Review Article

Lessons from the past: coping with natural hazards and climate change

Erika Guttmann-Bond
Department of Archaeology, History and Anthropology
University of Wales, Trinity Saint David
College Street, Lampeter
Ceredigion, SA48 7ED, UK

Books Reviewed
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NAOMI F. MILLER, KATHERINE M. MOORE & KATHLEEN RYAN (ed.). Sustainable lifeways: cultural perspectives in an ever-changing environment. xx+329 pages, 70 illustrations, 26 tables. 2011. Philadelphia (PA): University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology & Archaeology; 978-1-934536-19-3 hardback £42.50.

JAGO COOPER & PAYSON SHEETS (ed.). Surviving sudden environmental change: answers from archaeology. xxiv+256 pages, 50 illustrations, 1 table. 2012. Boulder (CO): University Press of Colorado; 978-1-60732-167-5 paperback $ 19.95; 978-1-60732-168-2.

GWEN ROBBINS SCHUG. Bioarchaeology and climate change: a view from South Asian prehistory. xviii+180 pages, 17 illustrations, 21 tables. 2011. Gainesville (FL): University Press of Florida; 978-0-8130-3667-0 hardback $79.95.

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In 1978 the Libyan leader Muammar al Gaddafi said in a public speech that "if archaeology is to be practised at all, then at least let it be relevant to the needs of people today." If this sounds callous, consider that Charles Clarke, minister for education from 2002 to 2004 in the British Labour government, said he didn't "mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them." He added that the state should only pay for subjects which exhibit some "clear usefulness." Putting aside the philistinism of these remarks, most readers of Antiquity would probably agree with George Santayana that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The idea that the past can teach us practical lessons is gaining momentum in the field of archaeology. Clark Erickson, for example, made the point with his work in South America, demonstrating that successes in the past can be re-implemented to improve agricultural methods today (Erickson 1998). Jared Diamond's influential book Collapse (2005) also made the point, although it dwelt mostly on the failures of the past rather than the successes. Many of the responses to Diamond have taken Erickson's line, emphasising the re-implementation of past successes.

The three books reviewed here show that there are practical, applicable lessons to learn from the past. What's more, their authors and editors demonstrate that focused, multi-disciplinary research has become standard practice, taking for granted the notion that the most informative research is conducted through well-developed hypotheses tested by careful, multi-strand methods in order to draw convincing conclusions. The volumes also reveal just how far we have come since our first, tentative steps towards linking people and environment. The early days of environmental archaeology focused on simple questions, and environmental data were relegated to the appendices in archaeological reports. Environmental determinism was simplistic, and based on poor chronologies which made it difficult to distinguish cause from effect; today, considerations of environmental cause and effect are at the forefront of research. The books under review reflect this in the care taken to ensure that chronologies are understood and any claims are carefully evaluated and substantiated.

Sustainable lifeways

This collection of essays stems from a Pennsylvania Museum conference entitled Forces of Nature: risk and resilience as factors of long-term cultural change. The aim was to study and discuss how people perceive risk, and how they respond to environmental change. In true multi-disciplinary spirit, the authors strive to link social change (as identified on archaeological sites) with environmental change. This is relatively easy to do on landscapes which have been buried under tephra, but more difficult when changes are more subtle or take place over a long period.

A key issue is that, although medium-term (i.e. decade-long) change can be recognised and a response can be developed, changes that take place over the long term can be more difficult to identify. Short-term environmental changes can lead to major changes in land use, which may be inappropriate in the long term. The British colonisation of Kenya, which occurred during an unusually rainy period, offers one such example. When the climate returned to the drier regime characteristic of that area, the new agricultural system introduced by the British became unsustainable.

The book begins logically with a review of climate change and climate proxy indicators, and continues with an examination of four specific areas: Western Asia, the American Southwest, East Africa and Andean South America. The papers show an excellent integration of the social aspects of archaeology, anthropology, theory and science (both archaeological and environmental). 'Agent-based modelling' by some of the authors attempts to set up different models for human behaviour—in effect a set of alternative hypotheses—which are then considered to ascertain which best fits the data.

Surviving sudden environmental change

The contributors to this book focus on lessons for the future, discussed at a conference entitled Global long term human ecodynamics which took place in Maine in the USA in 2009. The volume contains eight case studies devoted to how societies in the past have coped with disaster or sudden environmental change. The scope is global and the time depth ranges from prehistory to the present.

This collection's format requires each author of a chapter or case study to cover the main hazards faced by a particular society, and then to discuss the impacts these had on the population. Next, there is a consideration of coping mechanisms including mitigation strategies, a discussion of vulnerability and an examination of how resilient societies were in the face of the disasters that threatened them. Each chapter concludes with a look at future risks and discusses how we might take information from the past and apply it towards mitigating current and future threats. Each chapter ends with advice for policy makers and the disaster management community. These are especially interesting; some are clear and specific, with detailed instructions, while others are less precise in their recommendations. Though of varied practical use, all can be regarded as well-founded advice that suggests avenues for further research.

For example, several contributors note that the indigenous architecture in their study region is more resilient to earthquakes than modern architecture. In Mesoamerica and the Caribbean the structures were traditionally built with a framework of poles, flexible enough to move without causing whole buildings to collapse. The pre-Colombian population used wattle and daub walling, which in severe earthquakes would shake loose from the framework, but did not do serious damage to the inhabitants when it fell. The Spanish introduced adobe bricks, which unfortunately kill people when they collapse. Bearing in mind the damage modern reinforced concrete can inflict, the clear lesson is that earthquake-proofing a building does not have to be high-tech.

A concluding chapter summarises the issues raised in the volume and makes some interesting points. Humans are good at adapting to environments and creating new technologies—but these often have unfortunate, unintended consequences. The adaptations that we make to protect ourselves from regularly occurring hazards can actually put us in greater danger than the occasional, much larger scale catastrophes. Hurricane Katrina is an example: building levees along riverbanks protects people from seasonal flooding and allows them to settle on what would otherwise be floodplain—but in extreme weather, levees can break and cause extensive damage. In some situations, it may make more sense to make adaptations for the rare, extreme hazard rather than increasing risk by implementing solutions which protect us from more frequent but less serious dangers.

Bioarchaeology and climate change

Unlike the volumes discussed above, this book addresses a particular issue in a specific time and place: southern India in the Chalcolithic. This issue is of global importance, and the book takes a practical approach. The author, Gwen Robbins Schug, states that in modern India the villagers have much the same material culture now as they did 3000 years ago. This means that if we can understand what changes were made in the past, and which changes were adaptive or maladaptive, that knowledge can be used to improve the lives of Indian villagers today.

The research is on the Deccan Chalcolithic (2200–700 BC), with a focus on the Early Jorwe period (1400–1000 BC), when agriculture expanded and the population grew, and the Late Jorwe (1000-700 BC), when agriculture declined or ended and pastoralism, hunting and foraging became the new economic base. After 1000 BC most villages were abandoned, pottery became coarse and undecorated, there were fewer tools for agriculture, and there was an increase in hunting implements such as projectile points. Most villagers seem to have returned to the mobility of their distant ancestors.

Ethnographic studies show that the distinction between agricultural, pastoral and hunting-foraging lifestyles is more fluid than originally imagined by archaeologists, but the wholesale abandonment of an established agricultural life in the Deccan is a particularly interesting subject. The prevailing explanation for this shift is that increased aridity put a stop to agriculture in the Chalcolithic, at the end of the second millennium BC. This model posits that human health declined when aridity set in and agriculture became unviable in the Deccan region. By contrast, bioarchaeologists generally argue that the introduction of agriculture should bring about a decline in human health, not an improvement, and Schug predicted that the abandonment of agriculture should actually improve the health of the Deccan population.

Her dental analysis showed some evidence for greater stress in the Late Jorwe, the period after agriculture was abandoned, but the sample sizes were small and the results were inconclusive. The skeletal growth, on the other hand, seems to support the argument that growth was stunted after the return to hunting and foraging. Although the results raise more questions than they answer, this kind of careful, hypothesis-based analysis is to be applauded, and it leads the way for further investigations.

The really interesting new angle that Schug introduces is based on her review of the palaeoclimatic evidence. Having reviewed the evidence and incorporated the more recent studies, Schug argues that the semi-arid climate did not develop in the Late Jorwe (1000–700 BC) but much earlier, around 3000 BC, during a period of flourishing agricultural and urban development and increasing population. Some climate studies indicate that the most arid period was around 1500 BC, before the agriculturally-based Early Jorwe period. The environmental evidence shows that the agriculture of this region depended on drought-tolerant grains. In the Late Jorwe, there was in addition an increasing dependence on salt-tolerant crops, as well as herding, foraging and hunting. Schug contends that environmental degradation, and salinisation in particular, were responsible for the decline in agriculture—not climate change.

Re-introduction of sustainable agriculture

The argument that we can learn lessons from the past and apply them to the future is currently being vindicated in the Deccan region. India is making great leaps towards sustainability—which is unsurprising, given its long history of sophisticated sustainable agriculture, crop breeding and water harvesting. Over the past 40 years India's Green Revolution strove to improve yields and modernise agriculture, but villagers protested that the new hybrids caused allergies, required expensive fertilisers and were not resistant to drought (Henderson 2001). Hybrid sorghum exhausted the soil, and inorganic fertilisers could not replace lost soil organic matter. This landscape degeneration is currently being reversed by new projects on the Deccan plateau. One project, supported by the Deccan Development Society, involves women who have formed village associations (Sanghams). Most of these women are from the lowest caste, the Dalit or untouchables, who had previously lived in poverty and isolation (Henderson 2001). They have brought back traditional agricultural methods and 80 traditional crop varieties, most of which had ceased to be grown in the area. By planting different species together (sorghum, pigeon peas, pulses, amaranth, fibre crops and cattle feed), they are now producing exponentially more food (e.g. up to 22 species on a 3-acre plot). Self-mulching plants control the weeds, cattle provide manure to improve the soil, earth banks and rock dams help retain water, which in turn improves the water supply. Over 10 000 acres have been rejuvenated, and six times more grain is being grown than under Green Revolution methods (Deccan Development Society). The women have set up community seed banks and medicinal herb gardens, and over a million trees have been planted. Perhaps the greatest change has been in favour of the low caste women: they have gained self-sufficiency, and their children can go to school and escape the conditions of the Dalit class. This is a system whose benefits go beyond those generated by re-introducing traditional agricultural practices.

The three books considered here, all published in the US, are outstanding examples of 'thinking big'. They are carefully researched, interdisciplinary, focused and informative. They set a standard that will be difficult to match by full-time academics in the UK, where teaching loads are increasing, conference attendance is discouraged and sabbaticals are becoming a thing of the past.


  • DIAMOND, J. 2005. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive. London: Allen Lane.
  • Deccan Development Society. Available at: (accessed on 4 September 2012).
  • ERICKSON, C. L. 1998. Applied archaeology and rural development: archaeology's potential contribution to the future, in M. Whiteford & S. Whiteford (ed.) Crossing currents: continuity and change in Latin America: 34–45. Upper Saddle (NJ): Prentice-Hall.
  • HENDERSON, C. 2001. Turning the world upside down. Available at (accessed on 4 September 2012).