"Archaeology bridges the gap, as it combines a scientific understanding with the cultural exploration of past human life."Unsplash/Hulki Okan Tabak

Ask most people what archaeology is and you’ll get a mixture of responses involving fossils, funny hats, digging, and bones. It might surprise you to know that archaeology isn’t the tomb raiding that Indiana Jones made it out to be, and that there is much more to it than just finding old things. Even if you are in fact a keen amateur archaeologist, you may never have considered how studying the human past could help preserve its future.

Aside from accepting our fate or waiting for a technological breakthrough that radically alters the way we exist, we have two options in confronting the issue of climate change. The first is that we colonise a new planet. Without overlooking the imperialist undertones of this concept, some archaeologists have studied island colonisation in the past as a model for human exploration beyond our planet. Lessons from the past emphasise that this solution would still require us to adopt a much more sustainable way of life to avoid facing the same threats just a few centuries down the line.

“Archaeology demonstrates that human life can take many forms and that the options available to us are considerable”

Our only remaining option appears to be halting and reversing climate change, enabling our survival on earth as it exists today. In 2019, the UN announced that we had only 11 years to achieve this before damage would become irreversible. Scientists have been communicating data on the severity of climate change for decades, yet it is only in recent years that climate change has begun to feel urgent in mainstream agendas. Even now as climate change floods the media, there is a disconnect between scientific advice and the priorities of peoples’ everyday lives.

To an individual, the idea of climate change can feel intangible, much bigger than any one person could confront. As a result, it can feel easier to ignore or even deny its reality. In 1989, archaeologist Bruce Trigger said: “humans adapt not to their real environment but to their ideas about it.” Due to this disconnect, we continue to exhaust the natural environment of its resources, unable to see the direct impact our actions have on our own future survival. Archaeology bridges the gap, as it combines a scientific understanding with the cultural exploration of past human life.

Scientists propose that we have entered a new geological epoch, “the Anthropocene”, wherein humans are altering the climate on a global scale. Population, production, and resource exploitation are all on an infinitely larger, more globalised scale than ever before, but societies throughout the past have faced issues of overpopulation, resource stress, and climate change. Archaeologists provide deep time perspectives over far longer time scales than modern ecological data and offer evidence from past societies as completed experiments of how humans have destroyed, adapted to, or sustained past environments.

In many areas of the world, ancient land management practices were more sustainable and productive, as they were better adapted to local environments. There are various examples where seeds and animals evolved specifically to flourish in local ecological conditions, without pesticides or GMOs and their detrimental environmental impact. Rediscovering this knowledge removes the need for environmentally harmful practices used to source water and improve productivity, making practices both more sustainable and profitable for farmers.

Another aspect of ancient land management that has been lost is the control of forests, which have become increasingly vulnerable to rising temperatures. In the past, controlled small-scale surface-level fires were used to manage the forests of the American South West. Without this strategy, fires can be catastrophic, evident in the increasingly devastating forest fires of recent years.

“While meat consumption was prevalent throughout history, research indicates that it was more variable in our ancient past than has been assumed”

Some strategies enabled societies to thrive in the most challenging environmental conditions. Isotopic analysis of archaeological crop remains from the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile demonstrates how ancient civilisations survived in one of the driest places on earth. Having constructed complex irrigation systems, the Atacama communities sourced seabird excrement (“Guano”) from the coast as a fertiliser. This was so effective that it continued to be used for 900 years, becoming a major export for Peru known as “white gold” until the early 20th century, when cheap synthetic fertilisers were introduced.

Archaeology can also support attempts to reduce, reuse and recycle, as the idea of reusing materials manufactured for their durability and sustainability was common in the past.

Other lessons may come from alternate world views concerning the sanctity of nature. The Whanganui River in New Zealand and The Ganges in India are both legally protected by human rights. Some anthropologists argue that animals deserve similar rights, given our increasing awareness of their emotional intelligence and intellectual capabilities. Such arguments add strength to already rising support for veganism as potentially the single biggest way an individual can reduce their environmental impact.


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While meat consumption was prevalent throughout history, research indicates that it was more variable in our ancient past than has been assumed, challenging the image of “early man” as a carnivorous hunter. “Blue Zone” societies across the world provide examples of humans who have lived particularly healthy lives while consuming very little (or no) meat and dairy. Generally, our earliest ancestors relied on scavenging; this involved both meat and plants, plants being the more reliable of the two, with a few studies questioning if some groups ate meat at all. The circumstances of meat consumption in the past also differed greatly from today, given the abundance of resources available to us.

Archaeology demonstrates that human life can take many forms and that the options available to us are considerable. This has never been more true, in a world more technologically advanced, globalised, and informed than ever before. Our way of life may feel like it’s just the way things are – the way life has always been – but archaeology reframes this as a choice. Our choices dictate how we progress from here. They dictate if future archaeologists will be around to interpret those choices, and the legacy we leave behind.

Archaeology often holds a mirror up to our own lives.

What will our legacy be?