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Paleoenvironmental humanities: Challenges and prospects of writing deep environmental histories

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Abstract Environmental uncertainty, climate change, and ecological crisis loom large in the present and permeate scenarios of potential futures. To understand these predicaments and prepare for potentially catastrophic scenarios, there have been repeated calls to explore the diverse human–climate relations of human societies in the past. The archeological record offers rich datasets on human–environment articulations reflected in artifacts, ecofacts, and their relational entanglements. Much of these human–environment conjugations are, in the absence of written records, only accessible archeologically, yet that discipline has played little role in the “environmental turn” of the humanities or the climate change debate. In an effort to articulate archeological research traditions with these concerns, we frame the notion of the paleoenvironmental humanities (pEH): a deep‐time training ground for current ideas and theories on the interrelationship of human behavior, climate, and environmental change. The key objective of the pEH is to offer a rejoinder between ecological reductionism and the adoption of full‐scale environmental relativism, opening up new interpretive and comparative terrain for the examination of human–climate relations. We probe the potential of this perspective by drawing on insights from Pleistocene archeology. The long‐term temporalities of the Pleistocene, we argue, promote alternative imaginaries of the human–climate nexus and draw attention to similarly long‐term futures. We end our proposal with a reflection on the responsibility of archeological practitioners to balance hopeful narratives of human adaptability with those of societal collapse, countering the emergent linkage between climate skepticism and right‐wing nationalism, and to bring such issues to public attention. This article is categorized under: Climate, History, Society, Culture > Disciplinary Perspectives
Time‐depth and archives of the paleoenvironmental humanities (pEH). (a) Archeological periodization and landmarks in hominin behavior and material culture for the last 50,000 years. The colored bars denote major periods of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene in (i) the eastern Mediterranean, and (ii) northwestern Europe. The so‐called “Axial Age” (Assmann, 2018) denotes the near‐global dawn of modern philosophical and categorical thinking, with the appearance of thinkers such as Parmenides, Plato, Confucius, Lao‐Tse, Zarathustra, Buddha, and Upanishads. The numbered circles indicate selected Pleistocene innovations, transitions, and developments with important long‐term consequences for the course of human biocultural evolution (1: emergence of large‐scale conflicts; 2: broadening of subsistence behavior an economic intensification; 3: first ceramic technologies; 4: widespread adoption of geometric microliths; 5: first durable settlements with built structures and storage facilities; 6: experimentation with wild canids; 7: development of rich figurative art traditions; 8: first formalized organic industries; 9: emergence of specialized and standardized blade technologies). (b) Geochronological systematics and human earth‐system impacts. The blue/brown bars indicate the series and stages of the late Pleistocene and Holocene as defined by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS, http://www.stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics‐charttimescale) and following Cohen and Gibbard (2019). Note that the newest tripartite subdivision of the Holocene acknowledges the latter as a major climatic event harboring widespread human impacts (Walker et al., 2012). The white/gray bars denote Marine Isotope Stages (MIS). (c) Climate records and Heinrich events (H1‐5): (red) NGRIP Vostok ice core δ18O data reflecting temperature fluctuations across the Northern hemisphere (Rasmussen et al., 2006); (yellow) dust percentage recorded in West African paleooceanographic data from core MD03‐2705 (Skonieczny et al., 2019). (d) Geological, hominin and disciplinary timescales of >3 million years of human biocultural evolution: (i) temporal coverage of major humanities disciplines interrogating human behavior, culture, and adaptation; (ii) geochronology of the Quaternary and stages within the Pleistocene (Cohen & Gibbard, 2019, following the ICS (http://www.stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics‐chart‐timescale); (iii) paleomagnetic polarity shifts and corresponding stages (black: normal polarity; white: reversed polarity); (iv) succession of major archeological deep‐time periods. NEOL., Neolithic (Younger Stone Age); IUP, Initial Upper Paleolithic (ca. 50–40,000 years ago)
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Global climate record of the last 3 million years and key events highlighted in this paper (logarithmic timescale): (pink curve) ice‐volume variation as a proxy for global temperatures recorded in the so‐called “LR04” stack of benthic ocean floor δ18O (Lisiecki & Raymo, 2005); (1) Holocene–Pleistocene transition (ca. 11,800 years ago); (2) Last Glacial Maximum; (3) Eemian Interglacial (MIS 5e); (4) Middle Pleistocene transition (ca. 1.25–0.7 million years ago); (5) Holocene warming trajectory; (6) high amplitude climate variations within the last 1 million years; (7) Pleistocene cooling trend. Note that around 1 million years ago, climate regimes transitioned from 41,000 year‐cycles to 100,000 year‐cycles with increasingly rapid climatic oscillations between colder and warmer periods
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