A Playful Past Allows Us To Last: Part II of II
An emerging science reveals the past and future of coupled natural–human systems
I was interviewed!
Big thanks to my friend and former Wavefront colleague, Mark Sylvester, who is now the Curator, Host, and Executive Producer at TEDx Santa Barbara.
Check it out!
The unedited version that was streamed live is here on FB:
Last week I left off Part I introducing a new science proposed by two scientists affiliated with my favorite multidisciplinary institution, and leader in studying complexity adaptive systems, The Santa Fe Institute. Today I draw from their paper published in August that includes links to a recent book that has shook the scientific academy. Science is adapting to a new world, a new climate, and new future. This proposed new scientific field aims to accelerate that adaptation.
As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.
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Now let’s go…
EVOLVING FAST AND SLOW
“What until now has passed for ‘civilization’ might in fact be nothing more than a gendered appropriation – by men, etching their claims in stone – of some earlier system of knowledge that had women at its centre.”
These are the words of David Graeber and David Wengrow from their recent epic myth-busting book, The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity. They paint a picture of human history that debunks many assumptions underlying the contributions of theoretical ‘great men’ that dominate recollections of history, scientific discovery, and human evolution. But two great women stepped forward in August to offer a new center for systems of knowledge that complements Graeber and Wengrow’s theories.
Recent technological and collaborative advances in anthropology, archeology, ecology, geography, and related disciplines are sketching new patterns of interactions of people and place. Complex webs of far-flung and slow growing networks of social interactions, spanning large swaths of the globe over millennia, are coming into focus.
Graeber and Wengrow claim “the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms.” This interpretation offers a radical counter to existing “drab abstractions of evolutionary theory.” Contrary to popular belief, they offer that
“Agriculture, in turn, did not mean the inception of private property, nor did it mark an irreversible step towards inequality. In fact, many of the first farming communities were relatively free of ranks and hierarchies. And far from setting class differences in stone, a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organized on robustly egalitarian lines, with no need for authoritarian rulers, ambitious warrior-politicians, or even bossy administrators.”
Graeber and Wengrow’s analysis offer an alternative understanding of the nearly 300,000 years of homo sapiens’ existence. And Stefani Crabtree and Jennifer Dunne, both affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute, wrote a recent opinion piece that builds on their position. “Towards a science of archeaoecology”, published in the journal, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, calls for integrating elements of archeology and ecology under the term archeaoecology to further understand these pasts.
By sharing approaches and data of related fields they hope to form a more complete picture of the unfolding of humanity and ecosystems so that both may continue to unfold into the future. They hope to intertwine two interrelated trends that emerged over the last 60,000 years of humanity. Some findings of which, were also highlighted by Graeber and Wengrow. These two trends are:
The slow evident far-flung dispersal of homo sapiens across regions and around the globe.
The increasingly rapid development of tools and technologies that enabled it.
Together these contributed to the gradual and pervasive spread of complex social networks fueled by the interaction of people and place – and other animal species. However, as Crabtree and Dunne remind us, “As humans spread to new places and their populations grew…their impacts on ecosystems grew commensurately.”
ARTIFACTS, ECOFACTS, AND SCALING MATH
The subfield of archeology that studies these impacts is environmental archeology. While much of this research focuses on a reconstruction of past climates, it doesn’t always consider the larger ecological context. But the combined fields of paleontology (the study of fossilized plants and animals) and ecology does, under the name of paleoecology. However, it misses human elements of archeology just as environmental archeology sometimes ignores aspects of ecology.
But new sensing technologies, increased computing power, advances in ecological modelling, and a growing corpus of digitized archeological records is providing bridges between these disciplines. Now scientists can construct integrated understandings of how people interacted with place through deep time. Instead of fragments of artifacts, ecofacts, and trash deposits uncovered through disparate stages of time amidst localized climatic conditions, a more thorough and dynamic representation emerges.
How do the interactions of people and place impact ecosystems and cultures and in turn influence their respective evolutions? It’s questions like this that led Crabtree and Dunne to call on earth and human researchers to “confront pressing questions about the sustainability of current and future coupled natural-human systems” under the banner of archeoecology.
It was archaeologists and paleoecologists who first coined this term. It described scientists or studies that relied on varieties of data, like geological morphology or climatology, to form interpretations of the archeological past. But they weren’t intent on necessarily forming a systematic understanding of historic dynamic interactions of natural-human systems. Moreover, they weren’t, as Crabtree and Dunne propose, providing an “intellectual home” for a new integrative science bridging these three disciplines:
Archaeology: the study of past societies by reconstructing physical non-biological environments.
Palaeoecology: the reconstruction of past ecosystems based on fossil remains but often excluding humans.
Ecology: considerations of the living and nonliving interactions among organisms, mostly non-human, in existing ecosystems.
The new home they suggest is filled with a growing assortment of tools and technologies which can be shared among them. They range in scale from the microscopic analysis of plants, animals, and tree rings to vast ecological and social networks through the distribution of species amidst cascading patterns of extinction. Computer models can represent everything from cellular structures that mimic behavior of biology to modelling individual and group behaviors based on quantitative data found across a range of space and time.
In May I wrote about how this kind of modeling, led by another Santa Fe affiliate, Scott Ortman, uncovered new findings regarding the Scaling of Hunter-Gatherer Camp Size and Human Sociality in my Interplace essay called City Maps and Scaling Math.
This array of interdependent tools conspires to generate the Crabtree and Dunne definition of archeocecology:
“The branch of science that employs archaeological, ecological, and environmental records to reconstruct past complex ecosystems including human roles and impacts, leveraging advances in ecological analysis, modeling, and theory for studying the earth’s human past.”
NATURE OR NURTURE
The aim of this new science is to reconstruct interdependent networks of human mediated systems that mutually depend on each other for survival. This offers clues, for example, into just how many plants and animals may have migrated and propagated on their own through earth’s natural systems versus being transported and nurtured by highly mobile, creative humans amidst networks of seemingly egalitarian bands. Crabtree and Dunne offer one such example from Cyprus where scientists used archeoecological approaches to discover how that area’s current ecosystem came to be.
Using species distribution models and food webs the research showed how settlers in the later part of the Stone Age (Neolithic period)
“brought with them several nondomesticated animals and plants, including fox (Vulpes vulpes indutus), deer (Dama dama), pistachios (Pistacia vera), flax (Linum sp.), and figs (Ficus carica), to alter the Cyprian ecosystem to meet their needs. These were supplemented with domestic einkorn [early forms of wheat] (Triticum monococcum) and barley (Hordeum vulgare), as well as domesticated pigs (Sus scrofa), sheep (Ovis sp.), goat (Capra sp.), and cattle (Bos sp.).”
The coincidental dating of these human settlers, plants, and animals suggests not only the introduction of new species to the area, but the intention to create a niche ecosystem on which they could survive. Elements of that Neolithic ecosystem are alive in Cyprus to this day. Crabtree’s own research into the ecological impacts of the removal of Aboriginal populations in Australia corroborates these theories.
Her work highlights the need to marry the high-tech scientific approaches of archeoecology with Traditional Ecological Knowledge…otherwise known as Indigenous Knowledge or Indigenous Science. As I wrote last week in Part I, stitching together past and present Western science requires collaborations with Indigenous people, their knowledge, culture, and traditions.
To strategize the survival of the natural world, of which we humans are linked – amidst a changing and increasingly volatile climate – requires honoring, respecting, and collaborating with people and cultures as varied and complex as the ecosystems on which we coexist.
Crabtree and Dunne show how archeoecology can reveal “how humans altered, and were shaped by, ecosystems across deep time.” By collaborating, sharing, and synthesizing diverse bodies of knowledge across artificial academic and cultural boundaries and beliefs we can “explore implications for the future sustainability of anthropogenically modified landscapes.” This is particularly imperative “given scenarios such as changing climate, land-use intensification, and species extinctions.”
This treatise on archeoecology by Crabtree and Dunne offers a set of tools necessary to present “a new history of humankind.” Much like Graeber and Wengrow set out to do, it also encourages “a new science of history, one that restores our ancestors to their full humanity.”
Collaborative science, like collaborative music and sports, spawns unexpected, serendipitous discovery through systems of human tension, tolerance, intimacy, and cumulative joy and sorrow, setbacks, and steps forward. This is the nature of unbridled egalitarian play observed among young people unaltered by prejudice, politics, fright, and might.
It’s felt in us all through lifetime acts of negotiation and negation, rejoice and reproach, exaltation and anguish, or creation and destruction. It is the nature of humankind. And it is, like our ecosystems, in constant mutualistic flux.
As is the work of Crabtree, Dunne, Graeber (RIP), Wengrow, and others like them. But as they have already shown,
“The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities, than we tend to assume.”
Towards a science of archaeoecology. Stefani A. Crabtree and Jennifer A. Dunne. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 2022.
(1) Graeber and Wengrow