The Past for the Future?
Pfannkuche Explores the Pecatonica River Valley
~ “Field Notes” by James Meierhoff, PhD Candidate UIC ~
Required reading during my early graduate school curriculum included selections from Charles Lyell’s 1830 Principles of Geology, a book that popularized many of the concepts previously developed by fellow geologist James Hutton (most noted for his 1788 work Theory of the Earth), including the concept of Uniformitarianism. Arguably the corner stone of modern archaeological dating techniques and understanding, Uniformitarianism, as applied to archaeology, is the supposition that the natural laws and processes that operate in our present-day scientific observations are the same that have operated to form the Earth in the past.
In the nineteenth century this concept was used to counter the notion of a biblical reckoning of the earth (Creationism), and allowed archaeologists to begin dating archaeological deposits using scientific principles (such as the various laws of superposition) and push mankind’s achievements past the 4,000 BCE threshold established by biblical scholars using genealogy from Old Testament texts.
Thus, science could then begin to use the present to understand the past. At the time, however, I never really thought about how these same principles could be applied to the future (that is, using the past to understand the future).
April’s CAS hosted presentation Where People Lived on the Pecatonica River Valley During the Middle Holocene (5000-500 BCE) by Sara Pfannkuche (recorded and on Facebook Live), showed how this could be done. Her research is centered on an event known as the Hypsithermal (or Holocene climatic optimum), a period of dramatic climatic change characterized by increased temperatures (2° C rise in summer months) and decreased precipitation. Pfannkuche’s research is seeking GIS models to determine how such environmental issues might have influenced the decision-making processes of those who had been living along the Pecatonica River drainage for generations.
Unlike other river systems in the region, the Pecatonica River meanders through numerous glaciated and non-glaciated landscapes. Thus, those who lived among these various ecotones were able to better maintain their lifestyles during the changing fortunes of the Hypsithermal by exploiting the natural diversity around them rather than adapting to radical new means of survival. It was the diverse landscape that helped overcome the change.
How will we react to the ongoing climatic variations before us? Like cultures in the past, societies in the present, and future, will have to choose how to confront this inevitable phenomenon. Perhaps we can take a cue from the past and come to understand diversity may be our strongest tool. Diverse foodways, energy and water systems, and yes, even diverse cultural viewpoints will be the only way we can overcome the changing storm ahead.