GRG 382K (Same as ANT 382N)


Are we having an unusual winter? Why are we having an unusual winter? Why is the explanation so complicated? After all that, why aren’t we “sure”? Does that mean we don’t know? Of course not, it simply means that complex issues have complex answers. As scientific understanding increases, we inevitably learn that there are more, relevant variables than originally anticipated, and their ranking in terms of importance has to be adjusted. We also begin to appreciate that clusters of potential variables can come together to either accelerate an anomalous shift or dampen it, and such feedbacks may override the generally dominant variables.

This is how research in the observational realm works. It is cumulative and incorporates increasing complexity, benefits from fresh models, such as systems, introduces new processual relationships, such as El NiƱo, and becomes cognizant that both time and space, and at multiple scales, will modify the answers to a battery of differently focused questions. In the 160 years since European settlers arrived in Matagorda Bay, understanding of Texas winter weather has incrementally improved, stimulated by repeated innovations of observational methodology (e.g. weather recording and its telegraphic transmission; airplane observations; satellite photography) and analytical frames (barometric gradients, frontal theory, jet stream dynamics, global teleconnections of systemic behavior). Through all this, the epistemelogical criteria for “knowing” and “evaluating” continue to evolve and change.

In this sense, evolution is not a “theory” but a method, that represents cumulative understanding. An equally fundamental focus of interest –since ancient Greek times– has been the interrelationships between people and societies with their environment. People live on this planet as a part of its biological and physical evolution; they occupy environments and use selected resources; they impact both, but they are also “constrained” by them, so that people/societies CO-EVOLVE with their environments. Each adjusts or “adapts” to the other, in continually changing ways in which the key variables shift, and feedbacks at unpredictable times speed up or brake ongoing changes. Although people are part of, and one with “nature,” the “creative tension” between people and the environment poses one of the oldest intellectual challenges, and one that carries into the future in the guise of “sustainability.”

Sustainability is primarily a temporal concept or concern, that attempts to project past human behavior and environmental/resource use/exploitation into a current or synchronic overview, for further analytical evaluation, with a view to proposing alternative future scenarios. But we still imperfectly grasp “sustainability,” much like Texas weather only began to be understood after the World War II revolution of meteorology and climatology. There still is a way to go.

A critical part of this imperfection is the superficial way in which we try to characterize human/environmental relationships in a temporal or diachronic perspective–whether it be a century, a millennium, or ten millennia. There is a superabundance of uninformed but “authoritative” talk, either rooted in obsolete “paradigms” or simply opportunistic. As a result, the picture is as muddied as that of greenhouse gases and current, global climatic change. The problems are very real and critical, but the noise level of “opinion” is unproductive.

This interdisciplinary course addresses the principles and applications of Environmental History, directly linking contemporary issues of land degradation and ecological change to archaeological themes such as settlement and land-use histories. Geoarchaeology and related biological investigations allow empirical testing of popular hypotheses about the environmental impact of pastoralism and different agricultural systems, based on the principle that “historical monitoring” is essential to understanding processes and their consequences. Regional examples with different time-frames are critically examined from the Mediterranean Basin, the Near East, Mesoamerica, and Australia. These illustrate the potential of both archaeology and environmental history to re-evaluate neo-ecological assumptions about ecological transformation, degradation and sustainability.


  1. Methods of earth science, biological, archaeological and archival investigation to monitor and interpret environmental change over time;
  2. Transformation, equilibrium, degradation and sustainability during ten millennia of agro-pastoral settlement in the Mediterranean world;
  3. The ecological grounding of civilizations in the Near East and questions about environmental claims for civilizational change or collapse;
  4. After 1788 – the myth of landscape destruction in Australia;
  5. After 1492 – the impact of European land-use practices in the New World, versus indigenous use of the land.
  6. Applications to recent global climatic change.


“As the Holocene progressed, environmental change increasingly occurred on a regional basis. This complexity in Holocene climate makes distinguishing natural from anthropogenically altered climate a formidable task.” (Science 270 [1995] 1963)