My husband turned to me recently and lamented, “Have you seen what is happening in Italy right now? It’s like the Middle Ages!”
Today one-third of the global community is “sheltering in place” in their homes as we try to reduce the spread of COVID-19. My husband was referring to the moment when the number of confirmed cases in Italy had reached 17,000 and news reports were already describing the anguish of families as funeral homes refused to collect bodies of the dead. Today they have more than 115,000 cases. The total number of cases globally exceeds one million.
This situation seems extreme until we take a long view of human history; for example, the Black Death pandemic killed about 30 million people in Europe from 1347 to 1352. History and archaeology are important sources of information about the biocultural and social experience of past diseases, historical and socio-cultural factors that shape the spread of pathogens, and how changing human-environmental interactions contribute to the risk of emerging infections. Bioarchaeology—contextualized analysis of ancient human remains—does have limits; our data do not provide accurate mortality rates or precise chronology, for example. But within those limits, bioarchaeologists are currently focused on looking to the past for nuanced perspectives on a whole suite of major challenges facing human populations today, including pandemics. Here are a few things we have learned so far.
Four major challenges to the survival of our species
Emerging infections are part of a changing demographic trend in human health. Currently, we are amidst the third such epidemiological transition—rising rates of nutritional insufficiency, degenerative conditions, and emerging and re-emerging pathogens are becoming substantial sources of morbidity and mortality. This is largely due to modernity; the past 150 years brought us modern medicine and antibiotics but also antibiotic resistance, sedentism, poor diets, and obesity. Public health consequences of the epidemiological transition will be exacerbated by anthropogenic climate and environmental changes, which will also have direct and indirect effects on human health. Climate change is also contributing to the sixth mass extinction—a biological annihilation that is rearranging life on Earth and will have negative impacts on ecosystem functioning and the maintenance of civilization (see Barnosky et al. 2011; Ceballos, Ehrlich, and Dirzo 2017). These end-stage consequences of industrialization and global capitalism will fall disproportionately on the world’s poorest communities due to rising urbanism and social inequality, which exacerbate human health concerns. Bioarchaeologists like me work at this nexus of environmental change, human health, and infectious disease.
Anthropological perspectives on these topics are critically needed for planning and policy making at the highest levels of global governance. Currently, global planning bodies are working on their responses to climate and environmental change and public health concerns. Unfortunately, these professionals don’t typically rely on archaeology to inform their decision making. Instead, planning discourse is shaped by the human security field, and those scholars cite Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker when they need an “anthropological” perspective on “human nature” in the face of environmental catastrophe and civilizational collapse (see Robbins Schug, Parnell, and Harrod 2019 for more on this topic). Dangerous misconceptions abound. For example, many planning documents belie assumptions that resource scarcity, social inequality, and environmental migration will inevitably lead to increased inter-personal violence and civilizational collapse. This perspective is responsible for a dangerous narrative at the Department of Defense that the United States should do whatever it takes to “win decisively” and prevail over those that would challenge our supremacy in the world (ibid).
Bioarchaeology provides an antidote to determinism
Let’s examine the claim that climate change will invariably lead to environmental migration, competition for resources, interpersonal violence, and societal collapse. Bioarcheological research shows that although mobility can be an important strategy for coping with environmental change, climate change does not always lead to migration and migration does not always lead to violence. In some cases, drought and socio-political changes have been triggers for large-scale migration (for example, Beekman 2015). Sometimes increasing mobility in a period of changing environment has also been associated with an increased level of socio-political instability or interpersonal violence (for example, Tung et al. 2016). But in other cases, societies form cooperative alliances with other communities for exchange and resource redistribution (see Harrod and Martin 2013). There are also numerous examples where environmental change and increasing mobility were not associated with interpersonal violence and situations where climate and environmental change were associated with decreasing mobility.
Human skeletal remains also demonstrate that climate and socio-economic changes often lead to resilience in human communities but persistence often includes various forms of suffering. My colleagues and I have researched human-environmental interactions over the past 4,500 years in South Asia. We have found tremendous variation in the experience of climate and environmental change in urban versus rural, agrarian communities. During the 4.2ka event in Pakistan and northwest India—when monsoon rainfall patterns were disrupted—increasing aridity initially stimulated people to move from the hinterlands to cities such as Harappa (c. 2200–2000 BC) to take advantage of economic opportunities. However, after centuries of climatic changes the Middle Asian Interaction Sphere crumbled, South Asian cities began to deteriorate, and these cities were eventually abandoned (c. 1900 BC).
Although interpersonal violence, infection, and infectious diseases were rare at the height of this urban period, they became much more common in the skeletal remains of people who stayed in these cities during the “post-urban” period. Climate change, social instability, and sanitation issues may have played a role. Mortuary treatment—the way bodies are treated after death—suggests the risk for interpersonal violence and disease was shaped by social inequality. Violence, in this case, was not associated with migration but rather was experienced by those who, for whatever reasons, were unable to (or chose not to) emigrate from the urban areas (see Robbins Schug 2017).
While the relationship between migration, violence, and climatic changes is complicated, there is a clearer relationship between climate change and patterns of infectious disease. In the case of the Indus civilization, leprosy and tuberculosis first appear in South Asia during the period of rapid urbanization and extensive cultural contact. The mortuary treatment for individuals suffering from leprosy demonstrates this highly disfiguring condition was differentiated and possibly ideologically signified early on in South Asia’s history. However, there is no evidence that the disease or its sufferers were stigmatized or outcast in the third millennium BC. Instead, the mortuary treatment suggests efforts were made to ameliorate the effect of the disease on the journey to the next life. Unique mortuary rites were afforded one middle-aged man at the site of Balathal (Robbins et al. 2009) and individuals buried in a late period cemetery at Harappa (Robbins Schug 2016).
In contrast, in a rural context, the human experience of resilience in the face of environmental crisis was one of slow suffering. Environmental changes one thousand years after the end of the Indus civilization led to a different set of strategies and very different outcomes in rural west-central India. For people living in small villages in the present state of Maharashtra (2200–700 BC), environmental changes after 1400 BC threatened their mixed economic system—farming of wheat, barley, rice, lentils, peas, and gram plus hunting, gathering, and keeping livestock. By 1000 BC, the majority of these settlements were abandoned. Human remains from one town that remained occupied demonstrate a rise in infant and childhood skeletal emaciation, stunting, and osteopenia. Life expectancy at birth plummeted and the population eventually either moved away or also perished (see Robbins Schug and Goldman 2014; Robbins Schug 2011).
Planning for a warmer world requires knowledge about humans as biological organisms, our deep connection to the complex web of life, and Earth’s ecosystems. More importantly, it requires a recognition of the essentially biocultural nature of the human organism. To imagine the full range of possibilities and impacts of climate change and environmental crises, particularly in terms of the human response to these kinds of events, requires a look at the past for clues.
Broadly speaking, bioarchaeology demonstrates that there are no grand narratives in human history. Small-scale societies are often resilient in the face of environmental change; mobility, flexibility, and adaptive diversity are a largely successful strategy for avoiding negative consequences (see for example, Berger and Wang 2017; Temple and Stojanowski 2019). Complex societies, in contrast, are often much more rigid and they are built on social inequality. When these large-scale societies overshoot—undergo rapid population growth and practice unsustainable agricultural overproduction in the context of rapid climate and environmental changes—those who are resilient and who survive the short-term crisis may experience other forms of suffering (see for example, Robbins Schug, Parnell, and Harrod 2019; Tung et al. 2016).
Bioarchaeological research on human health in the context of global climate change demonstrates that sometimes the social and cultural changes that people employ in the short term may ultimately not be enough to buffer them from the long-term consequences of environmental change. Yet the story told by the human security literature of climate change always leading to migration, competition, violence, and collapse is overly simplistic. It is up to anthropologists to demonstrate the importance of historical, social, and cultural forces in shaping human perceptions of climate change, decision making, and the consequences of different choices over the long term. These considerations are vital if we are to respond, adapt, and thrive.
Illustrator bio: Charlotte Hollands is an illustrator, artist, and ethnographer who is fascinated with the power of hand-drawn images to reveal and describe complex truths. She is developing new ways to use illustration within social science research and is currently completing her first graphic non-fiction book, written by Alisse Waterston.