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Few of those with any understanding of the scientific evidence have any doubt that the Earth's climate is warming at an accelerating pace. A recent study of European climate since Roman times has underlined how exceptional the last 30 years have been, with average summer temperatures significantly higher than at any time in the previous two millennia. The cause, too, seems now (at last) to be generally agreed: that human activity, and sheer human numbers, are so great that they are affecting the planet's climate system. For some, that is, of course, an inconvenient truth, obliging us to change behaviours in ways that might be costly and troublesome. For archaeologists, versed in the effects of previous climate shifts both large and small, it should provide a golden opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of our discipline, and to cast present problems in the perspective of past events. The Maya drought, the Moche floods, and the low Niles, which may have put an end to the Egyptian Old Kingdom, all offer examples of what can happen to human societies. And of course, at the larger scale, there are the successive ‘Ice Ages’ that characterised the Pleistocene. There is an argument that we are all, in a sense, a product of the Ice Ages, and it is certainly remarkable how successful our ancestors became at exploiting sub-Arctic habitats. A 45 000-year-old butchered mammoth in Siberia, 72°N, provides the most vivid recent testimony.
Analysis of dental calculus is increasingly important in archaeology, although the focus has hitherto been on dietary reconstruction. Non-edible material has, however, recently been extracted from the dental calculus of a Neanderthal population from the 49 000-year-old site of El Sidrón, Spain, in the form of fibre and chemical compounds that indicate conifer wood. Associated dental wear confirms that the teeth were being used for non-dietary activities. These results highlight the importance of dental calculus as a source of wider biographical information, and demonstrate the need to include associated data within research, in particular tooth wear, to maximise this valuable resource.
Ireland has often been seen as marginal in the spread of the Neolithic and of early farming throughout Europe, in part due to the paucity of available data. By integrating and analysing a wealth of evidence from unpublished reports, a much more detailed picture of early arable agriculture has emerged. The improved chronological resolution reveals changing patterns in the exploitation of different plant species during the course of the Neolithic that belie simplistic notions of a steady intensification in farming, juxtaposed with a concomitant decline in foraging. It is possible that here, as in other areas of Europe, cereal cultivation became less important in the later Neolithic.
The discovery of the Iceman in 1991 led to considerable speculation about the reason for his presence at such a remote location in the high Alps. One theory suggested that he was engaged in transhumant pastoralism when he met his death. Recent archaeological and palynological studies, however, have found no evidence of pastoral activities in this region during the Chalcolithic period. Regular exploitation of this upland landscape appears to have begun no earlier than the Middle Bronze Age. The theory that the Iceman was a high-altitude herdsman therefore appears to be untenable.
The assemblage of Neolithic cremated human remains from Stonehenge is the largest in Britain, and demonstrates that the monument was closely associated with the dead. New radiocarbon dates and Bayesian analysis indicate that cremated remains were deposited over a period of around five centuries from c. 3000–2500 BC. Earlier cremations were placed within or beside the Aubrey Holes that had held small bluestone standing stones during the first phase of the monument; later cremations were placed in the peripheral ditch, perhaps signifying the transition from a link between specific dead individuals and particular stones, to a more diffuse collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors.
Early Iron Age pastoralists of the Eurasian steppes relied heavily on copper for weapons and ornaments, and new analysis of metal composition enables long-distance networks to be identified. Primary circulation from source areas where copper was mined can be distinguished alongside the secondary circulation of alloy types with high proportions of tin-bronze or leaded tin-bronze. The relative presence of trace elements, depleted during recycling events, provides a proxy for the flow of metal between regions. The localised seasonal movements characteristic of these mobile steppe societies underlie some of these patterns, but the evidence also indicates more extensive transfers, including the direct movement of finished objects over considerable distances.
The Mauryan dynasty of the third century BC was the first to unite the greater part of the Indian subcontinent under a single ruler, yet its demographic geography remains largely uncertain. Here, the HYDE 3.1 database of past population and land-use is used to offer insights into key aspects of Mauryan political geography through the locational analysis of the Ashokan edicts, which are the first stone inscriptions known from the subcontinent and which constitute the first durable statement of Buddhist-inspired beliefs. The known distribution of rock and pillar edicts across the subcontinent can be combined with HYDE 3.1 to generate predictive models for the location of undiscovered examples and to investigate the relationship between political economy and religious activities in an early state.
How closely integrated were the commercial centres of the Roman world? Were traders aware of supply and demand for goods in other cities, or were communities of traders in cities protectionist and working opportunistically? Widely traded commodities such as terra sigillata tablewares in the Eastern Mediterranean provide an ideal opportunity to explore the economic processes that underlie the archaeological evidence. Agent-based computational modelling allows various such processes to be explored, and also identifies areas for further investigation.
The triple disaster that hit eastern Japan on 11 March 2011—earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown—was a momentous event with long-term implications for archaeology and heritage. The sheer scale of the damage experienced generated a form of ‘disaster-led’ preventive archaeology, in line with the reconstruction efforts. As radioactive contamination continues to affect cultural assets including museums and monuments in the exclusion zone, the massive decontamination efforts under way bring about further heritage complications. Alongside its immediate applications, archaeology also has a wider critical role to play: with its mastery of materiality and temporality, it can help envisage the ‘contemporary future’ at Fukushima, a defining landmark of the feats and failures of late modernity.
Most people think of Maya civilisation, if they do at all, while on vacation. A daytrip from a beach takes them to ruins nearby, crowded with tourists in correct holiday gear. In the recent past, others might have grown anxious about the portentous significance of the year 2012. Maya glyphs, so the hucksters affirmed, predicted a cascade of dire events, not one of which (predictably) has come to pass. Then there are those living in Mayaland itself, an area embracing parts of Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and all of Belize. Their personal identities stem in part from a sense of direct inheritance, extending to rights of ownership and interpretation.
In recent years, a growing body of research has focused on the importance of water management for ancient Maya societies, and more generally on the cultural and economic significance of water as a resource. But how did this change across the centuries as cycles of drought and sea level rise, together with the growing Maya footprint on the landscape, presented new challenges? As the resolution of climatic records improves, the authors can begin to show in detail how Maya water management responded and adapted to such shifts. This included the manipulation of aguadas and the development of wetland field systems, in the process transforming large areas of the Maya landscape.
Maya script—the most elaborate and extensive system of native writing in the New World—was in active use across the Yucatán Peninsula from 300 BC–AD 1700. Maya epigraphy began in the late nineteenth century, developing through the efforts of key figures, often with oblique approaches from other disciplines. Today, the research landscape is increasingly virtual; new discoveries have been combined with greater precision in translation, providing unique access to the complex interactions of Maya society, where the elite shared a language across political boundaries that was incomprehensible to most of their subjects.
Recent reassessment of the sequence at the highland Maya centre of Kaminaljuyu has led to a substantial chronological revision for Preclassic southern Mesoamerica. The new chronology suggests that various centres on the Gulf Coast, in Chiapas and in the Southern Maya Region experienced political disruption or reorganisation at the end of the Middle Preclassic period around 350 BC. It also shifts the initial rise and height of Kaminaljuyu forward 300 years. These shifts dramatically alter our understanding of sculptural developments in the Southern Maya Region, and emphasise the role of inter-regional interaction in the development of Maya civilisation.
The impact of the Spanish conquest and colonisation of Maya territories between 1520 and the 1700s is often regarded as a homogeneous process. Archaeological research conducted over the last 16 years shows this to be far from true. A much more nuanced understanding of the complexities and relationships between Indigenous peoples and the new colonial forces can be achieved by comparing colonised, semi-conquered and unconquered zones within the Maya area. Such an understanding allows Maya archaeology to transcend the simplistic and limiting framework of conquest and collapse that has traditionally typified the narrative of colonial interaction.
Post-colonial tensions remain fresh among Indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala. The survival of local Maya heritage narratives in the face of conflicting belief systems, the increased commodification of antiquities and the decline of traditional ways of life is increasingly difficult. At Santiago Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands, and at Tahcabo in the state of Yucatán, Mexico, individuals have sought to preserve traditional narratives through ontological constructs and by enacting hybridity. These studies demonstrate how collaborative archaeology and ethnoarchaeology highlight the perspectives of Indigenous communities and contribute towards greater multi-vocality.
The concept of the Anthropocene has become increasingly prominent in recent years, but is it best defined as a geological period or as part of a longer-term pattern of human actions? And when did it begin? Todd Braje launches this Debate feature by arguing for a shift away from definitions and toward an emphasis on the human causes and consequences. This piece is followed by a series of reactions from geologists and anthropologists, with a concluding reply from the author.
It is useful to have Todd Braje's perspective on the Anthropocene. As he states, it is a concept that has spread widely and that has had various interpretations (within not just the sciences, but the arts and humanities too) in the 15 years since Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed the term (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000). Various suggestions are made in Braje's paper: perhaps foremost is that the Anthropocene should be retained as a loosely defined term to focus on the nature and effect of human activities, to be a ‘rallying cry’ for better planetary stewardship. He suggests, indeed, that precise characterisation and formalisation as a stratigraphic unit may hinder such use, causing (for instance) all humans—rather than specific socio-economic groups—to be held equally responsible for the degradation of planetary systems.
Perhaps the most obvious point about the Anthropocene debate is the one that gets lost most frequently, precisely because it is the most obvious. Paul Crutzen's now famous outburst in 2000 (see Crutzen & Stoermer 2000) stating that we do not live in the Holocene anymore was made in part because he was grappling with the question of the enormity of the anthropogenic transformations of the Earth system. It matters that he formulated the term to indicate the scale of transformation in geological language.
The Anthropocene is here, but do we need the Anthropocene, and if so, when do we want it to start? My responses are ‘no’ and ‘never’ if the answers to those questions require a discrete definition of the Anthropocene and a specific start date. In that regard, I agree generally with Braje's arguments. Particularly unsettling in Anthropocene discourse (in archaeology or geology) has been the search for discernable origins in the form of golden spikes, and I am suspicious of even setting the Holocene as an Anthropocene equivalent. That stated, archaeology can and should continue to contribute to interdisciplinary Anthropocene dialogues.
I thank all the authors for their thoughtful responses to my paper. I believe they effectively highlight some of the diverse opinions about the concept of the Anthropocene and underscore the challenges faced by the ICS subcommission.