Action Archaeology: Agriculture, Population and Sustainability

“The possible futures of the global system are illuminated by careful study of its past and comparisons with power processes in previous eras.”[1] 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.[2]


A wetland of the Yalahau region.

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.”[3] Second, they piled “chich mounds” under economically important trees “to conserve moisture and to provide support for trees cultivated in the shallow soils.”[4]


A modern chich mound at the base of a tree.

As a result, such agricultural innovations “[led] to sustainable development in this region.”[5] 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.”[6]


Salinization of soil.

At last, the salinization transformed the used-to-be fertile land to the extent that even barley could not grow.[7] “The very soil lost its virtue,” and Sumerian Civilization collapsed.[8] 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.[9] Thoroughly analyzing how the Sumerians destroyed their agriculture, we could avoid the same tragedy happening in the future and learn to develop sustainably.


Sumerian civilization in the middle of the desert.

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).

4 Ibid.

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).

7 Ibid.

8 Leonard Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees, as quoted in Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.

9 Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.


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2 thoughts on “Action Archaeology: Agriculture, Population and Sustainability

  1. As you mention here, over-irrigation led to serious salinization in the Sumer region of southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). In his article in Surviving Sudden Environmental Change (2012), Tate Paulette gives some insight into the social forces behind this environmental disaster in the ancient civilization. In Bronze Age Mesopotamia, he argues, increased urbanization put more and more pressure on agricultural producers to, well, produce. They began to overwork the land, as well as expand into and irrigate new fields, to keep up with the growing demands for their produce. While Paulette notes, “Recurring hazards such as drought, flooding, and locust attacks were regularly planned for…in Mesopotamia,” the governments in the region responded to the salinization crisis with a series of quick fixes, which may actually have done more harm than good. (Cooper and Sheets 167) The rapid rise and fall of several dynasties in the region, each with their own policies and system of administration, may be to blame for the slipshod and inconsistent responses to this problem. It seems that the Mesopotamian people trusted their government’s efforts to protect them from natural danger, despite the fact that many of these solutions were ineffective in preventing salinization or, worse, actually made its effects more catastrophic. This false sense of security encouraged by what Tate calls “ill-concieved mitigation strategies focused on short-term solutions” is a phenomenon we see again and again. One example that comes to mind is the overdependence on ultimately ineffective levees in New Orleans during Katrina (a mistake that cost thousands of lives) and the ensuing chaos as people waited for slow-moving government agencies to respond.

    • I do know if I get your point, but I think that you are tring to say there is a larger social and environmental context behind the salinization issue. I merely focused on agriculture and almost overlooked the context which is more important.

      So you basically are saying:
      1. Food. With urbanization, more and more people flocked to the cities. So relatively the rural population decreased. Also urban population had a larger food consumption and more agriculture was needed. As a result, a vicious circle was set up. The farmers had no choice but to keep planting and growing incessantly in order to fulfill the urban need. Thus came salinization.

      2. Natural disasters. Disasters are naturally unpredictable due to their limited technology (maybe not), and fundamentally destructive to agrian fields. Also people might lack the basic knowledge about how to preserve crops or how to survive themselves when disasters happened. With limited technology, humans are inevitably subject to nature.

      3. Inactive government. Perhaps the government did not intentionally choose to be inactive, for they might not actually know how to deal with these disaster. They could only build some protection that served well in short term, such as the levee as you mentioned.

      But what I am confusing is that is it possible for mesopotamia people to improve their existing farming skills or adopt more advanced and efficient strategies so as to deal with the increasing food supply and natural disasters? like to improve the medal plows to unearth the deep soil unsalinized, or can they grow plants which can bear more in a salty environment, or to shift their food focus from crops to livestocks? Obviously they failed to do so, partially because they believed that the incapable government could manage it.


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