The Anthropocene model rests on the assertion that humans have become geological agents of change at the planetary scale. When engaged as a conceptual problem, however, the Anthropocene unsettles the long-lived dichotomies between nature and culture, past and present, and local and global (just to name a few). As described by Zev Trachtenberg, a focus on habitability in the Anthropocene foregrounds the relational aspects of anthropogenic alterations. In particular, Trachtenberg notes that “We recognize the recursiveness of habitation when we recognize that habitability is its product, not its precondition. That is, a place is made suitable for living by the activities of its inhabitants.”
While the Anthropocene is often considered to be a recent phenomenon attributable to a unique modernity (I will address this issue in a subsequent post), such recursiveness requires that we also consider history. What constitutes habitability is dependent upon prior intentional and unintentional human modification of the environment at multiple temporal and spatial scales, and the diverse and often contradictory social experiences, cultural values, and biological processes that are entangled with landscapes. Because it focuses on past habitabilities, the discipline of archaeology (a sub-discipline of Anthropology in North America) can naturally contribute to the Anthropocene dialogue. In this and subsequent contributions I will address what is the role of the past in the Anthropocene. In particular, I will consider how empirical and theoretical insights from archaeology can aid in the interrogation of modern dichotomies, and can illuminate the varying significance of human interventions in the world.
The practice of archaeology is predicated on the fact that humans modified landscapes to the extent that traces of such alterations (expressed as objects, structures, environmental proxies, biological communities, and so on) remain to be studied. The substantial database of past habitation that archaeologists have cultivated enables the examination of ancient modes of social organization, cultural practices, ontological frameworks, and environmental interactions. By extension, the very persistence of the archaeological record today necessitates that we reconcile the ways in which ancient landscape modifications were significant to communities in the ancient past, our contemporary present, and the future. That is, the past (however construed) is a fundamental component of identity formation and the ongoing production of habitability.
The translation of discoveries into explanatory frameworks is central to the archaeological enterprise. This article by Britt Solli, and additional insightful comments by nine authors, is relevant for the central tensions that are exposed in documenting the past in the context of the Anthropocene. Solli is inspired by the global scale of the Anthropocene and its potential impact on archaeologists’ ability to write relevant “scientific narratives about the past” (p. 42). Of particular concern are the ways in which anthropogenic climate change will impact cultural resources, instigate diasporas and other social ruptures, and potentially curtail access to tangible cultural heritage (which is one basis for making place habitable through associated memory and tradition). Given the scale of the Anthropocene, and potential widespread impacts, Solli questions the utility of so-called constructivist perspectives that situate heritage as culturally produced, malleable, and changing in social significance depending on context. Citing the potential for so many cultural resources to be lost, she argues instead that there should be certain values that are universal. These qualities are manifested materially in the archaeological record (an example is the site of Stonehenge: unique in its construction and impact on the landscape). Places or monuments deemed valuable should be preserved to write future essential narratives because, she writes, “In the Anthropocene I think it is vital for the humankind as a species that the notion of a common human heritage survives” (p. 47).
Solli suggests that the emphasis on essential qualities may also be a means to overcome the western and rational nature-culture divide. Drawing broadly on posthumanism, and accepting humans as geological agents, she posits that humans, other things, and forms of life are better understood as networked and mutually constituting (and in this regard Solli’s formulation contains some parallels to Niche Construction Theory). Solli concludes with three recommendations for archaeology in the future: (1) engage in research into long-term human-environmental interactions (deep histories); (2) construct expert, but reflexive narratives, and (3) “archaeology should be the discipline “where species and cultures meet,” and where the ideas, theories and materials of the humanities, social and natural sciences meet.”
There is much that is thought provoking, and no doubt troubling to some, in Solli’s arguments (see the included comments). Does the planet-wide connectivity of human impacts—and the potential for widespread climate-induced change—necessitate universal values or explanations? Whose history is preserved is certainly a question of ethics and social justice, and it is unlikely that the effects of the Anthropocene will be equally distributed. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not archaeologists should be engaged in heritage production (Dawdy 2009), research can provide significant insight into the strategies that enabled habitability in the past. Indeed, examination of past resilience and vulnerability is often cited as one of archaeology’s strengths. Stuart Manning has even argued that archaeology should be considered a strategic asset: “archeology offers an education in patterns, possibilities and challenges that the U.S. should value and exploit for its future.” We might also ask whether the construction of “expert” historical narratives (based on essential qualities) may reproduce the very categories and dichotomies that our research is intended to subvert. While monuments and other constructions may provide a sense of history, and justify future actions, there are alternative (and more subtle) ways in which landscapes have been made habitable (and which do not fit dominant narratives) that could be of equal import.
Finally, as González-Ruibal notes in his comments: “By looking at deep history, we run the risk of naturalizing what is anything but natural.” Taken in an extremely long view, the Anthropocene appears as an inevitable consequence of human activity in the world. Yet, it is an open ended question as to whether our present “modernity” is a necessary product of a universal collective past, or only one privileged example from an assemblage of many different kinds of past and present human habitation. At the very least, the persistence of the archaeological record suggests that the past is a necessary condition of habitation.