Tag Archives: complexsystems

Grand Challenges in Archaeology, or, How archaeology (and complexity) can save the world

photo by Nate Crabtree photography

Few issues beg for urgent attention more than the possibility that the Earth cannot support continued population growth and increased use of limited natural and energy resources. But how common has been the problem of societies outgrowing the resources available to them given their technical capacities? Why do societies collapse? (Kintigh et al. p. 7)

As a species we have become increasingly aware of the great dangers that are facing us. Climate change, political unrest, food scarcity… these issues are talked about daily in the press. And like the threat of nuclear winter during the Cold War these issues provide an ever-present (and rather unpleasant) umbrella for a lot of discourse. (Unlike the Cold War we don’t get the security blanket of practicing “duck-and-cover” drills under our desks; how does one duck and cover from a melting icecap?) Scientists are addressing these challenges by studying them, which can then help inform policy. But since these issues have only recently been undertaken with scientific rigor, how can we truly understand human groups’ reactions to such challenges?

Enter archaeology. While many lay-people associate archaeology with excavation (which we do), or Indiana-Jones style adventures (which we rarely have), archaeology is rapidly moving to become a field that uses the study of past societies to help anticipate future challenges. To do this, archaeologists have begun using sophisticated techniques developed in the hard sciences to address our unique suite of problems. For example, instead of looking at a pot and describing its artistic characteristics, we now can analyze this pot for how it was interconnected in a larger sphere of exchange, inferring the social relationships that came with the trade of this pot.

In a recent article from a working group at the Santa Fe Institute, Kintigh et al. describe what they see as the biggest issues that archaeology can uniquely address. They list five main categories:

  1. Emergence, Communities and Complexity
  2. Resilience, Persistence, and Collapse
  3. Movement, Mobility, and Migration
  4. Cognition, Behavior, and Identity
  5. Human-Environment Interactions.

Each of these five points sounds like a talking point for a modern UN conference on world affairs.

By using complexity science, archaeologists can use the rich record of the past to better understand, for example, why cities collapse, or how large populations in the past dealt with food scarcity. While these societies were not as technologically advanced as what we have now, the underlying structure of human groups is sufficiently similar that this knowledge can potentially help us to anticipate key events.

Kintigh et al. don’t provide a road map of how to accomplish this research, but use this as a call-to-arms to mobilize our efforts. Likewise, the article does not provide a theoretical framework for complexity approaches in archaeology, but provides a unifying thread of what research questions may be the most important for archaeology to address.

Through careful approaches of agent-based modeling, analyzing the networks of human interactions, and critical approaches to understanding the scalar nature of many systems (power-laws, increasing returns to scale), as well as many other approaches from complexity science, we can use the past to better understand our future.

Kintigh et al’s article, Grand Challenges For Archaeology, will appear in American Antiquity 79(1) 2014 in the Forum section and a shorter version on PNAS here.

–Stefani Crabtree