Changes in the focus of archaeology are seeing it shift from a study of past civilisations to one that informs the future. By Lauren Fuge.

Future archaeology

Forest and fields surrounding the Zomba Plateau in Malawi.
Forest and fields surrounding the Zomba Plateau in Malawi.
Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

When Dr Alison Crowther looks at how archaeology has transformed over the past century, she sees a discipline of the past gearing up to tackle the problems of the future. “We’re no longer treasure hunters,” the University of Queensland archaeologist says, “looking for lost cities and gold masks and Tutankhamun’s riches”.

Instead, archaeology’s long-term view of human history can provide a degree of historical perspective and help us understand how we arrived at the present. It may even equip us with the knowledge to move further into the Anthropocene, the era in which humans have become shaping forces of nature, dominating the Earth’s systems on unprecedented scales.

This is the argument Crowther and colleague Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany put forward in a recent article in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Archaeology, the authors say, can place our current problems into a deep time perspective. Although the rate, scale and nature of changes is vastly accelerated today, humans have been transforming ecosystems for tens of thousands of years – recent research shows, for example, that forests in Malawi, Africa, have been modified by humans for at least 85,000 years. A deeper, more profound understanding of human history may shed light on how our problems came about – and inform how to manage them. Crowther – who specialises in archaeobotany – gives the example of the complicated choices we face around conserving ecosystems.

“What is the pristine environment that should be conserved today?” she asks. “At what point do we say that a system has been modified by humans and is today a relic of centuries of human impact, versus something that is purely natural and pristine?

“A lot of environments … have been managed for so long that it would be almost counterproductive to try and revert them back to their prehuman ‘natural’ state.”

Around the world, we can find many examples of past cultural and technological practices and solutions being revived to address pressing environmental and land management challenges. These include mobilisation of ancient terra preta (anthropogenic dark earth) technology, revitalisation of landesque capital (long-term landscape investments) and adoption of traditional fire management regimens.

Archaeologists work to uncover a record of the myriad ways humans have lived over millennia, as well as understand their resilience and problem-solving skills in the face of formidable – and now familiar – challenges such as overpopulation, resource scarcity and climate change.

Even sustainability in cities could benefit from some retrospection.

“Humans have been urbanising for millennia,” Crowther says. “If we look into the past, there are some beautiful examples of how people have urbanised in a way that is sustainable and more resilient to shocks to the system.”

Examples include the low-density, agrarian-based cities of Mesoamerica, South-East Asia and the Amazon, where intensive agriculture was practised within urban areas – with domesticated gardens and agricultural fields between households.

“These early dispersed agrarian cities offer more sustainable, food-secure models of urbanism that are less dependent on fossil fuel and more resilient to food supply shocks resulting from, for example, pandemics, conflict or climate change,” Crowther and Boivin write.

Transferring this to a contemporary context, Crowther points to the disruptions caused by Covid-19: “Ridiculous quantities of our food today come from outside of Australia, or even long-distance within Australia, whereas if we were able to take some cues from these ancient cities and create more localised agricultural environments, we’d be a bit more resilient.”

Currently, about 90 per cent of humans’ plant-based calorie intake is supplied by just 20 domesticated species, many of which are grown in regions to which they’re not well adapted. In the past this wasn’t the case. Archaeology has discovered an array of “lost crops”, such as millets, which are naturally drought- and heat-tolerant cereals that were cultivated across sub-Saharan Africa before Westerners brought in maize.

This knowledge isn’t just something we can take on board in the future – changes are being made now.

“There have been some wonderful stories in eastern Africa where I work,” Crowther says. “Kenya in recent years has been particularly troubled by drought, and a lot of farmers have been reverting back to growing sorghum and canola – they’ve abandoned maize, and they found that it’s had a huge impact on their food security.”

The archaeological record can also inform us about how past peoples responded to problems such as environmental pollution, water management in arid environments and global climatic changes.

“Humans have already conducted the long-term experiments for many of these problems and solutions, to see what does and doesn’t work in a particular time in a particular place,” Crowther says. “If we ignore all of that evidence and all of that information and just restrict ourselves to our contemporary technological capacities, then we are missing out on a lot of opportunities to innovate and find better solutions to today’s problems.”

While Crowther admits there’s still an element of truth to the clichéd image of archaeologists going to “exotic countries to dig up human remains and lost cities”, that’s not the day-to-day reality for most archaeologists.

“The real nitty-gritty archaeology mostly takes place in the lab these days,” she explains.

Most archaeologists now spend short bursts on digs followed by months in the lab analysing their findings, a change driven by the rapid development of technology.

Over recent decades, the discipline has gained access to techniques such as stable isotope analysis, which can look at bones or teeth to give insight into an individual’s diet or environment. Another game changer is ancient DNA, which can recover genetic information from millennia-old remains. This recently helped discover a new human species, the Denisovans, from DNA extracted from a few sparse remains, including a 50,000-year-old finger bone found in Siberia.

“The big breakthrough, of course, was radiocarbon dating,” Crowther says, because it bestowed the ability to put an accurate time frame on archaeologists’ findings. “Without chronology, archaeology is just a palimpsest of bones and potsherds [broken ceramics] and other remnants of past peoples.”

Dating methodology is still improving in novel ways – such as dating lipids from food residue in pottery or single amino acids found in bones.

An even bigger change in archaeology is its acknowledgement of its colonial roots  and recognition of its limitations. Researchers today are often working to involve Indigenous peoples in producing and managing data, which can open conversations about different ways of interacting with the environment.

“Fire, for example, is an incredibly important way of not only promoting biodiversity within different ecosystems, but also reducing biomass that leads to the kinds of disruptive bushfires that we saw in recent years in Australia,” Crowther says.

Incorporating Indigenous perspectives into environmental management systems – as Australia has begun to do – can be hugely beneficial.

Now, in the age of the Anthropocene, everyone from farmers to policymakers to urban planners could learn from the potential solutions – and warning signs – of the past.

“We’re not saying we need to go back in time and become like people living thousands of years ago,” Crowther says. “We’re just saying that there are ways of living that are different to how we live today that we can use as models for the future.” 


This piece was produced in collaboration with Cosmos.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 7, 2021 as "Future archaeology".

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Lauren Fuge is a physics graduate and journalist at Cosmos.

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