Link: Bioarchaeology and the resilience of past societies

Gwen Robbins Schug has a piece in Anthropology News looking at the lack of any simplistic relationship between climate change, crisis, and cultural change in the past: “The Long View of Climate Change and Human Health”.

The subhead summarizes the theme of the essay pretty well:

The deterministic view that climate change invariably causes migration, competition, violence, and collapse is overly simplistic. Bioarchaeology shows us that human responses are far more complex and diverse.

I like the way that the essay closes, reflecting upon the failure of the big history view of the fate of societies. Instead, it’s a “little history” that we should be thinking about – the way that individuals matter, and the way that chance turns of events at the microscale make a difference.

These tiny decisions may appear mere turbulence to the historical picture. Yet if we take the long view seriously, every society is on the edge of survivability in geological time. At the threshold of the lifting edge, turbulence matters.

Broadly speaking, bioarchaeology demonstrates that there are no grand narratives in human history. Small-scale societies are often resilient in the face of environmental change; mobility, flexibility, and adaptive diversity are a largely successful strategy for avoiding negative consequences (see for example, Berger and Wang 2017; Temple and Stojanowski 2019). Complex societies, in contrast, are often much more rigid and they are built on social inequality. When these large-scale societies overshoot—undergo rapid population growth and practice unsustainable agricultural overproduction in the context of rapid climate and environmental changes—those who are resilient and who survive the short-term crisis may experience other forms of suffering (see for example, Robbins Schug, Parnell, and Harrod 2019; Tung et al. 2016).

People survive and sometimes thrive in the face of huge challenges. Other times, people fail despite their best efforts. Failure may result from a cultural system that sets people up for failure. But often it’s bad luck.