Southwest pueblo-dwellers key to modern climate policy?

Feb 19, 2012

Vulnerability to climate change presents policy challenges to local, state, regional, national and international entities, particularly at a time when the public and policy-makers still struggle conceptually with the complexities of rising ocean levels, falling water tables and shifting ecoclines. How can we plan sustainably for an unknowable future outcome? Arizona State anthropologist Michelle Hegmon says, look back to simpler times.

Hegmon believes that there is power in the scope of our own and experience: "Anthropologists are able to humanize complex situations and ask what it was like to live in societies over long periods of time. Understanding more how different societies adapted to change and what it was like to live in those societies reveals ways to approach our own modern social dilemmas." She investigates these issues with an innovative approach that involves drawing on seven dimensions of human security developed by the United Nationals Development Programme. Hegmon has developed methods of applying these dimensions – originally intended to today's world – to understand human experience in the archaeologically known past.

A professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Hegmon's forward-thinking research focuses on decades of work she and ASU colleague Margaret Nelson have done in the Mimbres region of southwest New Mexico. The duo demonstrated that what had been perceived as the end of the Mimbres culture (the disappearance of a spectacular style of pottery) was actually a reorganization, in which people left their large villages, relocated to smaller hamlets scattered across the region, and began to make and use new styles.

Understanding what fueled past societies' resilience, the implications for future human security and how to apply that knowledge to modern times is the focus of Hegmon's talk "Socially created vulnerabilities and their human costs: Archaeological perspectives" at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

Hegmon's study of this transition offer lessons about the pressures that face societies in times of changing climate. One of the key issues, she notes is that "there are always tradeoffs." A policy that is good for the environment may be difficult for some people; an irrigation system that buffers people from fluctuations in rainfall may make them more vulnerable to floods.

Hegmon and her collaborators at the AAAS symposium are also applying this approach to broad comparisons that investigate a variety of past societies in the U.S. Southwest and in North Atlantic (including the Norse settlement of Greenland and Iceland). What unites these approaches is the researchers' concern with drawing on the past to help the future, their comparative perspective, and their explicit concern with the human experience in these societies' successes and failures.

"With the right methods and questions, these new methods can humanize our understanding of what it was like to live in other times and places," says Hegmon. "That knowledge, even if it isn't always rosy, is critical to thinking about and developing solutions for our choices during a time of climactic change."

"Anthropology gives scientists and policy-makers an edge, a new window to learn from the past," she adds.

Hegmon holds a doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of Michigan. She has worked on projects that range from the archeology of the American Southwest, to examination of feminist theory, gender and archeology. Hegmon is part of several transdisciplinary teams, including the Long-Term and Transformation Project funded by the National Science Foundation, and the North Atlantic Bicultural Organization (NABO). She is also the director of MimPIDD (Mimbres Pottery Image Digital Database), funded by the Turner Foundation.

Explore further: Conservation scientists asking wrong questions on climate change impacts on wildlife

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Linking human evolution and climate change

Feb 17, 2012

It’s not a take on climate change we often hear about. But Mark Collard, a Simon Fraser University Canada Research Chair and professor of archaeology, will talk about how climate change impacts human evolution at the ...

Archaeologists model past and future landscapes

Feb 20, 2011

Archaeology is a vital tool in understanding the long-term consequences of human impact on the environment. Computational modeling can refine that understanding. But according to Arizona State University archaeologist C. ...

Recommended for you

Selective logging takes its toll on mammals, amphibians

6 hours ago

The selective logging of trees in otherwise intact tropical forests can take a serious toll on the number of animal species living there. Mammals and amphibians are particularly sensitive to the effects of ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mochica
not rated yet Feb 21, 2012
Climate variation effects on ancient societies is discussed in C. Ortloff's Oxford Press book "Water Engineering in the Ancient World: Archaeological and Climate Perspectives on Ancient Societies of South America, the Middle East and South-East Asia