Before the Anthropocene

Archaeology and the Past in the Anthropocene

The term “Anthropocene” refers to the geological epoch in which human behavior constitutes a geological force. Geological forces of nature--like water, shifting plate tectonics, volcanoes, and earthquakes--have actively shaped our planet’s geomorphology, altering landscapes at different timescales. Likewise, humans are planetary stresses that have shaped the earth and changed the natural environment. These human and nonhuman entanglements have resulted in calls for immediate attention and political action, but also have created new spaces for academic discourse and controversy.

Various scholars have advanced different narratives of the Anthropocene, whose temporal contours are still hotly debated. Atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen for instance cites the development of technologies like the steam engine in the late 18th century as the cause for the growing concentration of global methane and carbon dioxide that transformed the earth’s geology. Other scholars have argued for a multifactor and more complex model for anthropogenic environmental changes, rooted in the development of Western capitalism and colonialism of 15th and 16th-century European imperialism. In contrast, some have argued that “The Onset of the Anthropocene” must be pushed back to the late Pleistocene, when human hunting practices and agricultural economies led to the modification of earth and life systems.

Source: http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org. 

Source: http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org. 

Indeed, the majority of conversations around the Anthropocene seems to concern questions of its origins. And although the question of the concept’s “usefulness” in the scientific community is still open, its heuristic utility and discursive capacity also warrant interrogation. As scholars, we must ask ourselves whether the Anthropocene and its social, political, and economic implications, are only relevant to the contemporary moment. That is, does the Anthropocene provide a new paradigm for thinking about pre-modern cultures? Inversely, how might scientific and humanistic work on pre-modern, or pre-Anthropocene societies inflect or shape how we can approach, mitigate, and adapt to the global, ecological challenges we face in the present?

In response to the environmental challenges and injustices of our contemporary moment, scholars from distant disciplines have already collaborated to generate a number of new and exciting epistemological and ontological frameworks (new materialism, object-oriented ontologies, landscape studies, animality studies, the World-Ecology Research Network). Thus, as we think and write in the Anthropocene together, we must carefully translate the questions and problems of our “new normal” when studying pre-modern cultures. Moreover, we must reconsider the methodologies and interpretative models mobilized to study environmental change, anthropogenic or otherwise, such that they are not the result of specious correlations or myopic determinism.

An unidentified mound in Louisiana or Mississippi cross-sectioned. From Dickeson’s notes, ca. 1843. UPM neg. S4-141982

An unidentified mound in Louisiana or Mississippi cross-sectioned. From Dickeson’s notes, ca. 1843.
UPM neg. S4-141982


Archaeological work offers the potential to understand not only how humans have changed landscapes, but also how humans have adapted to changing environmental conditions. Much like the work of geology, archaeology is a study of the ground and the underground, where its practitioners work through layers, strata, and sediments that all interconnect and constitute the earth and its past.

“Before the Anthropocene” presents a series of essays by archaeologists and scholars of pre-modern cultures, places, and systems. These contributions offer different perspectives and timeframes for human and nonhuman relationships to each other as well as varied understandings for ecological and environmental change. Moreover, these contributions question the cultural urge of the 20th and 21st centuries to create teleologies of the dystopic destruction of humanity, and offers examples that call us to re-historicize our own metaphysical relation to nature.

Patricia Kim is a graduate fellow in the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and a PhD Candidate in the History of Art. Follow her @kallixeinos.