29 January 2011

De-moralizing climate change: archaeology and the terraforming of earth

This month three major studies on historical climate change have hit the press. They all seem like great pieces of research and could help us rethink our twisted, overly moralistic approaches to dealing with the global climate change that is now in progress.

The most widely circulated was the work of a German-Swiss-Austrian-American team, who created a record of Europe’s summer climates for the last 2,500 years from tree-ring data. The database itself is a major accomplishment: they assembled over 9,000 samples to build the longest and most comprehensive dendrochrological record to date. (The process is fascinating - since Europe has no 2,500-year old trees, you have to find overlaps between rings in many different samples.)

Sampling a tree (Dendrodan)

The research, reported in Science Daily and Science, suggests that Europe’s climate was warm and stable in the period of the high Roman Empire (0-250 CE), and colder and changeable during the later Roman Empire and the Migration period (250-600 CE). Intuitively, this makes sense: running a stable empire is easier when your basic source of revenue (in the Roman case, agriculture) stays more or less the same from year to year, especially if you have to import huge amounts of grain to feed enormous cities like Rome, Alexandria, and Ephesus. While the authors themselves warn us about drawing cause-and-effect conclusions, newspapers were above such subtlety. The Daily Mail, for instance, asks “Was climate change responsible for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire?”, with the media's typical enthusiasm for finding simplistic, mechanical explanations for human events.

Model of a Roman grain ship (right). These babies made the Empire go 'round (Hotz Artworks)

The other two publications help us understand how complicated the story actually is. Researchers from Lausanne have created a climate model of the last 8,000 years that suggests that humans have been modifying the earth’s climate for at least that long, beginning with deforestation connected to the introduction of farming and the Neolithic revolution. The data show

a first major boom in carbon emissions already 2000 years before our era, corresponding to the expansion of civilizations in China and around the mediterranean.

Deforestation reduces the absorption of carbon in the atmosphere, burning wood adds it, and farming releases yet more stored in the soil - thus a big bump in atmospheric CO2, even without petroleum. It’s not entirely a one-way street, though: a significant decrease in global emissions began in the late 16th century, leading to a colder period in the 1700s and 1800s. Jed Kaplan, one of the researchers, speculates that this cold snap was connected to the destruction of Native populations of eastern North America by disease (at least 80% of the indigenous population of the Americas died between 1492 and 1650), leading to a swift reforestation of large areas of the continent and a reduction of atmospheric CO2. The sophisticated agricultural cultures of eastern North America used land a lot more intensively, and cleared more forest, than we learned about in school – something to think about the next time you have a fit of romantic yearning for a pure, ‘sustainable’, 'indigenous' lifestyle.

So what we see here is a more complicated relationship: people affected climate, and climate affected people, often in unpredictable ways. If Kaplan is right, you could say that for a minute, smallpox played a major role in regulating atmospheric CO2. It’s a depressing but accurate point: mass death reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Which brings me to the last of the three studies, reported with one of the most disgusting headlines I’ve ever read:

“Was Genghis Khan history’s greenest conqueror? The Mongol invasions scrubbed nearly 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere, according to surprising new research”

Aside from the science, such unbelievably idiotic rhetoric is why a lot of people hate environmentalists (though this ‘Mother Nature Network’ outfit, funded by Coca-Cola, General Electric, Coors, and Georgia-Pacific, seems like a disinformation operation to me). Genghis Khan and his predecessors destroyed a number of civilizations and killed (after raping and torturing) something like 40,000,000 people. Hulagu Khan’s gory destruction of Baghdad in 1258 was the worst thing to happen there until the recent American invasion.

Hulagu takes Baghdad (Wikimedia)

Of course, killing all those people means massive reforestation for a couple centuries, which takes a huge amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately the environmentalists’ tendency to treat carbon dioxide as an immoral substance lends a kind of triumphal air to discussion of genocide.

To be fair, the research itself (by scholars from the Carnegie Institution and the Max Planck Institute) seems sound and makes the important point, along with the other two studies above, that people’s actions affect the environment just as much as the environment affects us. It’s a complex relationship that can’t be reduced to simple platitudes like ‘climate change caused the fall of the Roman Empire’.

Understanding this dynamic is important. The debate about climate change has been immature and moralistic in a really counterproductive way. “The environment” is presented as a monolithic, passive thing that corrupt humans are “destroying” with their evil actions. This view flows directly from Christian mythology about original sin (the corrupt nature of humanity) and the Fall from Eden.

These myths have a deep emotional resonance for people of European-Christian cultural backgrounds but are a stupid – and misanthropist - way to approach climate change. If people are evil and reducing carbon dioxide is good, then one starts to flirt with genocide as a ‘moral solution’ to our ‘climate problem’. And indeed, some strains of Deep Ecology and ecological anarchist philosophy make exactly this point. Primitivist anarchists, like John Zerzan even go so far as to imply that language and symbolic thought are the origin of human “crimes against nature”, with the implication that the only way to “save the earth” is for us all to die, or stop being human. Despite the obvious self-hatred and borderline insanity contained in these ideas, they are extremely influential on the way people think about the environment in Western countries today.

John Zerzan's utopia: back to caveman grunts (image by SEAN)

Good archaeological and ecological research have an important role to play in countering this stupidity, and (if I may be so bold), redeeming humanity. The research above shows that as long as there have been humans, we have influenced the Earth’s climate and ecosystem. Human history has been one big terraforming project, and no ecosystem on the planet has been unaffected by human activities. In fact, many landscapes we revere as ‘pristine’ are actually the product of human interventions. Even that darling of conservationists, the Amazonian rainforest, may be anthropogenic: huge areas of human-created soils left by much larger pre-Columbian populations nourish the primary forests we seek to preserve today. Let that sink in for a second: your biodiversity hotspot is an ecosystem that was created in concert with humans.

Terra Preta, Brazil (Philip Coppens)
This story of human omnipresence in ancient ecosystems can be told about many places. I myself remember hiking up to a remote pass in the John Muir Wilderness – a zone legally off-limits to most human activities – and finding a giant scatter of flaked obsidian, remnants of a trading zone where people from the eastern side of the mountains came to trade good-quality stone for goods from the western side. That isolated, rugged place, marked off in our contemporary rhetoric of nature as ‘holy’, ‘untouched’, and ‘pristine’, had been a lively summer trading center some hundreds of years before. For me, it made it more beautiful to know that people had been there before, that the place had functioned as part of a social system as well as an ecosystem.

The fact is, we have coevolved with our home planet. It’s time to get over the idea that there is any ‘nature’ separate from ‘culture’. Archaeological evidence shows that humans are an integral part of Earth’s ecosystem and have been for a long time - and we will continue to be until we go extinct. The research also shows that stable climates make it easier to create stable and prosperous human societies. The question then becomes not ‘how do we stop hurting the earth’, but ‘how do we manage the climate for stability’? If we stop treating carbon dioxide like a new age Satan – invisible, omnipresent, fed by our sins – we improve the prospects for making progress on the real threat of climate instability. It's not a question of "saving the earth" (the earth would do just fine without humans) but of saving ourselves.

26 January 2011

World Heritage List now includes inequality

The Onion brings us the latest news from UNESCO:

PARIS—At a press conference Tuesday, the World Heritage Committee officially recognized the Gap Between Rich and Poor as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," describing the global wealth divide as the "most colossal and enduring of mankind's creations."

"Of all the epic structures the human race has devised, none is more staggering or imposing than the Gap Between Rich and Poor," committee chairman Henri Jean-Baptiste said. "It is a tremendous, millennia-old expanse that fills us with both wonder and humility."

The wealth gap, compared to some monuments (The Onion)

"And thanks to careful maintenance through the ages, this massive relic survives intact, instilling in each new generation a sense of awe," Jean- Baptiste added.

The vast chasm of wealth, which stretches across most of the inhabited world, attracts millions of stunned observers each year, many of whom have found its immensity too overwhelming even to contemplate. By far the largest man-made structure on Earth, it is readily visible from locations as far-flung as Eastern Europe, China, Africa, and Brazil, as well as all 50 U.S. states.

At first I was going to make a joke about how the wealth gap could be part of the Intangible Heritage list, which includes "traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors". Among which inequality is certainly one.

But although neoliberalism and postmodern urbanism have tried their best to make class differences literally intangible by making poverty invisible, the inability to see the wealth gap is a selective blindness, shared only by the rich. From the archaeological point of view, the unequal distribution of wealth in the 21st century will leave very tangible material traces, especially in the development contrasts between the global south and the global north. The wealth gap is indeed a 'structure' in the sense that it organizes people's ability to consume material things, where they can go, even the chemistry of their bodies. Archaeologists who find skeletons from our era will be able to infer class from the chemicals in our bones. A monument more visible (but hopefully not more permanent) than the great structures of the past.

24 January 2011

Archaeopop is now on Twitter

As you can see on the right hand side of the blog over there, Archaeopop now has a Twitter stream: @archaeopop. I'll be sharing things I think are interesting/funny/awesome but don't have the time or inclination to blog on in detail. Follow along!

p.s. I'm stoked that the archaeopop stream will go straight to the Library of Congress. Immortality!!!!!!!!

23 January 2011

A third archaic human population, and yes - we bonked them

The Denisova cave, Siberia (nsc.ru)

In the wake of recent news that a lot of us carry around Neanderthal genes, there's new evidence that a third species of modern human used to roam Eurasia. A couple small bones found in Russia's Denisova cave have mitochondrial DNA sequences that diverged from Neanderthals 640,000 years ago. Comparison to modern humans shows that Denisova people left a genetic legacy in the Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea - suggesting that they may have been a widespread population.
Where does that leave us? The big picture of recent decades—that modern humans evolved in Africa and spread from there, displacing all other populations—is still largely accurate. But the details are looking much more complex than they were just last year. Those other populations are suddenly seeming a lot more diverse, and they didn't go away without contributing a bit to the genetic diversity of the modern human population (Ars Technica).
That leaves us a recent family tree that looks something like this:

(Via Sciblogs)

The moral of the story? Sex. Modern humans got it on with Neanderthals and whatever other random types of humans they ran into on all those Palaeolithic wanderings across the steppes. Can we finally sweep the last remnants of racialist archaeology out the door now?!

Much more detailed analysis and updates at Discovery's The Loom blog.

22 January 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: a 3D documentary on Chauvet Cave by Werner Herzog

The Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave in France is one of humanity's oldest art galleries. Over 1,000 feet underground, the cave has hundreds of complex drawings of animals, monsters, and people from between 26,000 and 32,000 years ago - well into the Upper Palaeolithic.

Werner Herzog just finished a 3D film documenting the cave, and I'm wetting my pants with excitement. Check out the trailer:

3D is a brilliant choice for a documentary like this, for real. It even converted Herzog!
For Herzog, 3-D was the perfect tool to capture the drawings, since after all, the cave that held the drawings was akin to a modern-day theater or gallery where primitive people could view, by torchlight, this mysterious new form of art. "Once you see the cave with your own eyes, you realize it had to be filmed in 3-D," Herzog says. "I've never used the process in the 58 films I made before and I have no plans to do it ever again, but it was important to capture the intentions of the painters. Once you saw the crazy niches and bulges and rock pendants in the walls, it was obvious it had to be in 3-D."
Since the cave is not open to the public, this is an especially great service for all of us that would give an arm to get in there and see things like this:

The Chauvet website has reflections from the very limited number of people allowed to visit. Australian researcher George Chaloupka:
It is not surprising that every visitor to the Chauvet cave first comments on its dramatic setting and the great masterpieces of art within it. Although stylistically similar to Lascaux and other Magdalenian sites, the art of the Chauvet cave stands apart from others. Chauvet's complex compositions are executed over prepared rock surfaces, where pictorial depth is achieved through shading and the overlapping of subjects. The depicted animal species are drawn in firm, unfaltering lines, the charcoal having been worked into flat tints or skilled relief that provide a sense of depth.

Looking at the pride of lions streaking nominally across the wall, I wondered what Pablo Picasso, that old shaman of an artist, could now add to his comment about the art of Lascaux when visiting the cave soon after its discovery. "We have discovered nothing", he said about modern art and artists, for the artists of the Lascaux and now those of the Chauvet cave were magicians of aesthetic creativity.
Herzog himself has been obsessed with cave art since he was a boy, apparently:
As it turns out, when Nelson approached Herzog about doing the film, he was preaching to the converted. As a boy in Germany, Herzog had been mesmerized by a book about cave paintings that he saw in a store window. Practically penniless, he got a job as a tennis ball boy to earn enough money to buy the book. "I'd sneak into the store every week to make sure no one had bought it," he explained. "After six months, I had enough money to pay for it. The deep amazement it inspired in me is with me to this day. I remember a shudder of awe possessing me as I opened its pages."
I'm glad we get to share the awesome.

21 January 2011

Boy George Repatriates Looted Icon to Cyprus

The Greek Bishop of Brussels, and Boy George. Loltastic combination (BBC).

When Boy George learned his juicy 18th century icon of Christ had been looted from a church in Cyprus, he did the right thing, as the AP reported yesterday:
Boy George agreed to return the 18th century icon he bought from a London art dealer in 1985 after being presented with proof of its true origin, the church said in a statement posted on its Web site.

Boy George, who said he was unaware of the icon's history when he bought it, personally handed the icon over to Bishop Porfyrios in London on Tuesday. In return, the bishop gave him a modern icon of Christ as a token of gratitude and "with the wish that others soon follow his example."

The leader of the Cyprus church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, lauded the singer for doing the right thing.

"The moment he heard that the icon was stolen, I think that he did right to return it to the Church of Cyprus to which it belongs," the archbishop said. "We thank him and if he ever comes to Cyprus, we will certainly welcome him."

The church statement said Boy George expressed hope that the icon would soon be returned to the church of Saint Charalambos in the village of Neo Chorio Kythreas from where it was taken. The icon is now in Brussels and will return to the island later.

Good for George. The photo of this odd couple on either side of Jesus is fantastic!

Kythreas is in northern (Turkish) Cyprus, northeast of Nicosia. Since the 1974 military coup, Turkish invasion and civil war, the northern (Turkish) part of the island has seen systematic looting of its heritage, especially of Christian religious icons and frescos. Though even the Greek Cypriot government acknowledges that looting is problem on the whole island, the northern Cypriots should be ashamed that they've done such a poor job of protecting the Christian heritage of the region.

Boy George, of course, should also be ashamed of himself for buying looted art. London is one of the world's major centers for the trafficking of stolen art and antiquities, and even in 1985 there was enough information available for the savvy buyer to understand that most antiquities on the market were illicit. Nowadays, anyone who buys such a thing is simply colluding in the theft.

17 January 2011

Music to dig by: Delia Darbyshire, 'Tutankhamun's Egypt'

This spooky electronic number evokes the trumpeters of the Middle Kingdom.

Delia Darbyshire, 'Tutankhamun's Egypt'

Delia sets the mood with a sample of the 1939 BBC recording of one of Tutankhamun's trumpets being played, and then delves into her own take on the sound of the time. Great stuff. The great website dedicated to Delia notes that they're not quite sure how this recording came to be, but that it's probably from 1971.

Delia Darbyshire (1937-2001) was an electronic music pioneer, longtime staff of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and acquaintance or collaborator of artists including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pink Floyd, Brian Jones, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson. She's most famous for her recording of the original Dr. Who theme! If you're an electronic music fan like I am you should check out the work of the Radiophonic Workshop and the Delia Darbyshire tribute site: super coolness.

I had never heard about Tutankhamun's trumpets. (There were two, one silver and one bronze.) Apparently a British Army trumpeter named Tappern was recruited to play the silver one for a 1939 BBC recording, fitted with a modern mouthpiece. The trumpet immediately split and had to be patched, but Tappern got at least a minute of sound out of it. The bronze trumpet was played in 1939 and 1941 and survived a bit better. Here's the 1939 recording:

Pretty rad if you ask me, though the idea of the thing shattering makes me wince. Strangely, the links to this story take you deep into dead webpages from the mid-1990s, so I couldn't really verify these details. This short documentary tells the story in full if you're craving more:

Rice Krispie Stonehenge

Looks delicious. By Laser Bread, from the Boing Boing Flickr pool.