Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Essay - Environment, man and history

I had to go to Newcastle yesterday for a new state meeting. It's a bit under two and a half hours by train, so I reviewed my Greek trip notes, jotting down possible stories.   This time last week I was in the air returning to Australia from Greece. Even after a week, it's interesting how quickly day to day life glazes, blurs, even vivid experiences.

Around this time two years ago, we were in China, the following year Canada. Both trips had significant impacts on my thinking, made more memorable in the Chinese case because the trip coincided with both the start of the Global Financial Crisis and the terrorist bombings in Islamabad.

I mention all this because James O'Brien is presently in China on what is, I think, his first trip there. You can find the posts here. Like me, he is finding the experience profoundly interesting. I have added a list of my own China posts to the end of this post.    

Looking back at the China posts, I see that Neil and I had a brief discussion on comparative history, triggered in part by my comment about the comparative recentness of much Chinese history. Neil pointed to the long continuity of Chinese and especially imperial traditions.

I am not sure that all this matters in the sense that we are dealing with very long time periods in human terms. What does matter, or is at least very interesting, is the nature of the interrelationships between societies at a time, over time, and between those societies and the changing geographical world around them. Time and time again in Greece, we found ourselves wondering what was happening elsewhere at the same point in time.

The following reconstructed frieze is from the ancient Minoan site of Akrotiri on Santorini, a town that flourished between 3,000 and 2,000 BC, reaching its peak 2000 - 1580 BC. The oldest signs of human settlement are Late Neolithic (4th millennium BC or earlier), but ca. 2000–1650 BC Akrotiri developed into one of the Aegean's major Bronze Age ports, with links with what are now Crete, Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt, as well as the Dodecanese and the Greek mainland.

  The frieze shows a trading voyage. The detail in the original reconstruction provides some impression of the people that the traders dealt with. There is something humbling about the thought that, 4,000 years ago, Akrotiri's traders saw such a broad and vivid world, building a prosperous, advanced and apparently secure civilisation.1500px-AKROTIRI_SHIP-PROCESSION-FULL_PANO-3 Once we start looking at such long sweeps of human history, there is plenty of time not just for natural disasters such as the huge volcanic eruption that buried but preserved Akrotiri, but also for major environmental change.

Looking at Australia, around 15,000 years ago the Late Glacial Maximum began to ease after 6,000 years of cold, dry temperatures. From around 12,000 years ago, the period now described as the Holocene began with warming temperatures and higher rainfall-that reached something approaching today’s levels.[i] Sea levels rose, tropical monsoons increased; between 10,000 to 3,000 years ago summer rainfalls over much of Australia exceeded modern levels, leading to rising lake levels. Around 8,700 years ago what has been called the Holocene Warm Maximum began. This lasted until 6,000 years ago, and possibly until around 4,500 years. Mean annual average temperatures were 0.5C higher than present, rainfall greater.

I don't know what happened in Europe over the same period in terms of specific local variations. However, the broad pattern is likely to have been similar.

What did strike me in all this, is that the rise of the early trading civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean seems to have coincided at least roughly with the period in Aboriginal Australia that some prehistorians have called intensification. This was a period of rising populations and of apparent increases in technical and social complexity facilitated by a more benign environment. The exact patterns may have varied between the Mediterranean and Australia, but the underlying environmental forces may well have been the same.

Looking at the somewhat arid, barren, treeless environment of the Greek Islands today, I found myself constantly asking the question, what did it look like before?

We know that, like Australia, ancient Greece was subject to periodic droughts that could have severe impacts on human life. We know that, like Aboriginal or European Australia, collection and preservation of water was important. The water storages of the Aborigines do equate to the wells and roof collections of pre-classical and classical Greece. What I don't know, is the pattern of environmental change over time.

I have a reasonably vivid imagination, something that is both a curse and a blessing. Studying history at school, I was struck by the way in which geographic change affected life: the North African granaries of the Roman Empire turned to desert; once vibrant ports became land-locked villages; the fate of those left on Greenland when the last ship sailed during the mini ice age. What frustrated me, was the inability of the texts to tell me not just what happened, but when, why and how.

We know more now. We know, for example, that the near starvation of the settlement at Port Jackson was linked to one of those drought events so familiar to current Australians. Yet I remain frustrated at the absence of a detailed environmental history of the human world. Maybe there is one and I haven't found it. If there is, please tell me! In the meantime, one of the key pieces of the jigsaw required for me to understand the human past remains missing.        

[i] The base description on Holcene climate is drawn from John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999, pp223-226.

China Trip Posts

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