Resilience and sustainability in past societies

Our existing ongoing research continues to focus on three areas and periods in particular. Study of several other regions, in particular those represented by scholars from institutions other than Princeton, has complemented these three core zones. In each of these regions climate modeling has predicted likely future desiccation in those areas in all three zones that are prone to drought, making the careful study of historical conditions of very considerable importance for policy and practices in the future. Thus far, however, scholars have not attempted to integrate contemporary and future planning needs with historical analyses. This project thus addresses a range of concerns for contemporary governments. Such concerns illustrate very starkly the need for an interdisciplinary approach in order to develop common strategies and to collaborate in processing different types of data and evidence.

The three examples are as follows:

  1. The core regions being studied in western Eurasia are represented by the Balkan and Anatolian lands of the medieval east Roman (Byzantine) empire. The results of some work carried out in preliminary research by the project team have already been published Haldon et al paper; Byzantine Anatolia poster. The historical geography and landscapes of these regions has been the subject of a number of detailed studies, but only in recent years has collaboration between historians and environmental scientists begun to offer new insights. A number of archaeological projects, adopting an integrated archaeological-environmental approach, have made similar advances in understanding at a highly localized level. Byzantine archaeologists and historians are now beginning to take account of climate and environment as significant factors in their interpretations, and the present project hopes to make the incorporation of collaborative research a more widely accepted and indeed expected approach to the social and economic history of the Byzantine world. Combining all the data in a unified interpretive methodology the project aims to offer new, detailed and comprehensive narratives of the empire’s history.
  2. Contrary to Byzantium, in recent years the field of Ottoman environmental history has already produced a number of important monographs. Therefore, this initiative seeks to explore the synergy between the two scholarly communities who work on the history of the same regions, but under different historical circumstances. Moreover, the fact that the Ottoman world left a large number of archival sources – tahrir defterleri, or tax registers, court records, and many more – offers exceptional advantages in the pursuit of an integrated environmental-societal history. The documentary data provide detailed information on land-use, agrarian practice, and social phenomena in a specific region, town, or village, which can in turn be confronted with the scientific data on the past environments. As a result, Ottoman historians are able to study in detail the local societies responses and adaptations to climatic events, thus also providing comparative models and cases that can be used for the study of the Byzantine world, for which the available sources are usually not that numerous or detailed.
  3. The case of eastern Eurasia is especially significant. Although many studies have associated the demise of complex societies with deteriorating climate, few have investigated the connection between an ameliorating environment, surplus resources, energy, and the rise of empires. The 13th-century Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Although drought had been proposed as one factor that spurred Mongol conquests, no high-resolution moisture data was available for the period spanning the rapid development of the Mongol Empire. Recent research has generated a 1,112-y tree-ring reconstruction of warm-season water balance derived from Siberian pine (Pinus sibirica) trees in central Mongolia. This reconstruction accounts for 56% of the variability in the regional water balance and is significantly correlated with steppe productivity across central Mongolia. In combination with a gridded temperature reconstruction, the results indicate that the regional climate during the conquests of Chinggis Khan’s 13th-century Mongol Empire was warm and persistently wet. The period was characterized by 15 consecutive years of above average moisture in central Mongolia, coincided with the rise of Chinggis Khan, and is unprecedented over the last 1,112 y. It has been suggested that these climate conditions promoted high grassland productivity and favored the formation of Mongol political and military power. Tree-ring and meteorological data also suggest that the early 21st-century drought in central Mongolia was the most severe of the last 1,112 y, consistent with projections of warming over Inner Asia. Future warming may overwhelm increases in precipitation leading to similar heat droughts, with potentially severe consequences for modern Mongolia. By pursuing the climate history and environmental history of the Mongolian steppe from the medieval into the modern period, we plan to demonstrate yet another paradigm for socio-political transformation, contrasting with that in western Eurasia. The Climate and Ecology of the Mongol Empire 

By comparing and contrasting these three periods/areas, as well as several others, in respect of their varied social, economic, environmental and climate trajectories and histories, our project substantially impacts the development and application of the integrating approaches outlined above, both in respect of historical understanding as well as in terms of policy-making and planning for future change.