Environmental Determinism and Causality in Archaeology

This weekend as I descended into a seasonally appropriate panic about how little I had accomplished, I read the most recent discussion in Archaeological Dialogues on environmental determinism and causality in archaeology. Like most archaeologists, I’ve struggled to understand much less integrate the flood (see what I did there?) of regional and global climate data into the archaeology of particular places in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’ve recently read work by Sturt Manning and Katie Kearns on Cyprus and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, and James Newhard on Anatolia and started to think a tiny bit about environmental data might speak to issues like urban change in Late Antiquity, the nature of insularity, and agricultural and settlement patterns in the Western Argolid.  

Connecting how we understand environmental data to how we produce archaeological arguments pushes us both to think about temporality (and the multiple scales of time that shape archaeological knowledge) and, as the articles in Archaeological Dialogues foreground, causality. There’s a temptation to connect environmental changes to social, economic, and political change in the archaeological record. This, of course, maps on nicely to recent discussions on the impact of climate change in the 21st century. As Bruno Latour and others have suggested, the ancient and modern challenge of associating environmental changes with political changes is that it rests on the dichotomy between the natural and the human. Recent, and to my mind more subtle and thoughtful, work has emphasized the blurred lines between the natural, the social, the political, and the culture. As a result, arguments for causality that see one variable – say climate change – directly transforming another – say political or economic relationships – tend to be problematic. Contemporary commentators, for example, have proposed alternately, that the poor will bear the burden of modern climate change more than the rich; others have suggested that the poor may well be more resilient than the wealthy when faced with ecological and environmental instability. As Amitav Ghosh sagely noted, in the 21st century, the poor are already experiencing the future. This observation nicely complicates the idea of progress that seems to reinforce the linear ideas of causality. 

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