Our biggest news this month is that the Global Climate Change Task Force (GCCTF) has been selected for a School for Advanced Research Seminar; we will be at SAR in October to spend a week summarizing three years of effort, to culminate in an AAA policy statement draft. GCCTF members have also been contributing to an ongoing series entitled “Why Climate Matters.” These short editorials have been published in various venues; most recently, Rick Wilk’s piece appeared in the Huffington Post, while Shirley Fiske’s editorial was published in CounterPunch earlier in the year.
A reminder to all of you working on climate change issues…the time is now plan for sessions to submit for the upcoming AAA meeting in Chicago, and the climate-change-anth listserv is a great place to recruit like-minded others. Right now, the task force is working on a number of ideas for Chicago. In addition to scientific sessions, we are considering a more open-ended roundtable to obtain feedback from the wider anthropology community.
Introducing Task Force Member Lisa Lucero
This month’s column introduces archaeologist Lisa J Lucero, professor in the anthropology department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lisa became interested in climate change began through her research on Classic Maya (c 550-850 CE) political systems. History has shown again and again that climate change can and does have a major impact on political fortunes. For a rainfall-dependent society like the Maya, changing rainfall patterns dramatically affected agricultural regimens, the intricate water containment system, and ultimately Maya kingship. In short, said Lisa, “I realized it was not possible to understand Classic Maya politics without understanding how a major basis of their power (controlling access to massive artificial rainfall-fed reservoir systems) was impacted by changing climate, in this case several multi-year droughts.” This realization was brought home with further comparative studies, past and present, solidifying her growing interest in identifying lessons from the past that have relevance at present.
“I realized it was not possible to understand Classic Maya politics without understanding how a major basis of their power (controlling access to massive artificial rainfall-fed reservoir systems) was impacted by changing climate, in this case several multi-year droughts.”
Until relatively recently, Lisa’s research focused on trying to understand everything having to do with Classic Maya political systems, from excavating commoner farming houses (ie, subjects) to excavating public arenas (eg, ceremonial buildings and plazas) where rulers engaged their subjects. She has documented what happened before, during and after the advent of rulership, a trajectory closely tied into rainfall patterns, agriculture and water containment. Because this was a rainfall-dependent society, at one level, everything in Maya society related to seasonal issues, such as wet and dry seasons, predicting the seasons, tropical storms, hurricanes, annual drought. But, says Lisa, “more recently, I have turned to identifying actual evidence for climate change and how people responded to it.”
Since 2010 Lisa has organized several diving expeditions to explore Cara Blanca pools or cenotes (steep-sided sinkholes fed by the water table) in central Belize. The Maya considered water bodies as portals to the underworld or Xibalba, into which they left offerings. Ritual deposits from the hundreds of caves throughout the Maya area, another kind of portal, indicates ritual intensification at the end of the Classic period (c 800-900 CE) to supplicate the rain god Chaak and other supernatural entities in response to several multi-year droughts that struck the Maya area between 800 and 900 CE, and that the same likely occurred in water bodies. Divers have brought up offerings (artifacts) and paleoclimate data (shells, fossils, sediment cores) from several cenotes. Combining climate and ritual data offers the prospect of exploring how past peoples responded to climate instability.
Lisa has expanded the scope of her research on the impact of climate change to other tropical regions. Since 2007, she has been collaborating with Roland Fletcher (U Sydney), director of the Greater Angkor Project in Cambodia. As Lisa notes, “while the city of Angkor is at least 15 times the size of the largest Maya center of Tikal in Guatemala, kings of both faced similar challenges living in the humid tropics: noticeable wet and dry seasons, maintaining massive reservoirs during the dry season as well as water quality, coping with climate instability, to name a few.” And while there are noticeable differences between the Late Classic (c 550-850 CE) Maya and the Khmer kingdom (c 800-1300 CE), it is the similarities that are even more striking, and these have a bearing on addressing today’s issues regarding water quality and sustainable agricultural practices. The most glaring similarity is the fact that political histories are much more subject to the vagaries of changing rainfall patterns than farmers. The simple fact is that farmers in Cambodia and the Maya lowlands continue to practice similar subsistence strategies that their ancestors have for millennia, while political systems have transformed several times.
In terms of anthropology’s role in engaging with climate change, Lisa feels that it is incumbent for all of us to reach out to the general public. As she points out, “anthropology tells the human side of the story, and such an approach is better able to reach and teach people the importance of dealing with, for example, climate change.” For this reason, Lisa has been working for the past several years with Vernon L Scarborough (U Cincinnati). This collaboration began several years ago when he invited her to contribute a chapter on lowland Mesoamerican water systems to a UNESCO multi-volume series on water for public policy makers all over the world. He also heads the Maya group of IHOPE (Integrated History [and Future] of the People on Earth), of which she (and GCCTF member Carole Crumley) is a member. IHOPE is an international organization that seeks to draw on insights from the past regarding the relations between humans and the environment to promote a more sustainable future. In her latest collaborative endeavor, Lisa will work with Vernon and others on a new Wiley-Blackwell online international journal due out in 2014, WIREs Water.