Although archaeological analysis emphasizes the importance of climatic events as a driver of historical processes, we use a variety of environmental and archaeological data to show that human modification of the environment was a significant factor in shaping the early history of the Yellow River region of North China. Humans began to modify site-specific and local-level environments in the Early Holocene (~11,500–7000 BP). By the Mid-Holocene (~7000–5000 BP), the effects of humans on the environment become much larger and are witnessed at regional and tributary river basin scales. Land clearance and agriculture, as well as related land use, are dominant determinants of these changes. By the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age (~5000–3500 BP), population growth and intensification of agricultural production expanded the human footprint across the Yellow River region. By the Mid to Late Bronze Age (~3600–2200 BP), larger populations armed with better technology and propelled by more centralized governments were altering lands throughout the Yellow River region, gradually bringing the environment under human control. By the Early Dynastic period (221 BC–AD 220), the Yellow River region was an increasingly anthropogenic environment wherein human land management practices were, in many instances, as consequential as natural forces. Throughout the Holocene history of the Middle and Lower Yellow River, anthropogenic, climatic, and natural environmental processes were acting to shape human history and behavior, making it difficult, if not impossible, to say whether human or climate processes were more consequential. There is a complex relationship in China’s early history between natural and human forcing much like there is today. The Early Anthropocene concept is useful here because it recognizes that when natural and cultural forces become so intertwined, it no longer makes sense to separate the two.
Writing from the southern Plains, where we have gone from extreme drought to oversaturated soil in less than a month’s time, the issue of water has been on my mind lately. There is much to be said about the climatology (by others much more qualified to do so than me), and the apparent link between an early-onset El Nino, extreme weather, and anthropogenic influence. Of course we are not just experiencing wild weather, but there is a real social disaster unfolding north and south of the Red River, in Oklahoma and Texas. While the most proximate cause of the loss of human life and destruction of property is the overabundance of water, we can also point to vulnerabilities created by infrastructure planning and the positioning of persons in areas prone to flash flooding during extreme events (see also posts by Ingo and Meghan). If there is any lesson from recent local events, it is that climate, water, and social vulnerabilities are entangled to the point that it is often difficult, or impossible, to disarticulate any one element.
In the past I have written about the controversy over the start of the anthropocene (or, the many starts), and what may be a marker or golden spike of human influence on the planetary system. From a contemporary perspective, water’s availability, and the management of that resource, is a central component of the discourse surrounding habitability and the Anthropocene. So, too, we can find concrete examples in the past of water management—which sits at the nexus of technological advancement, social organization and power, land use and modification, and hydrological systems—which has a history from which it cannot be divorced. In this paper, Zhuang and Kidder present a history of landscape interventions in the Yellow River region of China, spanning 6000 years. This time period extends from the start of millet farming during the Neolithic period, to the development and expansion of Han empire during the Early Dynastic period. A major strength of this paper is the authors’ ability to weave together diverse datasets to demonstrate changing relationships to water. These data include settlement histories, evidence for soil development and degradation associated with natural and anthropogenic influences, changing frequencies of burning, and written histories by the end of the study period. As they note the region has always had a complex relationship with water due to El Nino influenced monsoons. The loess soils are suitable for agriculture (see Lynn’s post on the importance of loess), but are susceptible to erosion after droughts, particularly if the landscapes have been denuded through human intervention. So, too, flooding frequencies and amplitudes were influenced by the changing amount of sediment in the river systems.
One key insight from Zhuang and Kidder’s article regards the management of water, particularly during the Early Dynastic period when populations were large and cultivation of wheat was intensified through technological innovations and soil fertilization. The intensification was not an evolutionary byproduct of increased population, but the result of social practices. By this time, the Han empire was characterized by centralized social control through extensive bureaucracy. One of the expansionist strategies of the Han was to establish outposts in peripheral areas by moving agriculturalists into areas that, due to weak monsoons, were arid and susceptible to desertification and soil loss. The net effect was an increase in sediment within the river system, which itself led to changes in flood frequency and impact. In response, Han rulers ordered (and apparently in some cases took part in) the building of levees to decrease flood frequency. As the authors note, while flood frequency decreased, the levees required significant labor to maintain, but also increased the magnitude and destructive capacity of floods. In so doing, Han rulers effected a short-term solution to a long-term problem, which was further exacerbated by social policies that moved traditional farming practices outside their original point of innovation.
As argued by Zhuang and Kidder, one mark of the “Early Anthropocene” may very well be our inability to disentangle the relationships between environmental and social factors. Certainly some significance of this research is that it shows how communities in the past engaged in landscape modification to the point of redirecting large scale environmental processes that led to social catastrophes. But more importantly, it shows how short-term thinking can result in the creation and perpetuation of many unforeseen consequences.