Modelling Across Millennia

Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.  (Gould 1989; p. 14).

How can we attempt to understand the complexity of life today when we cannot run repeated experiments on the evolution of life? If we could go back to the beginning, would we find that each evolutionary change was contingent upon the previous step? Would stochasticity make every new run of the “tape of life” completely different from the last?

Of course, actually replaying the evolutionary tape to answer these questions is impossible, but through the use of agent-based modeling we may be able to run experiments on a system to understand how the “tape of life” created the complexities we see today.  By exploring the behaviors of agents the modeler can deduce what occurred in real systems. These models allow scientists to study systems in space and time, which are often too large and too long for more traditional measures of study. How to understand Big Data is a problem (see this article for a discussion of Big Data issues) but agent-based modeling provides a way to not only generate that big data, but with proper use, sort it and answer questions of interest that only Big Data can answer.

Repeated calls have recently been made to apply agent-based modeling to contemporary affairs to not only understand crises as they unfold, but also to anticipate them (e.g. see Buchanan 2009; Cabrera 2008; Epstein 2009).  Archaeology is essential for these efforts. It provides that long-term view that a myopic study of our modern problems cannot truly address.

In a 2012 special issue of Ecological Modelling, several archaeologists put forth their uses of modeling to understand past societies, and I would argue, these studies help us further our understanding of current problems. Their geographic regions span from the U.S. Southwest to the South Pacific, the Mediterranean to Mongolia. Crabtree and Kohler provide a good background to the models presented in the issue. They say:

“Modelling of ancient socio-ecological systems is in its infancy. Problems to be faced include both the incompleteness of data imposed by the archaeological record, and the difficulty of developing satisfactory frameworks for characterizing the behavioral plasticity of humans and the evolvability of the cultures they create. We do not pretend that all the problems are yet satisfactorily addressed, but we believe it is important to begin, nevertheless. Traditionally, humans have relied on culture to provide them with a framework for addressing current problems. But as contemporary societies lose their traditional cultural knowledge, archaeology provides our best hope for deriving lessons from ancient cultures to address today’s problems. These articles report on our attempt to build a capability to study the past in ways that make it useful for thinking about our future.  While we may not be able to “wind back the tape of life” archaeology and agent-based modelling offer us new ways to understand human/environment interactions, providing us with a clearer picture of what may have occurred.”

These articles address such issues as the fragility of human existence in unstable environments, how humans can construct their own niches to better survive in these environments, and how small decisions can have dramatic effects to society.

With agent-based modeling still in its infancy in archaeology, this issue of Ecological Modelling should be of special interest to archaeologists, ecologists and modelers alike. It shows how important ABM can be to understanding archaeological systems, and reports fully on five distinct uses of ABM in archaeology. Importantly, it collates these studies into one easily digestible package, and allows for comparison of the different modeling approaches.

To read the articles:

Crabtree and Kohler, summary and intro

Rogers et al. on pastoral Mongolia

Murphy on Hohokam irrigation

Kohler et al. on Ancestral Puebloans and the Village Ecodynamics Project

Kirsch et al. on Hawaiian intensive agriculture

Barton et al. on Mediterranean environmental change

The full issue is here

–Stefani Crabtree


Buchanan, Mark

2009   Meltdown modeling: Could agent-based computer models prevent another financial crisis? (News Feature) Nature 460(6):680-682.

Cabrera, Derek, James T. Mandel, Jason P. Andras, and Marie L. Nydam

2008    What is the crisis? Defining and prioritizing the world’s most pressing problems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(9):469–475.

Epstein, Joshua M.

2009   Modelling to Contain Pandemics: Agent-based computational models can capture irrational behaviour, complex social networks and global scale—all essential in confronting H1N1. (Opinion) Nature 460(6):687.

Gould, Stephen J.

1989   Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.  W. W. Norton and Company. New York.


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