect data on the islands’ plant life so that boundaries of the sample plots can be established, Chadwick said.

“We end up collecting samples from most of the major islands in order to see the differences in the soils’ nutrient contents, but we have to utilize the area’s plant life to help us find where to collect the samples,” Chadwick said. “It’s like the roots of each plant connects that nutrient-soil world to our own.” Although the professor heads his research, aides like UCSB postgraduate research assistant Tony Hartshorn contribute to Chadwick’s team, both here and on the islands.

“This research reminds us that soil sets the stage for where we began and where we are going,” Hartshorn said. “Knowledge of our relationship with soil is helping us create sustainable farming. It’s important to understand that our interaction with the soil is a double-sided arrow – the effects go both ways.”

Hartshorn said he encourages everyone to get a better understanding of the world, but said he recognizes that soil researchers like himself are “the Rodney Dangerfields of science.”

“We just get no respect,” Hartshorn said.

Nevertheless, Hartshorn said he hopes the findings of current research will allow people to recognize the interconnected relationship between humans and soil.

“When you’re outside, you just need to look around and you’ll see how important soil is to us,” Hartshorn said. “Every time you’re down at the beach and look up at the bluffs, you’re really just looking back in time. Just thinking about soil helps everyone understand how societies and landscapes tick.”