Geoarchaeology, Environmental History, and Causality

A very different intersection between anthropology and geography came about in the form of geoarchaeology, another integrative approach. Although geoscience applications to problems of dating, environmental reconstruction, and spatial organization in archaeology are common (mainly as 'archaeological geology'), and rapidly gaining in popularity, direct attention to the nature of the archaeological record is not. That record is a proxy for human biological and cultural evolution which identifies subsistence and behavioral patterns, encoded in artifacts and the like, that are embedded in sediments. Geoarchaeology can provide expertise to help evaluate the integrity of such associations, and place sites into a changing physical and human environment. Prehistoric and historical activities may not only disturb the environment, but they play out in space and time, at different scales and amid unstable conditions. The site and the region become the context for aggregate activity and of transformations such as domestication, land use, or adaptation, so as to restrict the realm of speculation about how change 'happens'.

Two corollaries follow. For one, parallel experience from cultural ecology can be applied to transcend deductive 'accepted truths' as to how 'degradation' is perceived and managed in other cultures. This raises caveats about purported cause and effect relations, specifically: (1) what is or is not a disturbed environment; (2) when do or do not people practice destructive land use; and (3) how judgmental is a 'conclusion' about cause and effect, given several environmental, social, and political factors that favor similar outcomes? A second question concerns the convergence of possible mismanagement, not with climatic shifts, but with unusual and recurrent weather events such as episodes of excessive precipitation. Do climate and weather cause, precondition, or trigger soil erosion, with or without nonconservationist land use?

The potential applications of geoarchaeology to interpret environmental history, evaluate longer term trends and predict scenarios for sustainability are considerable. Such research ultimately depends on close collaboration with archaeologists and promises new perspectives for the practice of environmental history. It also identifies interactive opportunities between cultural and political ecology.