Cause and effect: Climatic change

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Scientists, including archaeologists, think about cause and effect, and the factors that muddy our understanding of a hypothesized cause-and-effect relationship. This is part of the scientific method.

A cause-and-effect relationship occurs when an analyst connects one event with a succeeding event, seeing the second event as a consequence of the first one. The first and second “events” also each can be considered as a set of factors or conditions.

Cause effect graphic

One complication of hypothesizing about cause-and-effect relationships is that there can be other factors, whose roles, in complex situations, can be very difficult to identify and understand. Those factors can be part of “event 1,” or occur between the events (during the period bracketed in the graphic above).

One archaeological situation that is typically discussed as a cause-and-effect relationship is that climatic change causes civilizations to fall apart or collapse.

But, does it really?

Is it not a more accurate conceptualization to say that climatic change means that the “old ways” aren’t working so well, and if the people and their civilization do not successfully adjust, then a decline will follow?

Thus, in this model, climatic change is a precipitating “event” (even if it happens over centuries), but the real problem, the real cause of the decline, is the lack of cultural change in response.

Even if you disagree with the hypothesis in the example given, consider other archaeological examples of cause and effect. Consider how helpful causal analysis can be, but also how misleading it may be if other factors having roles that help bring about “event 2” are not discovered or understood.