Archaeologists define their role in climate change: Not Just an ecological problem but a social one, new research paper says

Gitxsan traditional huckleberry harvest up the Suskwa River in Northwest BC, where humans have managed and maintained the landscape for millennia. Photo courtesy Chelsea Armstrong.

A large international network of archaeologists announced today that “the past will be key to understanding the future of climate change,” in a new research paper published from an emerging field known as historical ecology.

The exhaustive over-use of our resources, as well as climate instability are not just modern day problems. “Worldwide and through time, humans have adapted to environmental stresses and large climatic shifts”, says first author Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University.

“When we think of large-scale human land use, we have a habit of assuming that the impacts are always negative”, says Armstrong, “But our network of archaeologists and Indigenous collaborators have unearthed how ancient people have adapted to instability by managing their environments to increase biodiversity,” among many other environmental benefits.

“Humans can have very positive impacts with their environment — this means ecologically ‘healthy’ relationships. We have seen this throughout the archaeological record.” Says Anna Shoemaker, second author from Uppsala University in Sweden. This novel research by archaeologists and their natural science colleagues is called historical ecology. 

The research published today in open access journal PLOS ONE brings a fresh new approach to academic research. “Rather than defining what historical ecology is ourselves, we crowd-sourced hundreds of questions from scholars around the world, and asked, ‘How can archaeology contribute to an ecologically sustainable future?’’’.

The answer in Armstrong’s paper lists 50 novel questions that archaeologists and their colleagues will seek to answer in the next few years — “climate change is not just an ecological problem — it’s a social one. Using social sciences is an obvious and intuitive way forward.”

A deliberative approach to these 50 questions was designed in order to maximize discussion and debate with specific outcomes: two in-person workshops were held in Uppsala, Sweden and Vancouver, Canada within a two-year span, then online discussions were peer facilitated to define key questions for historical ecology, from both anthropological and archaeological perspectives.

“Historical ecology encompasses research concerned with decadal [10 years], centennial [100 years], and millennial [1,000 years] human-environmental interactions, and the consequences that those relationships have in the formation of contemporary landscapes”, the paper states.

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