Changing Climates - Changing Histories: Perspectives from the Humanities

October 21-22, 2022
Dumbarton Oaks Symposium 

Organized by: Director’s Office and Programs of Garden and Landscape, Pre-Columbian, and Byzantine Studies

This symposium will be live streamed from Dumbarton Oaks, where the speakers will convene in person. Upon registration, registrants will be sent a zoom link to the webinar.

In the expanding field of historical climatology, scientists and historians have been engaging in interdisciplinary research that brings together distinct sets of data to uncover past events of climate change and extreme weather events. These studies reveal valuable insights about the ability of humans and societies to respond and adapt to changing climatological conditions.  

Research has confirmed human activity as the main cause of current global warming. While the concept of Homo Prometheus can polemically be traced back into paleo times, when humankind first learned to manage fire, the historical and cultural conditions that furthered the human exploitation of the environment, and thus anthropogenic climate change, remain a serious question: Which effects did population growth, increasing use of fossil fuels, agricultural burning activities, deforestation, management of water resources, etc. in the past have on the environment and which lasting changes in the climate did this human activity provoke - on a local and a global level? What can we learn from identified cases of anthropogenic climate change in the past? How did past societies respond to, reflect on, and explain climate events and the role of human agency therein? And what do cases of anthropogenic climate change tell us about the human relationship to environment and land? 

This symposium seeks to explore these questions from a humanities perspective to understand the human activities that likely induced changes in environment and climate, and how people gave meaning to these activities and their effects -- prior and post impact. We are interested in hearing about the role of food production, resource management, systems of power, human expansionism, religion, philosophy, arts, etc. Bringing together science data with historical as well as archaeological records, literature, and art, the symposium papers will reflect on how the interdisciplinary approach of history and climate science has informed questions, methods, and theoretical frameworks used to develop a more comprehensive understanding of our pasts.

List of Participants

Timothy Beach, University of Texas at Austin The Trowel and the Laser: Climate and Humanity in the Maya World from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene

Joyce E. Chaplin, Harvard University The Franklin Stove and Colonial Resource Conservation

José Iriarte, University of Exeter Understanding Cultural Responses to Climate Change in late Pre-Columbian Amazonia

Matthew J. Jacobson, University of Glasgow The Science of Climate Change in the Roman and Byzantine Eastern Mediterranean

Matthew Liebmann, Harvard University Stalked by the “Refuse Winds”: Colonialism, Disease, and Ecological Change in the Pueblo Southwest, 1540–1700 

Harriet Mercer, University of Oxford Expanding Empire and Knowing Climate in the Southern Hemisphere

Lee Mordechai, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Environment and Society in the Sixth Century Eastern Mediterranean

Jordan Pickett, The University of Georgia Archaeologies of Climate Change in the Roman and Byzantine Eastern Mediterranean

Bradley Skopyk, Binghamton University Climate and New World Virgin Soil Epidemics: A Spatio-Temporal Approach to Understanding the Intersection of Mass Mortality, Spanish Imperialism, and the Little Ice Age in Early-Colonial Mexico

Paul Stephenson, Pennsylvania State University  Late Antique Metallurgy and Environmental Violence

Valerie Trouet, University of Arizona Tree Story: What We Can Learn About Climate History from the Rings in Trees

Dagomar DeGroot, Georgetown University Discussant

Preliminary Program 

Speaker abstracts and biographies 

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