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Background: The climate and history debate

Although the impact of climate and environmental stress on human social organization has been debated for many decades, natural scientists have joined the discussion only recently. This is a direct result of a dramatic advance in the availability of relevant data, new analytical and interpretive methods, and new questions. This has enabled historians and archaeologists to ask new questions or to deploy statistical and quantitative data provided by science in new and innovative ways. More importantly, the data currently available is of a quantitatively and qualitatively higher order than anything available before, facilitating a closer relationship between the natural and social sciences. Yet substantial issues of interpretation and method have until very recently remained unaddressed. Crucially, accusations of climatic or environmental determinism as well as oversimplification of the causal connections between societal transformation and environment make it necessary to rethink how social and natural sciences can collaborate without ignoring the principles of research and analysis upon which both are founded.

Both the eastern Mediterranean and Mongolia have attracted particular interest among scholars studying the mechanisms of social response to climatic changes. These regions are important because they combine a large degree of environmental diversity with a rich human history involving major world empires and civilizations. Anatolia, the Balkans, the Levant and China/eastern Eurasia offer ideal comparative material for this type of research, because here both intensive nomadic pastoral and agricultural regimes existed on territories whose hydrological balance has always been extremely precarious. Consequently, several debates have emerged among historians on the link between climate and society. Some of the most noticeable are the so-called Roman Warm Period (or the Roman Climatic Optimum) impact on the rise of the Roman Empire, of similar phenomena for the rise of the Mongol empire in the 12th-13th centuries, and about the nature and societal impact of the so-called Medieval Climate Anomaly or of the Little Ice Age in western Eurasia and in particular during the 17th-century crisis within the Ottoman empire.

The issue in these debates lies in the fact that interpretations remain largely hypothetical, grounded in temporal correlations between the different types of evidence (textual, archaeological, palynological and palaeoclimatic) that in fact do little or nothing to demonstrate causal relationships between the observed phenomena. At the same time, the conclusions reached often have dramatic implications for research agendas in both the social sciences and in climate and environmental science. A central question regards the resilience of a given socio-cultural system. The degree to which its political structures, its economic relationships and its cultural habits respond to environmental stimuli becomes of crucial importance. More importantly, the mechanisms through which the impact of such environmental pressures or stresses are mediated should become the focus of attention. Different cultural systems produce different responses and often indicate varying degrees of socio-economic and political flexibility or resilience.

Why this should be the case is one of this project’s aims. Although climatic fluctuations did not cause major societal collapse in the Byzantine-Ottoman Balkans or Anatolia directly, they did impact upon the social and political order of the Ottoman state or the later Roman world in the West. In contrast, developments on the steppe and North China during the medieval period and more recently have been affected much more dramatically. Some social systems adapted positively to environmental challenges; others did not. Particularly intriguing is evidence that suggests that in some contexts societies or states were able to create incentives powerful enough to maintain specific agricultural strategies in spite of adverse climatic conditions, thus reducing the impact of climatic changes on local environmental histories.