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Climate, Ecology, and Mobility of the Steppe Nomads

Posted On January 11, 2016 | 10:28 am | by meredithb | Permalink
Interview with Nicola Di Cosmo

On December 9, 2015, Nicola Di Cosmo, Luce Foundation Professor of East Asian Studies at the School of Historical Studies of the Institute for Advanced Study, joined Dumbarton Oaks for its first Inter-Program Lecture, “Climate, Ecology, and Mobility in the History of Eurasian Steppe Nomads.” We spoke with Di Cosmo about the growing field of nomadic history and the integration of climatic and ecological data into historical study. 

Dumbarton Oaks: Your prior work was in Chinese military history. How did you become interested in the interactions of ecology and climate with nomadic history?

Nicola Di Cosmo: I was very interested in understanding Chinese history, not just in terms of Chinese history, but also in terms of the interactions between Chinese people with other parts of Asia and Eurasia. That started a general interest in language, from Chinese to Mongolian—trying to learn more about the languages of people who were very influential in Chinese history, but whose stories you don’t learn when you study Chinese history. In China, everything is fit through a very standard, very official, very orthodox way of understanding Chinese history, which is through dynastic histories, standard histories.

In some moments of history, these nomads become particularly important, particularly relevant beyond their own environment, beyond their own regions, beyond China, beyond Asia. They are important in European history, and I think this is an imperial tradition that has not been recognized much. We know about the Romans, the Mediterranean civilizations, the Chinese, Indian, and Iranian civilizations. But the nomads have never really been recognized as a civilization—quite the opposite, right? They’re “anti-civilization,” the barbarians. And, in fact, the interaction between nomads and other people has been very productive in world history and has produced expansions of networks and more connections among different places. It also has been, I think, very influential in developing institutions—in Russia, for instance, in the Ottoman Empire, which is Islamic but also nomadic. In the Mughal Empire in India and the Qing or Manchu dynasties in China, they all owe something to this nomadic culture that they were coming from. So, I think in a number of ways they are also very important as we try to reconceptualize world history, because we need to include this large part of Eurasia, which is the steppe, and if we want to understand how technology culture, trade, was transmitted or connected to different parts of Eurasia, the nomads were very important and central to the story.

I also work with archaeology, and that’s a very important part. I’m not an archaeologist myself, but if you want to learn a little bit more about the history of the nomads, you can’t just work with documentary sources.

DO: You talked specifically about how the nomadic narrative is left out of Chinese history, which tends to focus on imperial, dynastic history. Do you have any thoughts on what accounts for nomadic tradition being left out of history?

NDC: In China, certainly the traditional wisdom is that the greater power—the Chinese civilization—always conquered these people, that they were eventually assimilated and acculturated to China. Therefore the Chinese civilization was conquered, but then the Chinese civilization conquered the conquerors. That has been the myth of Sinicization, of becoming Chinese. That’s been the dominant framework, in which this relationship—which has never been totally hostile or inimical—has been, as I said before, a productive relationship whereby there’s been a lot of exchange between the two. We always see it in terms of the “aggressiveness of the nomads” versus the cultured stance of the Chinese, who try to educate them or convert them to Chinese civilization or assimilate them. You never see the other side, which is what these nomads brought into China and how China was changed by these people. If you look at every period of Chinese history, this relationship is very important. It generates new institutions and new ways of configuring the Chinese Empire, new ways of conceptualizing power and sovereignty—Buddhism, for instance. Who brings Buddhism to China? It is not the Chinese. That transforms the philosophical, political, and religious aspects of China. China would not be the same, of course. It’s just a myth that the Chinese civilization endured unchanged for two thousand years. There is a continuity there, but there are also breaks and moments in which the foreign influence is actually predominant. I work from the very beginning of the presence of nomadic societies on the Chinese frontiers, all the way until the eighteenth century, so it’s about two and a half millennia of reconstructing this relationship.

DO: On the topic of origins, how did your visit to Dumbarton Oaks come about?

NDC: Michael Maas is responsible for bringing me here. Michael and I have had, for several years, a very productive collaboration. We are working on editing a book called Eurasian Empires in Late Antiquity for Cambridge University Press. We are coeditors of the book, which grew out of a common interest in a period of world history in which steppe nomads seem to be important: during the fall of the Roman Empire in the Late Antique period—the so-called period of “disunity” (a terrible term) in Chinese history between the Han and the Tang dynasty.

The collapse of what we might consider two strong centers of power, the Chinese Empire and the Roman Empire, frees up a lot of political space for other political agents to assert themselves. So, you have foreign dynasties in China—not very long-lived, but important, especially in northern China. You have the barbarian invasion in Rome. You have the new relationship with the steppe people and new forms of diplomacy that emerge on both sides. Therefore, I think this is a very productive collaboration between East Asian scholars and European scholars, especially those who work on the late antique and early medieval period, to expand horizons on both sides and try to see the linkages between East Asia and West Asia and the Mediterranean world.

We are recognizing a set of similarities that certainly cannot be casual: it’s this culture of nomads, of steppe people, that is permeating the political space of other people, both in the west and in the east. It’s very important to recognize that there are, perhaps, sets of networks and common political cultures that are expanding in this period of time and that will become important in the medieval period—certainly in China—because the Tang dynasty is the heir of these foreign dynasties that flourish in northern China. Buddhism expands in Central Asia and East Asia—not so much in the west—but the networks are very broad. Nomads are participants in these trading and religious networks throughout Eurasia. We have a new way of thinking about this period, not limited to one region or one country but more in terms of broad spaces and connections.

I think Michael was interested in some of my collaborations with scientists, climatologists in particular. I think this is the first lecture that addresses the broader community of Dumbarton Oaks, not just Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, or Pre-Columbian programs. I think Michael thought my interest in working with different types of sources—documentary, material sources, and scientific proxy data—might have a broader interest outside of just our work or Eurasia or Late Antiquity. Pre-Columbian scholars, for instance, have the same problems working with archaeological sources.

DO: What do you think can be borne from the relationship between traditional humanities scholarship and the sciences?

NDC: I work on nomadic history. We need to find other ways to understand nomadic history beyond the horizon of the written sources because written sources only appear when nomads got out of their natural environment. What happens while they are in the steppes is never represented in any way. As historians, we need to put our hands on whatever information we can get. Over the past ten to twenty years, there have been incredible advances in archaeology. Archaeology is very much influenced by new scientific methods. Archaeology has been transformed by isotopic research and climate data. Archaeology is important, but also a direct connection between historians and scientists is quite important; the development in the paleosciences is critical for the history, not just protohistory, of peoples with no writing. We can get information about their diet, about their movements, about their environments and how their environments changed, about their material culture through metallographic analysis. There is all this production of climate data and many other types of data in scientific journals that scientists just don’t read—I want to bring it into the historical world.

DO: Did you come up against a learning curve as you branched out to begin including scientific data in your historical arguments?

NDC: It’s still going on. In my book Ancient China and Its Enemies, I had to learn how to read archaeological reports, so that was the first learning curve—to move from documentary sources to material culture. That goes on. There’s a methodological issue—how you interpret these things—and the quantitative issue, especially in China, where they publish constantly, and it’s almost impossible to follow everything. Archaeology is just one additional tool kit, and there are many tool kits. The science data is another one. In my view, we need to put together as many tool kits as possible. It’s great to read the Chinese sources, but they are written by Chinese for the Chinese, so they only represent part of the picture and need to be decoded in various ways. It is the same with the material culture and with the science data. But as long as we can increase the number of data and get a richer, more articulate picture of the environment that these people were living in, of the objects that they were able to produce and exchange and value, and of their movements, we can probably say something more interesting. It’s all about getting a denser, richer picture that can help us understand why, at some points in time, nomads become important.