- Socio-Environmental Dynamics along the Historical Silk Road ed. by Liang Emlyn Yang et al.
The question of climatic influence on ancient human societies has been a focus of research in archaeology, history, and the environmental sciences for some time. A variety of methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks have been applied to the question as well, spanning environmental determinism, collapse narratives, complex adaptive systems theory, and political economy. In the volume Socio-Environmental Dynamics along the Historical Silk Road, editors Liang Emlyn Yang, Hans-Rudolf Bork, Xiuqi Fang, and Steffen Mischke bring together 22 wide-ranging chapters spanning these approaches, with a singular geographic focus to unite them.
The times and places encompassed by the "Silk Road" are rich and diverse enough in their geography, politics, and economic system to offer fascinating case studies that illustrate the variations in human-environment interactions. At the same time, the Silk Road, as an organizing concept, is flexible enough in its geographic and temporal definitions to allow for a broad exploration.
The main strength of this volume is the way it brings together an array of approaches for studying past socio-environmental dynamics. The individual chapters, some discipline specific and some more multidisciplinary, include studies in archaeology, history, historical geography, climatology, physical geography, art history, water policy, and others. The authors also approach the topic from a range of spatial and temporal scales. In the study of ancient human-environment interaction, there have been frequent calls to include more interdisciplinary work (Clarke et al. 2016; Rick and Sandweiss 2020; Ruddiman 2013). This volume contributes to that effort, living up to its title by presenting a truly "socio-environmental" approach.
The introductory chapter rightly emphasizes that the relationship between "climate, ecosystems, and societies" is "non-linear, complex, and variable over time" (p. 34). The editors and their coauthors in the Introduction call for studying "coupled social and natural evolution," moving beyond determinism to resilience, and linking climatic impact and social response into one interpretive framework. Given similar recent calls in the literature (Carleton and Collard 2019; Faulseit 2016; McAnany and Yoffee 2009; Redman 2005), this volume appears at an opportune moment as an example of such efforts. The reader can enter the book at any point and find interesting and well-written new material. Furthermore, the authors are all experts in their respective fields, yet the individual chapters are written in a way that is accessible to nonspecialists, a critical feature for a volume that covers so many different areas.
After the Introduction, each section of the book delves into a topic relevant to past socio-environmental dynamics. Part 2, "Landscape Evolutions in the Human-Environment System," contains five chapters that examine hydrology and land use patterns. These draw heavily on geological data, in combination with historical, paleographic, archaeological, and ethnographic data. In chapter 2, Fei and colleagues confirm the existence of saline lakes in the Guanzhong Basin of China over the last 2000 years and conclude that the lakes dried up as a result of a combination of climate change, silt sedimentation, irrigation, and land reclamation. Chapter 3 presents the findings of Mischke and colleagues; they argue that lakes in the regions surrounding [End Page 451] Han Dynasty territory in Northwest China experienced relatively wet conditions, while at the same time, lakes within the empire had decreased moisture availability and sometimes complete desiccation, suggesting that differences in lake levels were due more to human activity than to climate change. In chapter 4, Deom, Sala, and Laudisoit report multiple lines of evidence suggesting that the Ili River delta in Kazakhstan was settled earlier than previously thought, with two phases of settlement before and after 2000 b.c. Sala, in chapter 5, examines drops in the water level of the Aral Sea over the past 2000 years and concludes that the main driver of such regressions was the diversions of...