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Changing Climates, Changing Histories: Perspectives from the Humanities

Dumbarton Oaks and via Zoom
October 21  –  22, 2022
This symposium brings together scholars to discuss human-induced climate change in the past from the perspective of the humanities.

This symposium is organized by the Directors’ Office and the programs of Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies.


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 the Paleolithic 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. What effects in the past did population growth, increasing use of fossil fuels, agricultural burning activities, deforestation, management of water resources, etc., have on the environment and which lasting changes in the climate did this human activity provoke on local and global levels? 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 to and post impacts. We are interested in hearing about the role of food production, resource management, systems of power, human expansionism, religion, philosophy, arts, etc. had in the changing environment. 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.

Program Speaker Abstracts and Biographies

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

Dagomar DeGroot, Georgetown University

José Iriarte, University of Exeter
Climate Change, Landesque Capital, and Cultural Resilience 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 Cambridge
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 

Kyle Whyte, University of Michigan
Opening Remarks

Tree ring from the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (University of Arizona). Photograph courtesy of Valerie Trouet.