Climate Archaeology as a Tool to Combat the Climate Crisis

Sami Jaber
International Relations and Organisations student

HC Governance and Global Affairs

''This was an assignment where we had to write about a topic of our interest which was related to the course. Having discussed climate archaeology in the Honours Class of the Ancient Silk Roads, I decided to tie this theme with my degree programme in an attempt to resolve how climate archaeology could help combat the defining issue of our time: climate change.''

How can archaeological findings help shape the response to climate change?

More than other preventable existential threats to humanity, climate change is truly the defining issue of today’s generation. The world has never been closer to annihilation since the start of such measures (AP/ABC, 2020), and the main factor for this change has been the materialisation of the nefarious consequences of a disregard for our natural environment. Despite their scope, these impacts are not unprecedented in their nature. Several ancient civilisations grappled with environmental issues as a consequence of human behaviour, such as air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity. As in a range of policy areas, archaeological facts can advise decision-making, with historical case studies suggesting procedures to take, as well as the consequences of not doing so. Before being able to suggest tangible solutions to combat climate change inspired from climate archaeology, it will be necessary to explore the ways archaeological findings can generally help counsel policymakers, then, specifically, in relation to the climate crisis.

As the scientific study of human interactions with one another and their environment, archaeology offers great wisdom to contemporary societies. “Unprecedented” events and “new” phenomena are oftentimes mere repetitions of past happenings. If not directly related, a parallel can certainly be drawn in most instances between contemporary contentious policy areas and historical events for which archaeological evidence exists. Archaeology, thus, has the potential to enlighten decision-making processes by warning of the consequences of inaction, or improper action, as well as orienting policymakers towards a favourable course of action. These retrospective case studies bring invaluable insight as to the successes – or lack thereof – of measures taken by previous generations to combat issues with which we are still currently plagued. There are countless examples throughout history when the acquiring of a deeper understanding of historical events and ancient wisdom have led to the advancement of societies. One such allowed Europe to escape the Middle Ages and enter the Renaissance. Through heightened global relations, with trade networks such as the Silk Roads, as well as belligerent interactions like the Crusades, European scholars were able to rediscover ancient texts which had been lost by all but Arab societies. By maintaining and acquiring this knowledge through trade, Arabic civilisations were able to thrive during Europe’s Dark Ages. In rediscovering these texts, “Renaissance Europe evolved from the crusades” (Qadir, 2007, p. 545). Here, a previously backwards civilisation was able to enter an age of enlightenment through the discovery and study of ancient knowledge. The potential of history as a learning tool is not confined to the academic study of texts, but may be extended to suggest courses of action to key decision-makers. As exemplified by the rediscovery of ancient works by European scholars, due to increased global interactions and resulting in the enlightenment of European society, historical truths can directly shape current issue areas. The potential of historical and archaeological facts to better contemporary society is not confined to a single policy area, but, rather, is useful in most cases, forming a precious precedent to present challenges.


To accept archaeological evidence as a tool to implement the policies required to combat the climate crisis, it is necessary to question the issue’s framing as an unprecedented challenge. Researchers have been able to correlate the disappearance of lions from their historic spread to Roman settlements in the areas. Due to their high demand for the animals, notably as performers in gladiatorial games, Romans drove lions nearly to extinction, leaving only few specimens in specific regions which they had yet to colonise. Far from being incomparable, this phenomenon directly parallels today’s loss of biodiversity, insofar as human intervention led to the extinction of numerous species, or at least their disappearance from certain geographical areas. Though contemporary mass extinctions happen on a global scale, this is merely a reflection of the scope of interactions, whose globalisation has led to a globalisation of Humanity’s nefarious impacts on our natural environment. Heeding this warning concerning the risks to wildlife of over consuming natural resources could have prevented a major contemporary loss of biodiversity. Despite the threat posed by the scale and degree of current global warming as a consequence of human behaviour, a clear parallel can be drawn between today’s climate crisis and historical environmental challenges for which archaeological evidence exists. Though the scope of the catastrophe with which humanity is presently faced truly is unprecedented, its manifestations are undoubtedly paralleled, having been faced by ancient civilisations on a local scale. Climate change is, thus, a policy area in which archaeology has a significant role to play. Today’s globalised society faces the global threat of climate change, and must heed the warnings found in climate archaeology of ancient civilisations facing similar emergencies on a local scale. Further, it is also essential to learn from courses of action which were undertaken by past generations to face the precedented crisis of climate change, thereby releasing the full potential of this wisdom acquired over millennia of human evolution.

Having established that today’s climate crisis is indeed precedented, as evidenced by archaeological findings, it is now necessary to study the lessons which can be learnt from the experiences of ancient civilisations. The first main use of these resides in their signalling function. By studying the archaeological evidence for nefarious environmental impacts as a consequence of human involvement, policymakers can be informed of the consequences of abusing natural resources. Air pollution, for example, has been an ongoing issue for at least the past two millennia. Indeed, ancient Egyptians and Romans already grappled with waning air quality. As early as during the first millennium BCE, Egyptian kings and Hippocrates complained about fumes stemming from asphalt mines (Heidorn, 1978, p. 1589). Within a couple centuries, Seneca would describe Roman air as “oppressive” and “awful”, linking its quality with ailments and other adverse effects to his health (Seneca, 64, CIV [6]). In this light, it is undeniable that the correlation between intensive industrialism and other human activity with degrading environmental conditions has been known for millennia. This serves as a powerful testament to policymakers, and proves that the deterioration of air quality is in no regard a new phenomenon in consequence to the Industrial Revolution, but is rather an archaeologically proven consequence of Humanity’s privileging rapid economic development rather than sustainable evolution.

Similarly, the desertification of the Tarim Basin is another archaeologically-substantiated impact humans have had on their natural environment. As one of the major trade hubs of the Silk Roads network, extensive human passage is recorded in the region. To facilitate these trade networks and the passage of goods and people, vast deforestation was undertaken, in combination with extensive diversions of riverbeds. This, in turn, led to the disappearance of naturally-occurring water reserves stored in aquifers, which, resulted in the gradual desertification of the basin, and its subsequent becoming uninhabitable. Prudnikova (2019) directly concludes that “the main reason for the environmental change [in the Tarim Basin] is anthropogenic” (p. 157), establishing a causal link between human involvement and the desertification of the Tarim Basin, subsequently leading to it becoming uninhabitable despite having previously been a bustling hub of human activity. In this case, humans in the 4th century made a lasting impact on the environment, going as far as durably shaping its climate. More than temporarily degrading the quality of the atmosphere, as it is reported the ancient Egyptians and Romans did, traders of the Silk Roads rendered a previously relatively hospitable region entirely uninhabitable, desertifying the extent of the basin through deforestation and the rerouting of rivers away from their natural destination.

Finally, the previously-mentioned extermination of lions from areas under Roman control warns against another environmental consequence of human actions. In this example, as seen before, the presence of Roman settlements directly correlates with the absence of lions from their historical habitats. Researchers attribute this correlation to the high Roman demand for lions in circuses and gladiatorial jousts, which suggests that ancient empires made an entire species of animals extinct from the land under their control. This, once again, directly parallels contemporary human impact on our natural surroundings, reflecting today’s daily extermination of a range of species throughout the world. Here again, the consequences of previous human intervention could have served as a warning to nowadays’ policymakers of the impact overexploiting wildlife has. By systematically exterminating wild lion populations, it is likely that entire ecosystems were upset, as the removal of top predators – lions in this case – allowed other species to proliferate. Thereby, further than merely almost rendering a species extinct, ancient Romans disrupted natural equilibria and meddled with the occurrence of fauna. Being conscious of this would have been empowering at the start of the Industrial Revolution, making it possible to prevent enormous loss of animal life as a consequence of human intervention.

The main lesson to be retained by policymakers from archaeological warnings concerning anthropogenic climate change, is certainly that action is warranted far earlier than it is generally believed to be. In all three of the cases discussed previously, no significant measure was enacted, which led to terrible consequence in all instances. As in ancient times – and as we are beginning to see today – failure to implement meaningful policy will undoubtedly lead to a loss of air quality, the desertification of enormous swathes of land, and the depletion of biodiversity. The implementation of policy should not be reactionary. Rather, to meaningfully reverse the nefarious impacts of human behaviour on our natural environment, decisions must be taken before the issue becomes pressing, and even more so before it becomes an existential threat. Naturally, from the perspective of key decisionmakers, there is little incentive to act in such a manner, as electorates are likely to not yet be convinced of the threat and utility of such measures, and it is simple to delegate action upon later generations. However, it is this behaviour that prevents sustainable growth from occurring, and represents the very lesson which policymakers must learn from archaeological findings. For millennia, delayed action has led to loss of biodiversity, habitability, and air quality. In this situation, archaeologists clearly have a role to play in advising and shaping policies, as the wisdom they unearth should – and indeed needs to – be heeded by today’s society – not tomorrow’s. As is already the case with scientists from a number of fields, archaeologists should be invited to integrate advisory boards to governments and other policy-making bodies to provide an invaluable perspective relying upon millennia of human history and evolution. The role of archaeological facts not only relies with decisionmakers, but with the general public too. By educating civilians as to the warnings and lessons to be learnt from our shared history, archaeologists have the potential to allow citizens to understand the need for the measures taken by the government, or the need to make the government take them if it does not do so independently. The contribution of archaeology is, thus, essential to the global response to the ongoing climate crisis. By educating decisionmakers and citizens alike, researchers can share the wisdom acquired over all of human history, as well as underlining the consequences of inaction when it comes to climatic issues.

In sum, as in a range of policy areas, archaeological facts can – and indeed should – counsel and orient governmental decisions. As anthropogenic environmental deterioration is undoubtedly not a novel or historically-isolated phenomenon, a number of lessons can be learnt from history. Ancient loss of air quality, habitability, and biodiversity, were all due to inaction on the part of key decisionmakers, and repeating these errors of the past will invariably yield the same consequences. The role of archaeologists is thus twofold. On the one hand, they must educate those in charge of initiating policy to motivate the implementation of measures to combat and reverse climate change. They must, too, educate civilians, in order to prompt them into holding their leaders accountable, and applying pressure on the latter to enact meaningful policies to combat one of the greatest preventable existential threats to Humanity.


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