Historical Detectives

Uncovering Climate Change to Discover History

By Natalie Hammer Noblitt

Pollen and lake sediments might not be the first thing you’d imagine medieval historians would study to learn how long-ago societies form and decline, but going beyond common assumptions is one of the primary goals of the Climate Change and History Research Initiative (CCHRI) at Princeton. The initiative currently draws upon 25 international experts from several disciplines, from within and outside of Princeton, after gaining funding last year from PIIRS. The CCHRI team extends the work of historians and archaeologists to new frontiers, learning from and expanding upon the work in the natural and environmental sciences. The scholars seek clues in the hope of understanding current environmental challenges by examining what happened to Medieval Mediterranean and Eurasian populations when faced with climate change.

“Human societies, outside of our brains, are the most complex organizations that exist,” says John Haldon, the Shelby Cullom Davis ’30 Professor of European History and CCHRI founder. Historians regularly consider climate and natural events when studying the lifespan of civilizations, but don’t always see the full picture because of causational assumptions, he says. It’s complicated work to uncover the true causes, especially as new information is uncovered.

“By pulling this team together, I try to create a group of people who can research their own agendas and also follow a team research agenda that is different from what any one of them does alone,” Haldon says.

The detective work of the CCHRI focuses on the past 2,000 years in the eastern Mediterranean basin, including the Balkans, Anatolia, the Near and Middle East and the eastern Eurasian Steppe, specifically Mongolia and regions north of China. There are many unanswered questions about how these societies dealt with environmental change, as well as economic and political challenges they faced, and past assumptions may be too simplistic. “Popular notions are often that there was a big earthquake or famine that caused a society to collapse,” says Lee Mordechai, CCHRI research assistant and a Ph.D. student in history at Princeton. “We are trying to show that the story is much more complicated and that you usually can’t place the cause solely on one event.”

In September, CCHRI hosted a three-day Paleoclimate-Palynology Workshop for Pre-Modernists, which taught participants about palynology, the analysis of pollen extracted from lakebed or other sediments to study the vegetation of the landscapes in the past. “This can tell us how patterns of agriculture change over the centuries and fit that into the environmental, societal and political changes,” Haldon says. The bigger goal of this study includes developing models for how societies react under certain pressures like water shortages, floods and climate changes.

Although he hadn’t considered studying environmental history when he came to Princeton, Mordechai plans to continue in the field. He says the CCHRI and its events are attracting other graduate and undergraduate students. He and Haldon say they see this as just the beginning for what is possible for CCHRI. “There’s a feeling that things are changing in the way we think about environmental history,” Mordechai says. “It’s a way to show people that history is relevant for contemporary challenges. We definitely aren’t the first society that has to deal with climate change.”