Archaeological lessons for us today: Coping with environmental stresses

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

What would you reply if you were asked this question?

Archaeological investigations can help us understand the present, and give us insights into the future of the world. How? Give an example.

Consider the issue of global climatic and environmental change. Long-gone human groups faced and dealt with climatic-environmental change. What insights can we get from what they did and what happened to them?

You could start discussing this issue with the topic of sustainability. Sustainability in this situation relates to a society maintaining an ecological balance (of inputs and outputs), so that harvesting does not outstrip production—of food and all other resources; this allows a society to continue functioning—to have continuity. In archaeological data from ancient times, we look for evidence of social and political continuity during periods when ice cores, pollen samples, and other environmental data indicate that climate—and thus the environment in which the peoples sustained themselves—was in flux, or changed to a different pattern.

One common clue to a peoples reacting to change in their environment is to look for settlements in new locations, a change in demographics reflected in settlement patterns, or a change in how settlements are laid out. If, for example, settlements starting at a certain time (during a generation or two) tend to have fortification walls or are moved to defensible locations (e.g., hilltops above cliffs), that means considerable effort was expended in these changes. When these patterns proliferate across a region, then the people were reacting to something, to some stress. That stress could have an ecological root—for example, invaders looking for new territory because they could no longer live in their accustomed ways in their own territory.

Note Karl W. Butzer and Georgina H. Endfield in “Critical perspectives on historical collapse,” an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2012, vol. 109, no. 10, pp. 3628-3631; available online here for free):

Change may represent partial or complete archeological succession, with some shifts rapid or even catastrophic and others marked by a measure of evolutionary continuity. Human impact may have effected environmental modification, or biotic evidence may record a shift to the exploitation of new habitats or resources, accompanied by changing adaptations or more complex patterns of resilience, in line with new, inferred vulnerabilities. (pg. 3629)

Butzer and Endfield are examining societal collapse, which is one reaction to a lack of sustainability. They also note:

Societal collapse represents transformation at a large social or spatial scale, with long-term impact on combinations of interdependent variables: (i) environmental change and resilience; (ii) demography or settlement; (iii) socio-economic patterns; (iv) political or societal structures; and (v) ideology or cultural memory. (p. 3628; italics original)

The Butzer-Endfield article is an introduction to a group of papers that offer case studies of archaeological examples of societal collapse (all are available for free). Examples range from Maya to Cyprus to Norse Greenland. None of the papers consider the prehistoric peoples of southeastern North America. But they’re still instructive for those of us interested in Georgia archaeology.

Still, if we stick to sustainability, that is a reaction to sociopolitical stress rather than the more specific societal collapse, Butzer and Endfield do point us to how the case studies they’re introducing can help us understand how societies may react to the global climate change presently underway. They note in their paper’s abstract:

Response to environmental crises of the last millennium varied greatly according to place and time but drew from traditional knowledge to evaluate new information or experiment with increasing flexibility, even if modernization or intensification were decentralized and protracted. Longer-term diachronic* experience offers insight into how societies have dealt with acute stress, a more instructive perspective for the future than is offered by apocalyptic scenarios. (p. 3628)

Butzer 2012 pg3636 PNAS Collapse Fig 1

Figure 1 of Butzer’s 2012 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012, vol. 109, no. 10, pp. 3632-3639; available online here for free. Click here to view a larger version of this diagram. Original title: A conceptual model for historical collapse, situating the variables and processes of stress and interaction discussed in the text. Timescales range from multidecadal to centennial. Alternate pathways point to important qualities of resilience. Red superscripts identify stages that are elaborated by blue subscripts. Environmental components (red within boxes) are secondary to sociopolitical factors.

As Butzer and Endfield make clear, we can marshall diverse efforts toward effective remedial action through multidisciplinary, collaborative research that avoid what they call “oversimplified causal correlations” (p. 3628) that explain global climate change. They continue, noting that “culture, perception, and behavior condition how societies will interact with their environments or define their priorities” (p. 3628). Key concepts for these studies include “environmental history, land-use change, institutional structures, resilience, and sustainability” (p. 3628). And, as Dr. Butzer notes in the abstract of his own article in this series, “Collapse, environment, and society” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012, vol. 109, no. 10, pp. 3632-3639; available online here for free), “resilience and readaptation depend on identified options, improved understanding, cultural solidarity, enlightened leadership, and opportunities for participation and fresh ideas” (p. 3632).

* Diachronic means change over time; opposite is synchronic.