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En Niño, Catastrophism, and Culture Change in Ancient America

October 12–13, 2002 | Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium, Daniel H. Sandweiss and Jeffrey Quilter, Symposiarchs

In the last three decades, two trends have run counter to each other in the study of the past. On one vector is the increasing ability of scientists to examine the occurrences and durations of environmental changes. On another track, the pendulum of social science theory has swung to the far reaches of social constructivism in explanations of culture and social change. This symposium proposes to use the El Niño phenomenon—one of the best studied agents of drastic environmental change—as a means by which to explore larger theoretical issues of how we understand and explain past cultures and their transformations.

The symposium will be organized in three parts. Part Ⅰ will present current knowledge of El Niño events with special attention to their effects in Peru and adjacent portions of Ecuador and Chile. Papers will include correlation of El Niño episodes with established and revised cultural chronologies and dynamics of Peruvian prehistoric cultures. Part Ⅱ will continue this discussion, entering into questions of the relationships between El Niño and known or assumed specific culture changes such as the collapse of the Moche culture and the rise of the expansionist Huari empire. Issues of culture change or readjustment in more distant regions, such as Mesoamerica and the U.S. Southwest, may also be included in this section. In addition, we will explore how change in art styles may reflect the disruptions caused by environmental and social traumas. In Part Ⅲ larger issues of culture theory will be explored, including the value of catastrophism as an explanatory model and agency theories of culture change. The search for a synthesis that resolves the contradictory trends of our understandings of the devastating impacts of cataclysm environmental events with our appreciation of the ability of humans to create and alter their social worlds will be a chief goal of this meeting.