Paleo to the People: New Data and Novel Questions Challenge Conventional Historical Narratives of Past Societies and Climate
Dr. Amy Hessl
Professor of Geography
West Virginia University
Abstract: In the last several decades, paleoclimatology has made fundamental contributions to the study of past climate dynamics and has been instrumental in benchmarking anthropogenic climate change. While paleoclimatology has long been applied to the study of complex societies, the emphasis has generally been limited to societal collapse, leaving many other possible responses and interactions of past societies to environmental extremes understudied. Diverse historical narratives of socio-ecological change resonate with the public and expand the dialogue about climate change beyond environmental effects to social and cultural causes and consequences. In this talk I explore two case studies that demonstrate how new questions and new data sources expand our understanding of past climate and society beyond collapse. First, I review work on how two Asian steppe empires, the Uyghur and the Mongol, survived, and in some instances thrived, under extreme drought and moisture anomalies. Second, I describe how a new paleoenvironmental data source – historic log buildings – allow us to evaluate the extent and ecological impact of land abandonment by Indigenous Peoples of eastern North America following European contact. In both cases, paleo data challenge conventional historical wisdom and yield novel examples of socio-environmental interactions.