Santa Fe Institute

Exploring the rise and fall of human societies

May 27, 2014 10:04 a.m.

When Europeans first settled on inhospitable Iceland, they struggled but eventually stabilized; on neighboring Greenland, early Norse settlements ultimately disappeared. Similarly, Zuni tribes flourished in what is now the southwestern United States while the nearby Hohokam dwindled.

Reasons for the rise or decline of societies are many and varied, and only increase in complexity with a changing climate. SFI External Professor Tim Kohler, an archaeologist at Washington State University, and collaborator Margaret Nelson at Arizona State University are co-organizing a pair of SFI meetings this week at SFI to explore ways to study these dynamics.

The first, a three-day workshop titled Social Change In the Context of Climate Challenges: Issues in Coupled Natural Human Systems May 27-29, matches more than a dozen experts with SFI-style transdisciplinary tools and approaches.

Kohler cites agent-based modeling as one such tool: it can help reconstruct the basic resources of a landscape – such as water sources and prey growth rates – that influence each household (agent) in choosing the best living arrangements. Differences between the models of settlements and observations from the archaeological record often reveal other factors.

During a follow-on two-day working group titled Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance Modeling: Evolvability and Robustness May 30-31, many of the workshop participants will consider useful means of societal comparison.

For example, explains Kohler, whether people live in dark, icy weather in the North Atlantic or droughts in the American Southwest, we can quantify the severity and frequency of risks in the landscape and thus start to compare extraordinarily different societies. From there, signs of a healthy or declining society emerge, which of course hold relevance today.

“If we can retrospectively define early warning signals of catastrophic thresholds in the archaeological record, we have a chance to spot them today,” he says.

Both meetings are invitation-only.

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