Thursday, January 30, 2014

Are Archaeologists Welcome in the Anthropocene?

As I'm sure most readers are aware, the "Anthropocene" is a term for our current geological/environmental epoch on earth. It was coined to reflect the fact that today and in the (geologically) recent past, humans have had an enormous impact on the earth as a geological and biological entity. There is by now a big literature on the anthropocene (see the bib below for some examples), and even a journal with that title.

It has been proposed that the anthropocene should be accepted as a formal name for the current geological epoch, and a study committee (the "Anthropocene Working Group") is now addressing this question for the Stratigraphy Comission of the Geological Society of London. (Wow, I wish archaeology had such a committee to sort out the varied meanings of messy period names such as Late Postclassic vs. Middle Postclassic vs. Early Aztec. I never know when to use those sequences of period names. I'd be happy to serve as the arbiter of truth, but my colleagues might not be so pleased).

Most of those concerned with geological periods and with the environmental trajectory of humans on earth seem to agree that anthropocene is a reasonable concept. But they are not in agreement about dating the origins of the anthropocene. As outlined in the very useful paper by Bruce Smith and Melinda Zeder (2014) in the journal Anthropocene, there are four main contenders for that date:

  • AD 1800. This "late chronology" posits the industrial revolution as the major force that amplified human impacts on the earth. The anthropocene should therefore begin only in 1750 to 1800. This is currently the majority opinion among the (non-archaeological) scientists involved.
  • 2,000 BP. This date comes from analyses suggesting major creation of anthropogenic soils around this time. This is probably the minority viewpoint.
  • 8,000-5,000 BP. This date derives from evidence for major methane production from agriculture and human population growth, and it corresponds roughly to the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions (to use Childe's terms).
  • ca.13,800 BP. This "early chronology" posits the Pleistocene/Holocene transition, with human impacts on megafauna, and other flora and fauna, as the most relevant time for considering the start of the anthropocene. In the words of Smith and Zeder, "it seems more useful to begin the Anthropocene when there is clear evidence on a global scale for human societies first developing the tools, in this case domestication, that will be employed in reshaping the earth's terrestrial ecosystems over a span of the next 10,000 years." They note that the Anthropocene would then be coterminous with the Holocene, requiring only a name change, not the creation of a new geological period.
In the current SAA Archaeological Record, Braje et al. (2014) review the anthropocene concept briefly, and concentrate on the fact that most discussion so far has largely ignored archaeology. We have geologists and ecologists and others talking how humans have impacted the environment in the near and distant past, but without input from archaeology! I share the authors frustration. I've talked quite a bit in this blog about the problems that arise when scholars in other disciplines ignore archaeology when they are in fact talking about things that we have data about. Much easier to speculate about the past than to actually find the relevant data.
**ADDED JAN 31: Here are some of my prior posts on this: ***
"Do archaeologists know anything useful about premodern states?"  (2012)
"Why archaeologists need to publish outside of archaeology"  (2008)
"Publishing archaeology outside of archaeology"  (2007)

But part of the blame is our own. My initial reaction to the paper in the SAA Archaeological Record was to suggest that if archaeologists want to be accepted by other scholars, we should publish not in our own journals but in journals in other fields. But then I saw that there is a whole special section in the journal Anthropocene with archaeological papers; I cite Smith and Zeder (2014) above, and I also looked at Kennett and Beach (2014), although the connection of the latter with the anthropocene debate was not very clear.

So I forged on through Braje et al (2014), and came up short against a ridiculous statement:

  • "The designation of an Anthropocene Epoch at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the appearance of artificial radionuclides associated with atomic detonations, or any other recent date harkens back to the faulty premise that pre-industrial humans lived in harmony with nature, and that a "natural" world existed in some idyllic pre-modern state." (Braje et al 2014:28).
Give me a break. I though this debate was about the evidence for human impact on the environment. When was serious environmental change initiated? How can we measure this? How can we compare environmental changes thousands of years ago with changes in the past three centuries? What is the most useful way to conceptualize and describe the history of human impacts on earth? These are empirical, scientific questions. But now we are told that those preferring a late date for the anthropocene must have faulty views about people living in harmony with nature! Huh?? The argument has now turned away from science and into ideology. Those with opposing scientific views must have faulty ideas about ancient humans. They must be in error.

Braje et al then quote from Steffan et al. (2007), who say that there were fewer people in the past whose simpler economic and technological organization did not modify the environment to the extent that we do today. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable interpretation to me. I don't see anything about living in harmony with nature.

I am not an expert in this topic, but here are my conclusions from reading the 2014 papers by archaeologists.

  1. Humans have had significant impacts on environments going back thousands of years (the proper archaeological response is, "Well, duh!")
  2. It is difficult to quantify those impacts to compare recent and ancient impacts.
  3. The Anthropocene is a useful concept for addressing these issues.
  4. I'm not sure of the best choice of dates to begin the Anthropocene; I think I might favor Smith and Zeder's early dates, but I don't have specialist knowledge here and I'm not strongly wedded to this view.
  5. If archaeologists want scientists in other disciplines to take us seriously, we should avoid making silly ideological claims when we should be producing rigorous scientific findings.
  6. We should publish in journals outside of archaeology. The section in the journal Anthropocene is a step in the right direction.


Braje, Todd J., Jon M. Erlandson, C. Melvin Aikens, Tim Beach, Scott M. Fitzpatrick, Sara Gonzalez, Douglas J. Kennett, Patrick V. Kirch, Gyoung-Ah Lee, Kent G. Lightfoot, Sarah B. McClure, Lee M. Panich, Torben C. Rick, Anna C. Roosevelt, Tsim D. Schneider, Bruce D. Smith, and Melilnlda A. Zeder
2014    An Anthropocene Without Archaeology: Should we Care? SAA Archaeological Record 14 (1 (January)): 26-29.

Gowdy, John and Lisi Krall
2013    The Ultrasocial Origin of the Anthropocene. Ecological Economics 95: 137-147.

Kennett, Douglas J. and Timothy Beach
2014    Archaeological and Environmental Lessons for the Anthropocene from the Classic Maya Collapse. Anthropocene 2 (in press).

Robin, Libby and Will Steffen
2007    History for the Anthropocene. History Compass 5 (5): 1694-1719.

Roscoe, Paul B.
1995    The Perils of "Positivism" in Cultural Anthropology. American Anthropologist 97: 492-504.

Smith, Bruce D. and Melinda A. Zeder
2014    The Onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 2 (in press).

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill
2007    The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature? Ambio 36: 614-621.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and  John McNeill
2011    The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369: 842-867.


Mark Kurtz said...

Thanks very much for this post.

You may be interested in the article, "Dating the Anthropocene: Towards an empirical global history of human transformation of the terrestrial biosphere," by Earl Ellis, Dorian Fuller, Jed Kaplan, and Wayne Lutters, published in the new journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene:

Michael E. Smith said...

Thanks, Mark, that looks interesting. As does your journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. But I notice that the journal's "knowledge domains" does not include archaeology, history, or social science.

Mark Kurtz said...

Right you are, for now. But hope you watch this space. Our Sustainability Transitions knowledge domain, launching in May, will encompass social sciences, humanities, practitioners, etc. And these are our inaugural knowledge domains.

We're just getting started.