“The possible futures of the global system are illuminated by careful study of its past and comparisons with power processes in previous eras.” The thought-provoking statement from archaeologists Jonathan Friedman and Christopher Chase-Dunn clearly demonstrates the importance of the past to the future. In other words, to look into how past people dealt with contemporary problems can give us an insight into how we deal with them at the present and in the future. This is exactly what we call “Action Archaeology.” More specifically, through analyzing the success and failure in agriculture of past civilizations, we are able to adjust and improve our agricultural strategies, to produce more crops for the growing population, and ultimately to develop a sustainable society.
The ancient Maya succeeded in maintaining their race by agricultural innovations. Between about 100BC and AD450, unlike “today’s relatively sparse population,” the northern Maya lowland in the Yucatan peninsula was heavily populated.
In order to support themselves, first, the Maya mixed “a colony algae, fungus, bacteria, detritus and other living organisms” to make “periphyton,” which proves to be “a natural, renewable, and manageable source of agricultural fertilizer.” Second, they piled “chich mounds” under economically important trees “to conserve moisture and to provide support for trees cultivated in the shallow soils.”
As a result, such agricultural innovations “[led] to sustainable development in this region.” If we could apply their ways of cultivation together with modern technology, we would be more likely to handle today’s population issues and to sustain our race.
The Sumerians, on the opposite, destroyed themselves by damaging the environment. Their “heavy irrigation in a hot, dry climate leads to a gradual accumulation of salt in the soil.”
At last, the salinization transformed the used-to-be fertile land to the extent that even barley could not grow. “The very soil lost its virtue,” and Sumerian Civilization collapsed. The negative effect on environment lasted even for thousands of years, for in the 19th century the population of Iraq was less than tenth of that in the age of Gilgamesh. Thoroughly analyzing how the Sumerians destroyed their agriculture, we could avoid the same tragedy happening in the future and learn to develop sustainably.
Besides agriculture and sustainability, in action archaeology, the past can also help us reduce warfare, alleviate poverty and strengthen identiy. In short, the achievements and mistakes of past civilization are ladders, leading to a happier life for every single person in the world.
1 Jonathan Friedman and Christopher Chase-Dunn, Hegemonic Decline: Past and Present (Paradigm Publishers, 2005), Introduction, as quoted in Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World (Walnut Creek, CA.: Left Coast Press, 2008), 45.
2 Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World, 49.
3 Scott L. Fedick and Bethany A. Morrison, “Ancient use and manipulation of landscape in the Yalahau region of the northern Maya lowlands,” in Agriculture and Human Values (21: 207–219, 2004).
5 Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World, 49.
6 Paul Krugman, “Salt Of The Earth,” in New York Times (August, 08, 2003).
8 Leonard Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees, as quoted in Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.
9 Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.