Archaeology vs. COVID-19

Last week, I argued that archaeology has something useful to say in this time of Coronavirus. This may seem like a bold assertion, even to other academics. I wonder how many of my colleagues in economics, sociology, and psychology see archaeology as a social science like their own disciplines. I wonder how many people in general look at today’s problems – be they Coronavirus or climate change – and think “let’s ask the archaeologists.”

I’ll be the first to admit that my argument needs to be supported by evidence before anyone should take it seriously. So that’s what I intend to do: provide evidence that the broad human past gives us valuable insight into what we can and should do now. I’ll focus on open access studies that anyone can read, and I encourage everyone to read the originals and assess for yourselves whether these are good evidence for the contemporary relevance of archaeological insight.

My first piece of evidence is an article* by Michelle Hegmon and Matthew Peeples on behalf of the LTVTP-NABO collaboration. The Long- Term Vulnerability and Transformation Project (LTVTP) focuses on archaeological cases of social transformation in the arid and semi-arid United States Southwest and northern Mexico. The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) focuses on cases that took place in the subarctic and arctic North Atlantic. Together, the LTVTP-NABO collaboration examined 18 examples of major social transformations as varied as the end of the Norse occupation of Greenland and the depopulation of the Mesa Verde region. The geographical, environmental, chronological, and cultural diversity of the cases studied suggests that any strong patterns probably hold true for human societies generally: that is, they point to specific ways that all human societies tend to respond to stress.

The researchers coded a broad set of variables, from institutional breakdown and depopulation to human securities**, migration, household organization, and changes in material culture (the archaeological catch-all term for “stuff”). The researchers then performed correspondence analyses among these different variables to identify meaningful relationships.

Figure 3 from the cited article showing correspondence analysis of all human securities variables. Red and yellow cases have higher levels of breakdown.

Their results are fascinating and the paper is worth a detailed read, but some of their conclusions feel particularly relevant in the current crisis. First, there is a strong relationship between the breakdown of institutions and a decline in human securities. No one is an island: nobody thrives when we let our sustaining institutions crumble. How we get food, how we receive medical care, and how we keep interpersonal violence in check are all embedded in institutional systems. If those systems fail, we’re likely to suffer. We’re witnessing severe stresses on some of our systems right now as they struggle to keep up with the demands created by the current pandemic.


The hopeful part of the study is that the researchers identified communities and community security as strong predictors that social transformation would be less painful. If communities remained strong – if they didn’t disintegrate under the weight of social transformations – people experienced less food insecurity, less interpersonal violence, and less death. The researchers also found a positive feedback loop – strong communities could bolster institutional security, preventing or dampening the major institutional collapses that were found to be disastrous in the less fortunate cases. The authors conclude: “We must consider the people’s experiences because what happens at the local level can stabilize society, can augment people’s capabilities for contributing in positive ways, and thus can help avert disaster.”

I’m probably not the only one who’s found herself reaching out to friends she hasn’t talked to in years to check on how they’re doing in this crazy situation. It turns out this normal human impulse may have a practical benefit. Cross-cultural, cross-temporal evidence reminds us that our communities make us resilient. Strong communities protect and provide and care for us when larger institutions falter and can even prop up those institutions until they recover their footing. Community-building in the time of Coronavirus may not look like it used to, but it’s one of the smartest things we can do.


* Hegmon M, Peeples MA, on behalf of the LTVTP-NABO collaboration (2018) The human experience of social transformation: Insights from comparative archaeology. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0208060.

** The researchers followed the United Nations definition of seven types of human securities to assess human security broadly: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, political.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 839517.​