Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Interweaving narratives: combining written sources, scientific data and material culture to understand past human ecodynamics
Location British Museum - Sackler B
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Anke Marsh (University College, London) email
  • Eva Jobbova (University College London) email

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Discussant Prof Elizabeth Graham

Short Abstract

This panel will focus on how written sources and ethnographic studies combined with environmental data and material culture can clarify the socio-ecological relationship between human societies and their environments and how this drives cultural change.

Long Abstract

Despite extensive research, the relationship between climate change and human societies is still not well understood, especially with respect to how and to what extent climate change can be considered a primary driver in the cultural trajectory of a particular region. Although there are new analytical opportunities provided by methodological developments in various disciplines, little is known about the short- or long-term dynamics of past human-environment relationships. Reasons for this include a lack of integration between relevant fields, such as archaeology, anthropology, epigraphy, geology, palaeoclimatology and palaeoecology.

This panel will explore how integrating datasets from different disciplines can lead to a better understanding of the socio-ecological relationship between societies and their environments and if/how this drives cultural change. Specifically, the panel will focus on how different perspectives, derived from written sources and/or ethnographic studies in the relevant region, combined with scientific data collected from sediments, microfossils, speleothems and other proxies, as well as material culture, can elucidate the complex human decision-making process occurring in different and/or changing environmental conditions and the ramifications for cultural change.

Panel is open both geographically and temporally and comparative research is strongly encouraged. Papers could consider (but are not limited to) how modern ethnographic studies and geoarchaeological methods contribute to our understanding of past human ecodynamics, how integrated methods can clarify spatial/temporal relationships between climate events and cultural change or how multidisciplinary approaches inform us about people's choices in response to environmental change (relocation, introduction of religious practices...).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Begotten of Corruption? Climate change, crisis, and stigmatization of leprosy in the second millennium BCE, South Asia

Author: Gwen Robbins Schug (Appalachian State University)  email

Short Abstract

A scientific and textual approach to climate and culture change in the Late Holocene of South Asia

Long Abstract

The semi-arid monsoon climate of South Asia was established by the mid-Holocene but this challenging environmental milieu was also punctuated by significant rapid climate change events, which shaped human-environmental interactions in urban and rural communities of the first and second millennium BCE. This paper deconstructs the history of stigmatization for people with leprosy, from the zero-point when leprosy first appears in the urban population at Harappa, to the institutionalized exclusion of people with leprosy by the Iron Age. Scientific sources of evidence, from human skeletal biology, suggest profound demographic and health consequences accompanied efforts of human communities to cope with climate and economic change c. 2000 BCE. Mortuary archaeology and an exegesis of Vedic texts demonstrate how moments of crisis in prehistory set a trajectory of differentiation and signification of leprosy and its sufferers in South Asia. This integrated approach to scientific and textual sources from the first and second millennium BCE destabilizes what is true about leprosy and its sufferers.

New Research into the Dynamics of human-environment relationships in the Maya region

Author: Eva Jobbova (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

Exploration of long-term relationships between Maya society and the local environment, using archaeological, epigraphic, ethnographic a climatological data.

Long Abstract

An increased interest in climate change within the last few decades has meant that a large amount of paleoclimatic data have been collected from the Maya area, often indicating considerable changes in rainfall patterns during the mid- to late Holocene. These data, beside other things, challenged the general assumption of abundant water supply in the tropics. The ethnographic research conducted among contemporary Maya communities (Downey and Jobbova 2011) supports this new outlook; it showed that "drought" and especially high variability in rainfall patterns are real phenomena with often severe consequences for people's livelihoods. It also confirmed that people developed a wide variety of strategies to cope with the extreme climate events; as well as to adapt to changes in the long run. This paper combines the data from this ethnographic fieldwork with archaeological, epigraphic and climatological evidence in order to explore relationships between Maya society and the local environment over the long-term, from the Classic (c. 250 to 900 AD) to the Early Colonial (1500/1600 AD) period. Preliminary analyses show that while there seem to be no direct relationship between the periods of diminished precipitation and population changes in the case study areas, there are significant changes observable in culture and written records (in some cases specifically related to high variability in rainfall); thus corroborating well with patterns observed in ethnographic research.

Cultivating Nile Islands: crop choices, land-use and environmental changes in modern and ancient northern Sudan

Authors: Philippa Ryan (British Museum)  email
Katherine Homewood (University College, London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses ethnographic perspectives on ancient cultivation practices and land-use in northern Sudan in the context of environmental change.

Long Abstract

Macrobotanical and microbotanical remains from the pharaonic town of Amara West (1300-1070 BC) are being studied to examine how subsistence systems were impacted by increased aridity and riverine changes in the late 2nd millennium BC. The town was originally located on an island, but a river channel north of the site dried up and this would have reduced the amount of suitable agricultural land. Ethnographic research in northern Sudan is revealing details of changing agricultural practices, crop choices and land-use over the past 100 years. Identifying which practices are more 'traditional' is helping to form a baseline for comparisons with the archaeological past. Details from interviews with elderly farmers have been augmented by the availability of detailed accounts of traditional agriculture in the early twentieth century. However, ethnographic studies provide new 'oral histories' for particular localities. Here we discuss narratives of agricultural land-use by farmers based on Ernetta Island. Nile islands have been important today and in the past as there are fewer areas of wide floodplain compared to further north in Egypt. Farmers described detailed categories of agricultural land-use. The interviews together with satellite imagery reveal how categories of cultivable land around Ernetta Island have changed greatly since the 1960s - indicating how environmental changes can impact farming strategies at annual, decadal and longer timescales. Other reasons for recent agricultural changes will also be discussed. Perspectives from present-day Ernetta Island are throwing light on ancient cultivation practices and land-use in the context of environmental change.

East-west divides? Landscape narratives of the ancient Peloponnese and effects of local climate change in the late first millennium BC

Authors: Anton Bonnier (Uppsala University)  email
Erika Weiberg (Uppsala University)  email
Martin Finné (Uppsala University)  email

Short Abstract

Using new palaeoclimate proxy data from two caves together with archaeological survey data and historical sources we present a more complex approach to the ancient Peloponnese, involving political agency, climate variability, and environmental dynamics from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD.

Long Abstract

The study of ancient Peloponnesian landscapes has a long history and the cultural developments within these environments are well known and have been extensively investigated. Numerous archaeological field surveys have been conducted since the 1960s, tracing long term site and settlement patterns in bounded regions in the Peloponnese. Micro-regional settlement trajectories, as provided by intensive survey archaeology, highlight some degree of variability in terms of the chronology of expansion and contraction between the eastern and the western part of the Peninsula during the second half of the first millennium BC. Within previous research emphasis has been placed on the significance of political agency as the main driving force behind socioeconomic dynamics observed in the material and historical record, both in terms of a broader Peloponnesian narrative as well as in regards to local developments. New stable isotope data from speleothems collected from different cave sites on the Peloponnese give insights to the climate history of the Peninsula. The proxy data from the different sites display a mainly coherent picture but for the period 100 BC - AD 200 (2050 - 1750 cal BP) there are indications of climatic differences between the eastern and the western part. The paleoclimate data provide us with novel perspectives to investigate the potential impact of climate on local settlement structures. Using the new palaeoclimate data together with other available environmental proxy records (primarily pollen) we can therefore build a more complex landscape narrative of the ancient Peloponnese, involving political agency, climate variability, and environmental dynamics.

Climate, weather and prehistoric sand movement in Scottish islands: the importance of a mixed methods approach

Author: Emily Gal (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the integration of archaeological, historical and geoarchaeological data to explore perceptions of, and responses to, prehistoric sand movement in Scottish Islands.

Long Abstract

Islands and their coastlines have long been important landscapes for settlement, resource procurement and structuring social interaction. Such environments have also proven fruitful in exploring environmental change and its impacts on human activity. Coastlines are dynamic and locally-variable; manifestations of environmental change such as flooding, erosion and sand movement can have immediate, visible impacts on coastal settlement and geomorphology. Historical sources provide a detailed view of climatic deterioration and its far-reaching effects on coastal populations throughout Britain, particularly during the Little Ice Age. One notable impact is that of coastal sand movement and inundation, leading to the marginalisation and abandonment of agricultural land.

The presence of sand horizons at coastal archaeological sites attests to similar movements in the prehistoric period across northwest Europe. However, the nature of impact and response in the prehistoric record is less clear, with environmental proxies often proving ill-defined. Prehistoric archaeologists face the challenge of reconciling temporal scales provided by the environmental sciences with scales that are archaeologically-meaningful to explore similar human-environment relationships at deeper timescales. This project investigates the nature, source and chronology of sand movement on archaeological sites by combining archaeological evidence with historical analogy and geoarchaeological methods.

This paper will discuss how disparate approaches can be integrated to produce meaningful interpretations of how humans perceive and respond to environmental change. Selected multi-period sites in Orkney and the Outer Hebrides will be used to explore the multitude of ways in which complex relationships between 'climate' and settlement can be interpreted on a local scale.

Ethnographic, Ethnohistorical and Geoarchaeological Perspectives on the Origin of Reindeer Husbandry in Northwestern Siberia

Authors: David Anderson (University of Aberdeen)  email
Karen Milek (School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen)  email
Loic Harrault (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

An interdisciplinary team discuss climate proxies and introduce pioneering geoarchaeological soil studies to bolster the argument that early climate changes induced a major socio-economic change in the way that people related to reindeer at the 11-12thC habitation site Iarte 6 in W. Siberia.

Long Abstract

The domestication of reindeer in Eurasia is an ancient tradition, closely associated with indigenous societies and often linked to significant climate change events. The Iamal peninsula is often cited as one of the "hearths" of reindeer husbandry. An interdisciplinary team interprets a large accumulation of butchered Rangifer bones, skins, and artefacts found in association with a long-term 11-12th C habitation site known as Iarte 6 on the Iuribei River on the Iamal Peninsula. Ethnographic and folklore research with contemporary Nenets reindeer herders link the site to the remains of a violently destroyed settlement of the Sirtia reindeer-herding people thought to have previously inhabited the middle world before the Nenets. The scholarly interpretation of artefacts at the site, often based on implicit ethnographic parallels to Nenets reindeer husbandry, identify the site as a major processing site or processing site for domestic and/or wild Rangifer. Climate proxies point to specific warm and cold peaks, which could be used to support the argument for the necessity of a northerly people for holding Rangifer to hand. Our paper discusses the relevance and the applicability of the available climate proxies and introduces our geoarchaeological work on the soils surrounding the site, which is seeking evidence for soil changes associated with reindeer aggregations/corralling and attempts to bolster the argument that early climate changes induced a major socio-economic change in the way that people related to the land and the animals around it.

Cross-Disciplinary Investigations of the Long-Term Sustainability of Human Ecodynamic Systems in Northeastern Iceland

Authors: Astrid Ogilvie (Stefansson Arctic Institute)  email
Viðar Hreinsson (The Reykjavik Academy / Icelandic Museum of Natural History)  email
Árni Daníel Júlíusson (National Museum of Iceland)  email
Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir (Reykjavik Academy)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation will focus on an ongoing project on human ecodynamics in the Myvatn area of northeastern Iceland for the period AD 1700 to 1950. The project is highly interdisciplinary, and draws on data and approaches from the natural and the social sciences.

Long Abstract

This presentation will focus on human ecodynamics in the context of farming practices in the Myvatn area of northeastern Iceland. The research is highly interdisciplinary, and draws on approaches from the natural sciences, including climatology, biology, and geology, and also environmental humanities/social sciences in the fields of history, literary and manuscript studies, social anthropology, and folklore studies. Primary data are drawn from documentary sources and the archaeological record. Myvatn is named for the lake of the same name, meaning literally "Midgewater". In 1978, the area was placed on the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance. The area may have been one of the first to be settled in Iceland (in the late ninth century) and is unique in the way that it has remained sustainable overall since then. The rich natural resources of the area are undoubtedly part of the reason for this. However, the sustainability of individual farms varied greatly. An important objective of the project is thus to examine socio-ecological relationships and resource-management decisions. In this regard, information is being gathered on aspects such as: numbers of livestock; the amount of hay gathered each season; the sizes and productivity of hay fields; the importance of winter foraging by sheep; the dependence on outlying hay fields; and the supplementary harvesting of wetland sedges and grasses. It is foreseen that the integration and synthesis of different lines of information will ultimately provide answers to the reasons for long-term sustainable or failed economies in the Myvatn region.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.