A research paper published earlier this summer has scientists around the world in a frenzy, as it claims that archaeological information can be used to determine when a civilization is approaching collapse. Researchers from the University of Maryland and University College London joined forces to examine 2,378 archaeological sites from nine regions of Neolithic Europe, a period that began approximately 9,000 years ago when the introduction of agricultural technologies spurred rapid population growth. The team collated evidence, backed up by known events in history, that signals when an ecosystem shifted into societal instability. In effect, the researchers believe that, in hindsight, they can spot the markers that signal the turning point for nearly every civilization during that time period.
Through their investigation of thousands of archaeological sites, the research team believes that they have identified consistent early warnings signs (EWSs) that mark the point when an ecosystem begins to experience a decline in resilience, which they refer to as a “regime shift.” From a scientific standpoint, it’s unlikely that any study has accomplished this in the past. “This study is the first to find early warning signals of demographic regime shift among human populations,” the authors wrote in the paper’s abstract. “The results suggest that archaeological information can potentially be used to monitor social and ecological vulnerability in human societies at large spatial and temporal scales.”
The team used computer modeling to help validate their methods, and reduce or eliminate the possibility that the EWS patterns in question were introduced by other means, such as sampling biases, atmospheric effects, radiocarbon calibration error, and taphonomic processes. The researchers focused on two main signals to evaluate the progressive decline of past ecosystems: critical slowing down (CSD) and flickering. “CSD describes a general increase in the time it takes a system to recover from external shocks such as population loss due to disease, warfare, or crop failure,” the team wrote. “Flickering describes increasing directional bias in a system’s response rate to such perturbations, such as a society stuck in a socio-ecological trap where strong reinforcing behavior and a lack of innovation prevents adaptation. Here, flickering would suggest increasing recovery time from population decline events relative to growth events before major collapse.”
By developing a better understanding of the trajectory that led to the decline of past civilizations, researchers hope to gain tools to help scientists evaluate our present circumstances. After all, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The study was published this June in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.