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Felix Riede

The palaeoenvironmental humanities: challenges and prospects of writing deep environmental histories

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Against the background of increasing environmental uncertainty, rapid climate change and widening ecological crisis, there have been repeated calls to explore the diverse human-climate conceptions and relations that characterise human societies past and present. The vast majority of these past human-environment relations are only accessible archaeologically, yet that discipline has played little role in the ‘environmental turn’ of the humanities. The archaeological record offers rich, long-term datasets on human-environment articulations reflected in material culture and its relational entanglements. The environmental humanities, emerged as an intellectual flagship site over the last decades, have not only challenged traditional ways of writing human history as divorced from the environment, they also insist on an ethical engagement of the humanities disciplines with climate change quandaries. In an effort to articulate environmental archaeological research traditions with the environmental humanities, we here frame the notion of the palaeoenvironmental humanities: a deep-time training ground for current ideas and theories on the interrelationship of human behaviour and environmental change, and for helping us to refine our understanding of the scale-dependent ecological effects and consequences of this behaviour. The key objective of the palaeoenvironmental humanities is to offer a rejoinder between ecological reductionism and the adoption of full-scale environmental relativism, and in doing so to open up new analytical and interpretive terrain for the investigation of human-environment relations in the remote past. We exemplify the fruitfulness of this perspective by briefly outlining the potential role of archaeology in establishing the evolutionary preconditions of the ‘Anthropocene’, in assessing the dynamics of path-dependent developments in material culture over thousands, sometimes millions of years, and in bringing such issues to public attention through museums. We end our proposal with a discussion of the implications of an eco-critical archaeology and a reflection on the responsibility of archaeological practitioners to balance hopeful yet both conceptually and analytically flawed narratives of human adaptability with evidently apocalyptic ones.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWIREs Climate Change
ISSN1757-7799
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2020

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