Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | June 29, 2012

Of Weather and Ancient Mariners: Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming

How Lou met archaeology (after Jones)

Brian M. Fagan introduced a lot of people to archaeology, including myself.  The first book I remember reading on archaeology, well before getting to Berkeley, was Quest for the Past, which exposed me to some of archaeology’s most famous moments, like Louis Leakey finding “The Cradle of Mankind” in Olduvai Gorge, Howard Carter getting into Tutankhamun‘s tomb, and, more locally, Richard Daughtery excavating the amazingly preserved, pre-contact Makah village of Ozette right here in Washington State.  Fagan’s Archaeology:  A Brief Introduction, quite possibly the most widely used textbook in introductory archaeology classes, is now in its eleventh edition.  Fagan, now approaching his 76th birthday, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is still a very prolific writer.  So when G’Ma once again had a book to pass down, I was pleased to see Fagan’s name.  I hadn’t read an archaeology book in a long time, and this was an old friend.

The central topic of The Great Warming:  Climate Change and the Rise an Fall of Civilizations, is the Medieval Warm Period, hereafter to be referred to as the MWP.  Proposed by the British meteorologist Hubert Lamb, the MWP was a period between roughly AD 800 and 1200 of what we would now call global warming.  The MWP was first applied to Medieval Europe, and for those cultures it was a grand time.  The general warming meant more settled weather, leading in turn to better farming, population growth, and that legendary time of kings, knights, serfs, and alewives; yes, the MWP was most definitely a factor in the history of beer.  Elsewhere, the MWP was downright malicious.  This is perhaps what drew G’Ma to this book:  It is a set of archaeological cautionary tales of how cultural strategies did and did not successfully respond to drastic climate change.  Here are a few of several striking cases, representative of Fagan’s approach.

A water canal in Chaco Canyon

1.  The Native cultures of the Western United States adapted to their arid environment long ago.  The MWP, however, was here what Fagan calls the “Megadrought Epoch.”  Whole lakes disappeared.  In especially harsh areas such as the Great Basin and the Mojave, mobile hunter-gatherer cultures bound together to face even more deprivation and suffering than usual, but they survived as they had for many years before.  The Ancient Pueblo Peoples (aka the “Anasazi”), who worked the desert with a combination of irrigation and adaptability, simply left the famous Chaco Canyon for more fruitful locales such as Mesa Verde and the “Aztec” Ruins.

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal (known to Star Wars geeks as the Rebel Base on Yavin 4)

2.  For the great culture of the southern Classic Maya, who built such monumental cities as Tikal and Copán, water was the source of political, economic, and spiritual power.  The great pyramids were “water mountains,” the tops of large reservoir systems and symbols of the divinely empowered leaders who oversaw them.  The MWP brought both overpopulation and overutilization.  As the reservoirs dried up so did the people’s faith in their rulers’ godly abilities.  Thus, one possible explanation for the collapse of the southern Maya is that the fall of a top-heavy system led to social uprising and civil war when the water ran out.

Chan Chan, ancient capitol of Chimor

3.  On the arid coast of Peru, before the Inca had come to power, life for the Chimú of the Moche Valley depended on agriculture, fishing for anchovies, and trade with the interior.  Like the Maya, the lords of Chimor, the Chimú state, were absolute in their political control of water.  Using labor as tribute, these lords oversaw the construction of a large, elaborate, and redundant irrigation system.  Borrowing a phrase usually applied to ancient Egypt, Fagan describes Chimor as an “organized oasis.”  Yet where Mayan authoritarianism failed, Chimor succeeded because the droughts of the MWP brought nothing that they were not already prepared for.  Only the expansion of the Inca conquered Chimor, not the climate, and in fact Chimor was the last kingdom to fall to Incan imperialism.

As fascinating as all of this is to an old archaeologist, where it gets interesting to the Lou of today is when Fagan turns to climate change at sea.  The MWP led to major changes in global sea conditions and wind patterns and thus to some of the most amazing and important navigational accomplishments in human history.  Two tales are particularly fascinating to me.  We’ll start in the north.

Ruins of the church at Hvalsey, an ancient Norse settlement at the south tip of Greenland

Just ask Captain Edward Smith:  Your biggest worry in the north Atlantic is ice.  The MWP meant a lot less of it, and this not only benefited two maritime cultures but also for a time brought them together.  The Norse (call them Vikings if you must) had been exploring, pillaging, and settling since the 8th century, from the Orkneys and the Shetlands to Iceland.  In about 985, Erik the Red, exiled from Iceland, found Greenland.  In possibly the same year, Bjarni Herjólfsson legendarily became the first European to ‘discover’ North America when he sighted Labrador, and shortly thereafter Leif Ericson founded possibly the first–if short-lived–European settlement in North America at L’Anse aux Meadows in what is now Newfoundland.  All of this was made possible by the fact that the north Atlantic ice pack dispersed earlier during the MWP, and Norse knarrs could coast along the Davis Strait and down the Eastern Seaboard with much less risk of being crushed.

At the same time, the longer ice-free season allowed the Inuit (don’t call them Eskimos) to both hunt sea mammals over a wider area and trade more easily amongst each other, from Siberia all the way to Greenland.  Back at Berkeley, I learned about the Thule Migration, the movement of the cultural ancestors of the modern Inuit steadily and successfully along the Arctic coast from the Bering Strait to Greenland during, yes, the MWP.  The Thule Migration is typically described as a quest for whales, but they were also quite possibly in search of iron, which they used instead of ivory on their toggle-headed harpoons.  Although iron was known to the prehistoric Inuit of Siberia, there was a new source from the east during the MWP:  the Norse.  The earliest documentary evidence of contact between the Norse and the “Skraelings” dates from the twelfth century.  Norse artifacts have been found at the archaeological sites of Nunguvik on Baffin Island and at villages on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic.  For centuries the Inuit and Norse traded walrus ivory for iron.  Only with the end of the MWP, the return of the heavy ice, and the abandonment of the Norse settlements in Greenland about 1450 did this early and almost forgotten chapter in European-American interaction come to a close.

Map of the ITCZ, noting annual variance

In order to explain the next maritime breakthrough, let’s talk global meteorology.  First, all sailors (real and armchair) know about the doldrums.  In more technical terms, this is known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the area near the equator where the northeast and southeast trade winds meet, forcing air upward to create potentially a whole lot of rain but not a lot of wind.  Mariners like our dear, fictitious Captain Aubrey know that the ITCZ shifts during the year, bearing towards the summers of either the northern or southern hemispheres.  Second, residents of the U.S. Left Coast will recognize El Niño and La Niña.  Scientists put these as the two poles of the “Southern Oscillation:”  If surface pressure is high in the Pacific, it is low in the Indian Ocean, and vice versa.  El Niño means very low pressure and thus stormy weather for the American west coast, while La Niña means calmer weather for the Pacific.  The generally warmer temperatures everywhere during the MWP meant that La Niña conditions dominated the Pacific for a few hundred years.  These calmer conditions over the Pacific meant that the ITCZ fluctuated less, and at times the dominant  trade winds slackened significantly.  In turn, tremendous possibilities opened up to oceanic explorers.

Polynesian double-canoe

The ancient “Austronesian” people began spreading by sea, according to the most mainstream linguistic hypothesis, from Taiwan as early as 5000 BC, colonizing such broad cultural areas as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  When they passed into South Pacific, perhaps 1500 BC, what we would now call Polynesian culture developed.  Driven not by imperialist expansionism but by a socioeconomic need to find new areas to settle, the Polynesians developed over generations what I will call a symbiotic sense of navigation.  Stars, sea swells, the flight of birds, and a mental chart of the Pacific all combined into an ability to sail fairly simple outrigger canoes to far-flung islands in huge tracts of ocean.  Although the climactic evidence is still thin and inconclusive, it is known that during the MWP the Polynesians reached furthest east, including Hawaii and the remotest and most mysterious island of all–Easter Island, what is now called Rapa Nui.

moaie on Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is a dot in the middle of nowhere.  The nearest continent is South America, 2,300 miles to the east, and the nearest neighbor is Pitcairn Island (of Bounty mutineer fame), 1,300 miles to the east.  The island is only 66 square miles in area and 8 1/2 miles across at its widest.  That anyone found it at all is remarkable, and that it holds one of the greatest mysteries in archaeology makes Rapa Nui downright legendary:  the famous giant statues, or moaie.  Fagan takes a cue from the excellent The Statues That Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo–the next book I borrowed from G’Ma–which questions many of Rapa Nui archaeology’s long-held assumptions.  (Hunt and Lipo’s work, by total and cool coincidence, is also featured in the latest National Geographic.)  Most important to Fagan is the dating of Rapa Nui’s first settling, based on new radiocarbon dating and in line with other Polynesian chronologies, to about 1200, centuries later than previously established and at the tail end of the MWP.  This then gives room for new interpretations of both the role of the moaie and the “collapse” of Rapa Nui civilization.

Jason Scott Lee, bare breasts, and big heads:  Hollywood prehistory

There is a lot of mythology surrounding Rapa Nui, and much of it was created not by folklore but by scholars.  There are two culprits.  The first is Thor Heyerdahl, famous to most for the balsa raft he sailed across the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki expedition, who combined oral history and raw conjecture to create a dramatic tale for Easter Island.  According to Heyerdahl, powerful “Long Ear” settlers from South America were responsible for the moaie, until, in precisely 1680, the native Polynesian “Short Ears” rose up, toppled the moaie, and overcame their oppressors in terrible battle.  This is the colorful story enshrined later by Hollywood in the movie Rapa Nui.  The second culprit is the popular scientist Jared Diamond, who sought to explain why Rapa Nui, once as lush as any tropical isle, is now nearly barren.  His book Collapse posits that the deforestation of Rapa Nui was the direct result of social hierarchy.  Powerful chiefs, wanting bigger and bigger moaie for their ancestor worship, ordered the palm tree forests cut down either to move the moaie or to clear fields to feed the workers.  Easter Island is thus a case example of “ecocide.”

Hunt and Lipo, backed by archaeological evidence, create a radically different picture.  One, there is no material evidence of warfare, neither weapons nor fortifications.  Two, the deforestation may have come from a much more diminutive threat, common across the Pacific islands:  rats, for whom the palm trees of Rapa Nui offered “an endless buffet of nuts.”  Three, the islanders appear to have lived in small groups that subsisted mostly on small-scale and very adaptive agricultural techniques; there was no grand hierarchy.  The construction and moving of moaie, they argue, were not tributes to great chiefs but a common ritual activity that helped solidify “a delicate balance of environmental stewardship and social cooperation.”  Hunt and Lipo argue environmental resilience over ecological parable, and peace with symbolic unity over civil war.  And, inevitably, the “collapse” is the result not of self-destruction but the disease, human slavery, and ecological disaster that comes from European contact.

The regular readers of The Journal of Blue Lou Logan may by now be thinking that this is a gargantuan sidetrack.  Give the old anthropologist a moment of reflexivity.  The line between archaeology and the ethnohistory of the sea is both academically direct and tremendously personal.  Fagan’s The Great Warming is, if nothing else, a decent exercise in comparative studies, how the local and global (the “glocal,” if I may delve into my PhD theory) interacted during a certain climatological time.  Reading about the Maya and the Chumash gave me a feeling of proud nostalgia; I still know these things, even if there is more to be learned.  Yet when Fagan turns his case examples to the maritime, new neural connections are made for me.  The Inuit/Norse connection was familiar, while Rapa Nui was new, which is why I went the extra book (and extra paragraphs).  Lou the academic would fall in with Fagan’s approach that cultural ecology must be seen as locally occurring but globally situated.  Lou the guy–Blue Lou–says, “Wow, cool, all that education in archaeology two decades ago can deepen my thinking about boats and sailing.  Of course there’s maritime history…what about maritime prehistory?”  Thank you, Dr. Fagan, for not only giving me the warm fuzzies for my academic past but also bridging that past to current interests and thus giving me a whole new range of topics to investigate.  That, for a thinker such as myself, is a great gift; thanks for giving the gift of curiosity…again!



  1. And that, kids, is why history is never, ever, boring. In other words, it's not the history; it's how you look at it.

    Great post, Lou!

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