The relationship between humans and the environment is a pervasive concern among politicians, activists, academics, and the public as a whole. Typically, this interaction is considered in light of the future: are humans over-exploiting the earth’s resources and leading human societies to a global collapse? Yet perhaps the answer to this question can be uncovered (or at least clarified) through the study of human prehistory. Our species, Homo sapiens, has inhabited this planet for as many as 200,000 years, all of which has been characterized by an intimate relationship with a diverse array of environments. Indeed, one of the most salient features of humanity is our adaptive flexibility in the types of environments we can inhabit as well as the types of foods we can eat. One of the strengths that archaeology possesses over other disciplines is the ability to survey the effects of environmental change on human societies over the course of thousands of years. Memory, oral history, and written history simply cannot catalogue environmental change in such a manner, giving archaeologists the opportunity to extend our gaze for how we shape the world around us. Archaeologists, climate scientists, geologists, chemists, botanists, zoologists, and geographers have all collaborated to reconstruct ancient environments and understand how 1) humans have transformed these environments and how 2) these environments have in turn altered human societies.
In this course, we will examine these two processes, and dissect how the environment has influenced human societies in prehistory. We will first consider the methods that archaeologists and other scientists use to reconstruct ancient environments. Such methods range from analogies derived from contemporary hunting-gathering groups, to understanding geomorphological processes, to reconstructing ancient plant lifeways. After having reviewed these methods, we will critically examine how archaeologists have applied these types of data to understanding human/environment interaction in the past. Topics will include the effects of natural disaster on settlement location, the extinction of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene, and the health consequences of the adoption of agriculture across much of the world. Finally, we will undertake a brief survey of several of the theories archaeologists have employed in their attempts to understand human/environment interaction. One of these theories focuses on the social and demographic collapse of societies in prehistory, which has been made popular by the ornithologist Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. We will examine Diamond’s arguments, and will explore counter-arguments and theories such as resilience theory, panarchy theory, and historical ecology. The debate on the nature of collapse and the resilience and adaptability of human societies will be utilized to frame and contextualize more contemporary debates on human over-exploitation of environments.