Articles

Some excerpts of recent articles I enjoyed.

• From the Guardian:

History as a giant data set: how analysing the past could help save the future

Calculating the patterns and cycles of the past could lead us to a better understanding of history. Could it also help us prevent a looming crisis? 

In its first issue of 2010, the scientific journal Nature looked forward to a dazzling decade of progress. By 2020, experimental devices connected to the internet would deduce our search queries by directly monitoring our brain signals. Crops would exist that doubled their biomass in three hours. Humanity would be well on the way to ending its dependency on fossil fuels.

A few weeks later, a letter in the same journal cast a shadow over this bright future. It warned that all these advances could be derailed by mounting political instability, which was due to peak in the US and western Europe around 2020. Human societies go through predictable periods of growth, the letter explained, during which the population increases and prosperity rises. Then come equally predictable periods of decline. These “secular cycles” last two or three centuries and culminate in widespread unrest – from worker uprisings to revolution.

In recent decades, the letter went on, a number of worrying social indicators – such as wealth inequality and public debt – had started to climb in western nations, indicating that these societies were approaching a period of upheaval. The letter-writer would go on to predict that the turmoil in the US in 2020 would be less severe than the American civil war, but worse than the violence of the late 1960s and early 70s, when the murder rate spiked, civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests intensified and domestic terrorists carried out thousands of bombings across the country.

The author of this stark warning was not a historian, but a biologist. For the first few decades of his career, Peter Turchin had used sophisticated maths to show how the interactions of predators and prey produce oscillations in animal populations in the wild. He had published in the journals Nature and Science and become respected in his field, but by the late 1990s he had answered all the ecological questions that interested him. He found himself drawn to history instead: could the rise and fall of human societies also be captured by a handful of variables and some differential equations?

• Also from the Guardian

Climate change may be behind fall of ancient empire, say researchers

Dramatic shift from wet to dry climate could have caused crop failure in Neo-Assyrian empire

The Neo-Assyrian empire was a mighty superpower that dominated the near east for 300 years before its dramatic collapse. Now researchers say they have a novel theory for what was behind its rise and fall: climate change.

The empire emerged in about 912BC and grew to stretch from the Mediterranean down to Egypt and out to the Persian Gulf.

But shortly after the death of the king Ashurbanipal around 630BC, the empire began to crumble, with the grand city of Nineveh sacked in 612BC. By the end of the seventh century BC, the empire’s fall was complete.

Now scientists say the reversal in the empire’s fortunes appears to coincide with a dramatic shift in its climate from wet to dry – a potentially crucial change in an empire reliant on crops.

“Nearly two centuries of high precipitation and high agrarian outputs encouraged high-density urbanisation and imperial expansion that was not sustainable when climate shifted to megadrought conditions during the seventh century BC,” the authors write.

In other words, while civil war, overexpansion and military defeat played a role in the empire’s collapse, the underlying driver could have been crop failures that led to economic collapse, exacerbating political unrest and conflict.

• From History Collection:

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple

Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site that dates back over 11,000 years. It is believed by some to be the first evidence of a hunter-gatherer civilization building a massive temple. Located in modern-day Turkey, the site was discovered in 1963 and in 1994 efforts to excavate the site began. Now more than 20 years into the excavation and preservation of the site, new discoveries have archaeologists questioning what they once believed to be the site’s purpose. It is now thought that the people who created Göbekli Tepe were part of an ancient skull cult.

Göbekli Tepe is a series of circular and oval-shaped structures on the top of a hill that dates back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Period which ranges from 9600 – 7300 BCE. At the site are 20 different installations which come together to form what is believed to be the oldest temple in the world. The site features intricate carvings, evidence of rituals being performed, and evidence that efforts were taken to preserve the site after it was abandoned. It is thought that the site was abandoned about 9,000 years ago and was largely untouched by humans until its rediscovery in 1963….

Skull cults is a term that is used by archaeologists to describe prehistoric people who venerated the skulls of the dead to the point of worshiping them. Most skull cults are recognized from the modified skulls that have been found at other archaeological sites. At other sites, there is evidence that the bodies of the dead were buried whole. However, later the bodies would be dug back up and then the skulls would be removed and the rest of the body reburied.

Little Ice Age

A story that’s been making the rounds:

Genocide of Native Americans by European settlers was cause of Little Ice Age

The upheavals following the first contact with Europeans in 1492 is thought to have cut the population of 60 million living across the Americas down to five or six million within just 100 years

The “Little Ice Age” of the 16th and 17th centuries was triggered by the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas by European settlers, new research suggests.

Scientists have long wondered what caused the drop in temperatures so severe that it caused the River Thames to freeze over.

New analysis by University College London (UCL) argues that so many people were slaughtered or died of disease that the amount of agricultural land dramatically reduced, which in turn sucked carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

Known as the “Great Dying,” the upheavals following the first contact with Europeans in 1492 is thought to have cut the population of 60 million living across the Americas down to five or six million within just 100 years. Published in Quaternary Science Reviews, the study found that much of the land previously cultivated by indigenous civilizations would have fallen into disuse, becoming swallowed up by forest and grassland.

It estimates that an area of 56 million hectares, roughly the size of modern-day France, would have been “rewilded” in this way.

The scale of the change is believed to have drawn an amount of CO2 from the atmosphere equivalent to two years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate.

Professor Mark Maslin, from UCL’s School of Geography, said: “There is a marked cooling around that time which is called the Little Ice Age, and what’s interesting is that we can see natural processes giving a bit of cooling, but to actually get the full cooling – double the natural processes – you have to have this genocide–generated drop in CO2.”

The research team examined historical population data, using it to model the reduction of land devoted to agriculture.

Ed Hawkins, professor of climate science at Reading University, said: “Scientists understand that the so-called Little Ice Age was caused by several factors – a drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, a series of large volcanic eruptions, changes in land use and a temporary decline in solar activity. The drop in CO2 is itself partly due the settlement of the Americas and the resulting collapse of the indigenous population.

“It demonstrates that human activities affected the climate well before the industrial revolution began.”

An interesting theory! But I have some questions. How many Native Americans actually practiced agriculture? And why do cultivated crops put more CO2 into the atmosphere than wild flora? This quite apart from the immense difficulty of determining past population numbers in the absence of a proper census. It would have been good for the article to cite actual data (from ice cores, etc.) about just how much atmospheric carbon dioxide declined in the Early Modern Period.

But as is so often the case with newspaper articles, you have to read all the way to the end to get the real story (which is why I have taken the liberty of reproducing the entire piece). Prof. Hawkins says something completely commonsensical – that the LIA was caused by a variety of factors, only one of which was the decline of atmospheric CO2. Thus the headline, that “genocide” “caused” the Little Ice Age, seems completely overstated, in the usual journalistic fashion.

Younger Dryas and Gobekli Tepe

Interesting new theory: a comet killed off the wooly mammoth – and impelled the rise of civilization!

Experts at the University of Edinburgh analysed mysterious symbols carved onto stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, to find out if they could be linked to constellations.

The markings suggest that a swarm of comet fragments hit Earth at the exact same time that a mini-ice age struck, changing the entire course of human history.

Scientists have speculated for decades that a comet could be behind the sudden fall in temperature during a period known as the Younger Dryas. But recently the theory appeared to have been debunked by new dating of meteor craters in North America where the comet is thought to have struck.

However, when engineers studied animal carvings made on a pillar – known as the vulture stone – at Gobekli Tepe they discovered that the creatures were actually astronomical symbols which represented constellations and the comet.

Using a computer programme to show where the constellations would have appeared above Turkey thousands of years ago, they were able to pinpoint the comet strike to 10,950 BC, the exact time the Younger Dryas begins according to ice core data from Greenland.

The Younger Dryas is viewed as a crucial period for humanity, as it roughly coincides with the emergence of agriculture and the first Neolithic civilisations.

Before the strike, vast areas of wild wheat and barley had allowed nomadic hunters in the Middle East to establish permanent base camps. But the difficult climate conditions following the impact forced communities to come together and work out new ways of maintaining the crops, through watering and selective breeding. Thus farming began, allowing the rise of the first towns. 

Emphasis added. There’s more at the link. Gobekli Tepe has been noticed earlier on this blog.

Let it Snow

On this snow-day-that-wasn’t, a reminder from the New England Historical Society (courtesy my friend Bill Campbell), of the Great Snow of 1717 in New England:

Remembering the Great Snow of 1717 in New England

Had enough snow yet? Given the staggering Great Snow of 1717, it’s somewhat surprising that this question isn’t the official New England motto. That year, historians report that New England had probably the roughest winter it ever recorded.

So much snow fell that year, capped off by a series of storms that started in late February, that the Puritans in Boston held no church services for two successive weeks, reported Cotton Mather. The events were so unusual that he and other contemporary diarists made note of how exceptionally harsh it was throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Though the dates varied, the storms are most commonly cited as having occurred between February 27 and March 9, though others include storms of February 18 to the 24th as being part of the Great Snow of 1717.

Regardless of dates, for generations after it became common in New England to refer to events as having occurred either before or after the great snow. Writers including Henry David Thoreau made reference to its historical significance in their work.

Throughout the region snow totals from the back-to-back storms were recorded of four, five and six feet, with drifts as high as 25 feet. Entire houses were covered over, identifiable only by a thin curl of smoke coming out of a hole in the snow. In Hampton, N.H., search parties went out after the storms hunting for widows and elderly people at risk of freezing to death. It wasn’t uncommon for them to lose their bearings and not be able to find the houses. Sometimes they were found burning their furniture because they couldn’t get to the woodshed.

Read the whole thing.