What Makes Us Resilient?

In my last post, I highlighted archaeological research that showed that strong communities – local-level groups that worked together and maintained social ties – helped past societies weather major disruptions, delivering better outcomes for human health and prosperity and even helping sustain institutions above the local level. These are promising results for us, pointing to at least one practical way we can combat the effects of the pandemic. Working to support and maintain our communities now will help us come out of this pandemic in the strongest way we can. But the researchers’ conclusions also raise an obvious question – what are local communities doing or providing that contributes to their larger societies being resilient to a crisis?

There are dozens of books on resiliency from the past decade alone, but most focus on recent societies and institutions. Resiliency is a popular topic in archaeology as well, but many studies of resilience in the past focus on just one culture or time period. Here I will highlight an excellent cross-cultural study by Peter N. Peregrine, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Lawrence University. Peregrine examined 33 archaeologically known societies that weathered 22 environmental crises to test two hypotheses: did either local participation in decision-making or rigid social norms help human societies weather environmental crises? These two strategies have both been identified as sources of resilience in contemporary societies, but archaeology can test their utility in a broader range of cases. Again, the strength of Peregrine’s study is that it analyzes completely unrelated societies across large spans of time and space. As Peregrine puts it: “If a predictor of social resilience to climate-related disasters can be identified and applies to societies of varying scales and complexities throughout human history, then there is good reason to believe that it can be used to create interventions applicable today.”

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Inside the water temple of S. Anastasia in Sardara, Sardinia – a site of communal ritual for the Bronze Age Nuragic Culture

Peregrine trained research assistants to code ancient societies that faced severe environmental crises according to where they fell on scales of “corporate-exclusionary” (level of participation in decision making) and “looseness-tightness” (enforcement of social norms). They also coded how resilient the societies were by evaluating seven variables – population, health and nutrition, conflict, household organization, village organization, regional organization, and communal ritual – both before and after the environmental crises occurred. You’ll notice how many of these variables are similar to those used by the LTVTP-NABO collaboration I highlighted in the previous post, reflecting the basic kinds of human well-being we hope to be able to maintain even in crisis situations.

Peregrine found a positive relationship between resilience to environmental crisis and high levels of participation in decision making*. When leadership was more fluid and open to input and action at local levels, societies were more resilient, maintaining higher levels of well-being throughout the crisis. Peregrine found the opposite for enforcement of social norms, however; societies with strict enforcement of social norms were less resilient to environmental crisis. For the diversity of cultures and over the long time scales studied by Peregrine, rigid codes of behavior were detrimental.

A pandemic doesn’t pose the same challenges as an environmental crisis, but the importance of Peregrine’s findings is still apparent. One factor in creating resilience is broad participation in local decision making and a willingness on the part of higher levels of government to listen to local voices. It makes sense that local people are the often the first to recognize how a crisis is affecting their particular community and that they are likely to have useful ideas for how the crisis needs to be handled to maintain well-being in their area. The current pandemic poses unprecedented hurdles for average citizens trying to participate in governance, but it is essential that we find ways. Making local decisions based on local input is key to maintaining our well-being.

 

* I prefer to feature open access research so everyone can read and evaluate the work for themselves, but if you happen to have access to academic journals, I recommend the following archaeological and historical study. It reaches conclusions similar to Peregrine’s regarding the role of local-level knowledge and participation in decision making for achieving sustainable soil use in case studies of ancient Mediterranean agriculture.

Butzer, K (2005) Environmental history in the Mediterranean world: cross-disciplinary investigation of cause-and-effect for degradation and soil erosion. Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 1773-1800.

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.

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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. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0208060

** 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.

Archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus

This is my first post about my new research project ZANBA: zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age. This isn’t the post I expected or wanted to write. But none of us are doing what we expected or wanted right now. Fighting the pandemic is rightly taking precedence over our plans. So these days I’m sitting on my couch or looking out my window at empty parking lots and wondering – how do I “do” archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus?

I expected to be in the field right now, getting ZANBA off the ground: meeting with the Soprintendenza, discussing permits, reestablishing lab access, taking a look at the bags of animal bones I haven’t touched since fall 2018. I was hoping to revisit some of the monuments where I work so I could finish an article that’s 90% written. I was going to see my friends. The trip was going to be low pressure and exciting. It was going to be fun.

Obviously, that trip has been cancelled. I’m still seeing my friends, but it’s for virtual cocktails over Zoom. Our conversations only occasionally touch on work. They focus on concern for each other’s safety and heavy doses of encouragement.

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Lab training for ZANBA, on hold for the moment.

I arrived in Wales to begin my new project in early January, just days before the novel coronavirus was identified. In January, the feeling around me was of an emergency happening somewhere else. In February, the feeling was of a concern that would only seriously affect a few. In March, the feeling went from “this is probably overreacting, but…” to “this is a national health emergency” in a matter of days. On Friday, March 13, my university announced that in-person teaching would end after one more week. The following Monday morning, it announced that in-person teaching would end after Wednesday. By that Monday evening, in-person classes were cancelled and staff were encouraged not to return to the building on Tuesday. The world was changing fast.

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The world is changing fast, and it can be hard to grasp what a slow-moving discipline like archaeology has to contribute in a crisis. The logistics of excavation and survey mean it can take years to gather our primary data. The constraints of collaborative research, shared labs, and intermittent funding mean it can be years again before we publish our findings. Most of our work investigates people who died a long time ago. Realistically, should the public care at all right now what the archaeologists have to say?

YES. Archaeologists can answer some of the most important questions people are worried about right now. Not about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus (stay home, wash your hands!) but about what things might look like after. How do societies respond to crises? How do crises differentially affect cities, towns, and rural settlements? What happens after a crisis? How do societies recover – or not? How long does recovery take?

Archaeologists have experience interpreting a global dataset that stretches back 250,000 years. We’ve studied how a lot of human systems have contracted and collapsed, as well as how they’ve adapted and been reinvented. It may feel like archaeological information can’t be comparable to what we’re going through today – ancient people didn’t have jets and stock exchanges and the internet. But most archaeologists will tell you that the roots of resilience in the past are the same as those in the present: maintaining the flow of accurate information, good decision-making, robust supply chains, and a willingness to do things differently when necessary.

Many archaeologists are trained in an anthropological framework that encourages us to see ancient people as culturally different, but cognitively and biologically the same as we are today. This perspective means that archaeologists can’t fall back on the comforting but false idea that real crises won’t happen to us because we’re too smart, scientifically advanced, or technologically capable. Archaeologists know that ancient people were just as smart as we are, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that – no matter how smart we are – our human trajectory never goes endlessly up.

But we’ve also seen that dips in human trajectories vary widely in their aftermaths. Sometimes large-scale projects and long-distance communication all but disappear for centuries, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes people respond quickly and there’s a new period of growth. Sometimes the dissolution of sweeping hierarchies leads to more successful local systems. All kinds of outcomes are possible. Both individual and institutional responses matter, and adaptation is key.

The archaeologist who is my coauthor on the article that’s 90% finished is a specialist in photogrammetry. He’s currently adapting his skills to 3D print face shields for medical workers. We all have skills that can be adapted to the current moment. They may be as simple as the ability to keep ourselves entertained while staying inside, but these skills are saving lives.

We also have skills that will help us adapt to whatever future emerges from the current crisis. None of us knows right now how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be on our social networks, our economies, and our way of life. We’re taking this one day at a time. But as we move forward, consider talking to the archaeologists. Our case studies are different but relevant, and we’re trained to take the long view.

And please, please protect yourself and others by staying home and washing your hands!

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Documenting remains of the Nuragic Culture on the Siddi Plateau in 2019. Hopefully I’ll be able to return soon to finish that work!