Author: Anya Galli
On February 18th, the PSE Workshop hosted UMD Anthropology professor and zooarcheologist George Hambrecht for a talk detailing the potential of archeological sites for studying long-term interactions between humans and the environment. The talk, titled “Archaeological Sites as Distributed Observing Networks for Long-term Global Environmental Change,” provided an overview of current studies that use archeological data to understand changes in climate, ecosystems, food chains, and human and animal migration.
Hambrecht tailored his presentation for a non-anthropology audience, talking more broadly about the range of studies being conducted, rather than the methodological nitty-gritty of the projects. Although methods geeks like myself might have craved a bit more detail, the breadth of the presentation allowed Hambrecht to show the myriad ways that society-environment interactions can be understood through the stuff (mainly food waste) that humans have thrown away across the centuries.
“I dig through history’s trash,” Hambrecht said, and what he finds there opens up an entirely new perspective on ecosystems, climate change, and humankind’s long-term relationship to the natural world.
But these piles of history’s trash, called middens, are not likely to remain intact through the end of this century. Climate change is threatening the fragile balance that has allowed for the long-term preservation of organic materials: rising sea levels will swallow many coastal sites, and soil temperature variation is speeding the decomposition of artifacts at inland sites.
The studies Hambrecht discussed highlight the linkages between human practices and environmental forces, as well as the role of humans in long-term ecological change. Hambrecht also highlighted the importance of these sites as educational resources for the public. Middens can educate local populations about their forebears, and can help connect contemporary environmental concerns to the challenges faced centuries ago. And publics who more readily trust archaeology than they would environmental science may be swayed by these kinds of findings. In short, environmental archaeology offers us a fascinating new lens through which to examine the society-environment relationship.
Still, Hambrecht’s talk was a good reminder that even when the easy description might be “humans did x, causing y changes in the environment,” the relationship is never quite that simple. The social is always, already, intertwined with the environmental. That humans and the environment influence and transform each other seems obvious today, but before Catton and Dunlap’s introduction of the “New Ecological Paradigm” in 1978, sociology’s approach to the environment had been largely one-sided: the environment was acted upon by humans, but it was not considered an actor. Contemporary sociological research operates largely from the perspective that human behaviors and environmental changes are co-constituting, two threads in a much larger tapestry. Hambrecht’s research reminds us that this tapestry stretches back much longer than we realized.
Anya Galli is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland—College Park, where she studies environmental sociology and social movements. Her research addresses environmental inequality and industrial pollution in the US, focusing on the socio-political determinants of disproportionate emissions in the coal-fired power industry. Galli is also a Fellow with the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, where she researches environmental stewardship and civic participation.