Rapid global cooling 13,000 years ago challenged early occupants of Alaska to adapt. People used to hunting mammoths and other megafauna with big stone tools suddenly found their weapons shattering in the cold. Access to the stone they used to make them got buried under snow.

As with any climactic change, the cold resulted in a shift in fauna, requiring new tools. Early Alaskans turned to microblade technology, a technique they’d kept alive for hundreds of years along with their dominant hunting tools. Microblades made efficient use of now-scarce toolstone and met the needs of a changing climate.

“Throughout the Holocene, the importance of microblade technology varies,” writes Washington State University archaeologist Colin Grier, but it never disappears; it “is employed when needed to address new and changing ecological circumstance.”

Grier and colleagues from the University of Idaho’s Center for Resilient Communities note that archaeology has a lot to say about how cultures adapt to global climate change, shifting populations and ecologies, and transforming food systems.

“The way to ensure that we have some capacity to adapt is by having a diversity of options,” says Grier. “Adaptation is not just technologies providing new solutions.” Cultures from the past adapted “whole institutional and social processes that we can learn from.”

By moving beyond the 30- to 100-year window used in many disciplines into deep time, Grier argues, “paleodata—data derived from past ecological and social systems—reveal factors that were important in successful adaptation but which we may be unable to see from our present vantage point.” Grier calls these “time-vetted” solutions to social and ecological challenges.

A few thousand years ago, the Coast Salish experienced considerable population density increases, so they reorganized themselves to sustainably ramp up food production. Clam gardens, fish weirs, and engineered wetlands were the result of investing in “large scale resource harvesting infrastructure,” made possible by people working together to ensure long-term success.

“Decentralized control was a key” to that success, as people closest to the resources owned and managed them, thus promoting “local and intimate monitoring of changing ecological circumstances.” This demographic and resource-management change was accomplished by major changes in social structure, from small family-centered groups to larger, multifamily organizations.

Much of the data used to make contemporary decisions about policy and resource management has little time depth to it, Grier argues. Both indigenous knowledge, which in the Pacific Northwest goes back at least 10,000 years, and archaeological paleodata bring a great deal to these issues.

Indigenous knowledge offers a model that could easily be adapted to contemporary culture. Crowdsourcing and citizen scientists are examples of contemporary decentralized knowledge bases, but the oral knowledge of indigenous people offers novel ideas from deep time.

“When you’re an archaeologist you have two benefits,” Grier says. “You see the long-term perspective and you see a range of possibilities that people who are embedded in modern technological societies just don’t.”

Scholars from many disciplines, as well as policymakers, are waking up to the fact that archaeological data can and should be put to different uses now that bottom-up innovations to challenges aren’t being addressed through the centralized administration of resources.

“Approaching resource management with a top-down approach, where a guy comes out for three hours with a little clicker to count fish or invasive weed species and then they go back to Washington or Ottawa to make policy—that’s just not working! We have to reshape our institutions” to tap into the wealth of knowledge hidden in plain sight.

And that, Grier says, means looking everywhere for ways to mobilize local knowledge. Everywhere, including in the dirt and the distant past.


On the web

“Looking to the past to shape the future: addressing social-ecological change and adaptive trade-offs” by Colin Grier, Lilian Alessa, and Andrew Kliskey: Regional Environmental Change, Vol. 17, #4.

[paywall but abstract and references are available: link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10113-016-1096-y]