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Surviving Sudden Environmental Change

Answers from Archaeology

Edited by Jago Cooper and Payson Sheets

Publication Year: 2012

Archaeologists have long encountered evidence of natural disasters through excavation and stratigraphy. In Surviving Sudden Environmental Change, case studies examine how eight different past human communities—ranging from Arctic to equatorial regions, from tropical rainforests to desert interiors, and from deep prehistory to living memory—faced, and coped with, such dangers. Many disasters originate from a force of nature, such as an earthquake, cyclone, tsunami, volcanic eruption, drought, or flood. But that is only half of the story; decisions of people and their particular cultural lifeways are the rest. Sociocultural factors are essential in understanding risk, impact, resilience, reactions, and recoveries from massive sudden environmental changes. By using deep-time perspectives provided by interdisciplinary approaches, this book provides a rich temporal background to the human experience of environmental hazards and disasters. In addition, each chapter is followed by an abstract summarizing the important implications for today’s management practices and providing recommendations for policy makers. Publication supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

Published by: University Press of Colorado


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

It is a genuine pleasure to provide this foreword to what will certainly become a key volume for the integration of the long-term perspective (longue durée) with present and future efforts to cope with hazards to the environment and human welfare. As Payson Sheets and Jago Cooper emphasize in their introduction...

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Chapter Abstracts

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pp. xiii-xxi

In the anthropological and archaeological literature, hunter-gatherers are often treated as victims of short-term environmental catastrophe and longer-term environmental change, responding to extreme environmental perturbations through adaptation or local extinction/emigration. The Kuril Biocomplexity...

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Introduction: Learning to Live with the Dangers of Sudden Environmental Change

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pp. 1-18

Human communities around the world are increasingly worried about the dangers of sudden environmental change. This book aims to illustrate how the full time depth of human experience can reveal the nature of these dangers and help build long-term sustainable societies. The diversity in human cultures across the...

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1. Hazards, Impacts, and Resilience among Hunter-Gatherers of the Kuril Islands

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pp. 19-42

This chapter explores hunter-gatherer vulnerability in the context of relative isolation and a highly dynamic natural environment. The setting is the Kuril Islands of the Northwest Pacific, and the data set is a 4,000-year record of human settlement and environmental history generated by the Kuril Biocomplexity...

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2. Responses to Explosive Volcanic Eruptions by Small to Complex Societies in Ancient Mexico and Central America

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pp. 43-65

Gilbert White (1945), a cultural geographer, pioneered the initial serious social science studies of natural hazards, disasters, recoveries, and mitigation. The field of hazard-disaster studies has grown impressively since then (Alexander 1997; Burton, Kates, and White 1978). David Alexander (1995, 1997) surveyed...

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3. Black Sun, High Flame, and Flood: Volcanic Hazards in Iceland

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pp. 67-89

Iceland is one of the most volcanically active areas on earth, but were it not for the description of the end of the world in the poem “Völuspá,” one might think volcanic activity made little impression on Medieval Icelanders. Volcanic eruptions are duly recorded in annals from the early twelfth century onward...

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4. Fail to Prepare, Then Prepare to Fail: Rethinking Threat, Vulnerability, and Mitigation in the Precolumbian Caribbean

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pp. 91-115

The islands of the Caribbean are a particularly interesting geographical region to examine the dynamic relationship between past human communities and sudden environmental change. This chapter examines how past peoples, living on the islands in the Caribbean Sea, were vulnerable to a number of...

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5. Collation, Correlation, and Causation in the Prehistory of Coastal Peru

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pp. 117-141

To the casual visitor and even many archaeologists, the mountains and deserts of Peru (figure 5.1) appear timeless and unchanging. Indeed, mountains are frequently metaphors for long-term stability and slow change: “how many years can a mountain exist, before it is washed to the sea?” asked Bob Dylan...

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6. Silent Hazards, Invisible Risks: Prehispanic Erosion in the Teotihuacan Valley, Central Mexico

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pp. 143-165

The prehispanic urban center of Teotihuacan (ca. AD 1–650) dominated the landscape of a watershed situated in the northeast sector of the Basin of Mexico (figure 6.1), a closed hydrological basin characterized in prehispanic times by a lake system that has since been largely drained and otherwise modified in...

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7. Domination and Resilience in Bronze Age Mesopotamia

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pp. 167-195

Although Mesopotamia has long occupied a prominent position in the public imagination, recent events—in particular, the military occupation of Iraq and the large-scale looting of museums and archaeological sites—have drawn the Iraqi present and the Mesopotamian past vividly into the spotlight. Images of...

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8. Long-Term Vulnerability and Resilience: Three Examples from Archaeological Study in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico

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pp. 197-221

Events during the last several years—such as Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the Southeast Asian tsunami, and continuing droughts in Africa—vividly illustrate the vulnerability of human society to environmental disturbances. That vulnerability lies in both the nature and magnitude of...

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9. Social Evolution, Hazards, and Resilience: Some Concluding Thoughts

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pp. 223-236

Hazards are everywhere. Somewhere in the world there is always some kind of environmental disaster at hand—and often many at once. Most of these disasters have an obvious social dimension: a forest fire in the suburbs gets a lot more attention than one in the wilderness...

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10. Global Environmental Change, Resilience, and Sustainable Outcomes

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pp. 237-244

It is increasingly clear that change is as “normal” a condition as stability when considering the condition of social-ecological systems. It is equally clear that knowledge of those systems must rely not just on the characteristics of the elements of the systems but equally on an understanding of the interactions among...


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pp. 245-247


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pp. 249-256

E-ISBN-13: 9781607321682
E-ISBN-10: 1607321688
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607321675
Print-ISBN-10: 160732167X

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 22 b&w photos, 6 line drawings, 9 maps, 1 table
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 775603907
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Surviving Sudden Environmental Change

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social archaeology -- Case studies.
  • Natural disasters -- Social aspects -- History -- To 1500.
  • Environmental archaeology -- Case studies.
  • Social change -- History -- To 1500.
  • Climatic changes -- Social aspects -- History -- To 1500.
  • Social evolution -- History -- To 1500.
  • Human ecology -- History -- To 1500.
  • Human beings -- Effect of climate on -- History -- To 1500.
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