Past answers to current concerns: Historical cases of navigating socio-environmental stress

SESYNC Pursuit (National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, University of Maryland)


How did environmental and climatic changes, whether sudden high impact events or more subtle gradual changes, impact human responses in the past? How did societal perceptions of such changes affect behavioral patterns and explanatory rationalities in premodernity? Can a better historical understanding of these relationships inform our response to contemporary problems of similar nature and magnitude, such as adapting to climate change? Our Pursuit uses two rich historical case studies from the premodern Mediterranean and north Atlantic worlds to interrogate the linkages between different types of socio-environmental (S-E) interaction over decadal and centennial scales. We consider the possibility of socio-environmental asymmetries in which different degrees of socio-political complexity and population density precondition the potentials for inherent resilience under climate stress. Thus, whereas aridity may not necessarily indicate negative societal change, for example, and beneficial climate conditions may be favorable in the relative short term, they may at the same time support ultimately unsustainable economic pathways in the long term. While the environment could be a major factor in S-E systems, it is never sufficient to explain change by itself, and climate impacts cannot be determined by climate conditions alone. By synthesizing historical, archaeological, and natural science-derived data our Pursuit illuminates these interactions and disentangles a range of causal relationships that generated the historical outcomes we can see in our data, identifying in the process factors that contribute to resilience and those which introduce vulnerabilities. By analyzing these societies as complex adaptive systems, we hope to contribute to contemporary thinking about societal-environmental interactions in policy and planning. Our research group brings together a diverse and interdisciplinary team of scholars (historians, archaeologists, ecologists, palaeoscientists and risk analysts, among others) from North America, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East to establish a common methodologically-innovative framework that may be applied to both the study of the past as well as to broader scholarly and public science discourse.


Research into socio-environmental (S-E) resilience is dominated by the natural and social sciences, whereas historians have so far had only limited impact on these discussions. Most historical research has focused on social systems and social impacts and has exploited almost exclusively textual evidence. Collaboration between historians and palaeoscientists faces a series of substantial methodological and practical challenges because each has different approaches to causal relationships (Adamson et al. 2018). At the same time, a lack of awareness among policy-makers of the complexity of past socio-environmental interactions has often led to misguided strategic thinking and failures in planning for resource management as well as longer-term development. In light of current concerns about environmental degradation, making policy-makers more aware of the results of relevant historical research, for example in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. #11: sustainable cities and communities) can benefit society.

The first plague pandemic (541-ca.750 CE) demonstrates the problem. The historical sources are contradictory; ancient DNA studies have identified the epidemic as plague and traced its spread to locations that are not covered by the written sources; scientists have shown the impact of significant hemispheric cooling, potentially contributing to the pandemic’s spread. Yet neither archaeology nor palaeoenvironmental surveys have found evidence for significant impacts, and mathematical models of infectious disease have ruled out at least some of the supposed outcomes of plague. Collaboration is thus essential to evaluate and synthesize the different types of evidence. Determining the effects of historical plague has direct current-day implications for estimating the probability and effects of the potential threat that might result from, e.g. climatic change or bioterrorism, and can be communicated to decision makers as a form of risk assessment.

Conceptual framework

This Pursuit brings historians/archaeologists and scientists together in effective dialog, despite their distinct working methods and data, to investigate case-studies designed (a) to show the variety of responses to environmental challenges among pre-modern societies, (b) to identify structures and strategies that promoted resilient or sustainable pathways (as well as those which did not), and (c) to engage the attention of stakeholders in environmental planning and policy (see Data, methods and questions below).

Our research will:

(1) identify tipping points in historical S-E systems over multiple time-scales by focusing on significant socio-environmental episodes and examining culturally-determined responses and their outcomes. As the examples above (plague) and below demonstrate, this framework allows us to evaluate risk and re-appraise notions of decline and collapse.

(2) illuminate the socio-cultural constraints acting upon a society, in particular its belief systems and worldviews. A better understanding of how these intersect and impact on social and political action call attention to the variety of successful human responses to environmental stress.

(3) generate a common framework for asking questions about past responses to environmental challenges and reveal the complexity of causal relationships and interactions, revising existing interpretations of historical processes.

All these points are reflected in the case of the 7th-century eastern Roman empire, one of the few known cases in human history in which a large society underwent deliberate simplification (Tainter 2017). A closer examination of overlooked historical and palaeoenvironmental data indicates that earlier government policies alienated the population, resulting in the loss of most of the empire’s territories to external enemies. In parallel, seemingly adverse environmental changes led farmers to introduce new crops. Pushed to the brink of collapse, the state adjusted its tax policy in response, eventually restructuring its elite. Concurrent to this administrative and economic simplification, the state promoted new ideologies that led the population to re-identify with it. Preliminary research has therefore shown that the supposed environmental conditions of the period contributed in fact to the persistence, rather than the demise, of the Roman political system.

(4) use past evidence to contribute to contemporary discussions and inform current concerns, allowing us to explore the causes and effects of long term sustainability (as, e.g., in the case just noted). The past also provides examples that allow present policy makers to adjust their risk assessments and initiate public action. By way of example, another interdisciplinary research team examined historical-archaeological-scientific material in a single site and found physical evidence for the impact of a major tsunami in the sixth century. It communicated its findings to the Israeli authorities, who had never considered a Mediterranean tsunami as a serious threat since no such event occurred since the foundation of the modern state. In response, the Israeli government began incorporating tsunami scenarios in their risk assessments including, e.g. the formulation of emergency plans and increasing public awareness.

Case studies

We used four criteria to select our case studies: 1. the availability of substantial overlapping and accessible historical, archaeological and proxy palaeoenvironmental datasets; 2. the availability of sufficient data to examine how dominant narratives within each cultural belief-system determined societal action; 3. the potential for the integration of these data within a Complex Adaptive Systems framework to show how societies responded to a range of short- and long-term environmental pressures; 4. relevant expertise of the proposers and their research team.

The selected case studies are representative of general phenomena, since in each area there are continuities in types of environmental stress from past to present. In the case of the NE Mediterranean both environmental stress (past and present climate change, including increasing aridity and hydrological stress threatening future agrarian output and infrastructure, and a high frequency of natural hazards) and social stress (poor planning and human infrastructure in the present; raids and population movement in the past). For the N Atlantic, a more marginal ecological niche presents challenges of sustainability, in particular in the context of social stress in the form of demographic expansion and increased pressure on natural systems.

The first case study investigates S-E interactions in the northeast Mediterranean during the late ancient/early medieval period (ca. 400-950 CE). We examine differential responses and adaptation to disasters and environment stress, and how contemporary societies developed distinct attitudes towards risk and disasters. We analyse the strategic choices, belief systems and/or resilient practices that facilitated the survival of both state and society while facing multiple and repeated stressors. Populations in Syria, for example, assumed that saints’ relics could protect their cities from earthquakes and went to great efforts to collect these relics instead of pursuing responses such as adapting building practices to cope with the seismic risk. Despite its irrationality from a modern perspective, this alternative belief system nonetheless contributed to the survival of urban society in the region by maintaining cohesive communities during recurring destruction.

Our second case study, the Norse north Atlantic, focuses on a smaller but more dispersed society, far flung across coasts and islands from Norway to Greenland and Newfoundland over ca. 900-1450 CE. Over this period, the Norse established flourishing settlement communities despite major logistical challenges (e.g. lack of timber for ships in Greenland) and learned to exploit local natural resources sustainably. The Pursuit will explore what made the Norse successful for so long in challenging environments, and what combination of factors led to their society’s eventual retreat from the furthest extents of their expansion (Newfoundland and Greenland). Answers to both questions would provide valuable examples that nuance contemporary debates about societal adaptation and the sustainablity of human settlements within larger networks. They would also assist in envisaging cases of managed retreat which increasingly appear inevitable today, and inform policy makers and the general public which variables might influence the social and economic success of such relocations today. Good risk management requires knowledge of worst-case situations and outcomes, yet our lack of understanding of these in the past severely limits our ability to fully consider the range of possible options for the future.

Data and methods

Data (see Table 1 below and appendix)

Contemporary & near-contemporary written sources

Approaching historical documents requires answering complex questions regarding authorial bias, factual reliability, selectivity, subjectivity, date and purpose of composition etc. Such answers are rarely susceptible to quantification, so historians have developed and refined qualitative methods of analysis. Some of the objects of our analysis, such as belief systems and ideologies, must be reconstructed from these sources, or from scholarly works that have already analyzed them. There is no single repository for all this varied material, although there are partial catalogs relating to specific languages, source types, topics, areas and periods. All source material is accessible through academic libraries; much remains untranslated and in the original languages (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Old Norse etc.), requiring specialist knowledge to decipher. Historians and archaeologists focus on specific temporal and spatial contexts during their training and professional careers, and these constraints determine the selection of case studies we can examine in a critical manner.

Material cultural evidence

Substantial archaeological data from excavation and regional field surveys inform on settlement patterns, demography, urbanism, communications networks, fortifications, diet, commerce and exchange, land-use and artisanal production. No single database exists, although many survey projects and excavations, as well as museum collections, are accessible online while others are accessible in print through research libraries. Expertise in a specific premodern culture is required.

Proxy environmental data

Proxy environmental data can inform us on land-use, landscape change and demographics (e.g. through a substantial and growing pollen database) and climate (esp. oxygen isotope analysis, lakebed sedimentology and speleothem analysis, dendrochronology). Natural scientific datasets that deal with palaeo-environmental change are more organized and accessible than the datasets produced by archaeologists and historians. Much of this data has appeared in relatively standardized publications and online repositories (e.g. NOAA 2019). Scientific material also includes increasingly nuanced socio-environmental modeling tools, upon which we will draw.

Synthesis methods

Qualitatively different types of data and methodologies (see table below) will be collated to optimize the information available for our analysis and permit cross-validation of interpretations using independent methodologies. Such a synthesis minimizes the range of interpretive options in understanding the interaction between ‘anthropogenic’ and ‘natural’ complex systems, disentangling the causal associations between them. Historical case studies that combine all the different types of data in the context of environmental change are rare, so our synthetic approach designs research questions in which experts from different disciplines can contribute at an appropriate level and with appropriate data. It also addresses, through collaboration, issues of chronological and spatial scale and resolution to ensure dataset compatibility. This ensures specialist control of the different data classes and avoids misusing data during interpretation.

Table 1: Tabulation of methodologies and data types, by discipline
  Historical (written) Archaeological Palaeoenvironmental
Subject Details of specific events, phenomena, and processes Quantitative/qualitative data on long-term social, cultural, and economic transformations Reconstructions of environmental and climatic change
Training Focuses on a specific social group and period (e.g. Athens in the fifth century BCE) Focuses on a specific group and period, often through a single site or group of sites Wider scope of technical methodologies applicable to multiple cases
Collaboration standards Individual work; publications are single-authored A mix of individual and collaborative work Collaborative, mostly multi-author publications
Origin of data Manuscripts, documents, inscriptions, seals Excavations, surface surveys, or studies of standing monuments Natural archives, e.g. ice cores, dendro data, etc.
Preparation for interpretation Editing; source criticism; translation Artefact or monument analysis, statistical processing of data Laboratory processing, analysis, statistical calibration
Dating precision Sub-weekly to sub-annual Decadal to centurial (rarely annual) Annual to centurial
Interpretation Reconstruction of events, historical model-building Identifying periods with stable socio-economic characteristics Identifying periods of different environmental conditions
Climate-society causality Can offer nuanced explanatory mechanisms Inferential; normally site- or area- specific Inferential; nearly always based on temporal correlation


On these foundations we can proceed to an inquiry into socio-economic feedback loops and impacts, including the role of climate in conflict, migration, critical systems failure, politics, and their interrelations, thus modeling the society as a complex adaptive system - a structured network of agents occupying a given ecological niche with a range of different organizational levels and potentials interacting locally. These evolve and reproduce themselves as a consequence of the outcomes of those interactions, and framed by cultural and environmental constraints. Understanding causal relationships is especially challenging in historical terms, requiring the identification of the hierarchy of social acts affecting societal interaction at levels both within and beyond that in which the primary social act takes place. Such action is never uni-directional, may be either symmetrical or asymmetrical, and is always dialectical, i.e. action generates reaction which in turn impacts the original actors, their potential for further action, and the forms such action may take (this can also be described as a feedback loop). Hardly any research exists on how past societies viewed such challenges, so that hypotheses about past societal responses are largely untested. By identifying and observing such responses in our case study societies, and by focusing on the success or failure of those strategies, we can highlight both the complexity of societal factors that need to be taken into account as well as pinpoint key features and potential threats around which risk-assessment and planning for the future might be based.