Bridging theoretical gaps in geoarchaeology: archaeology, geoarchaeology, and history in the Yellow River valley, China

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  • ORIGINAL PAPER

    Bridging theoretical gaps in geoarchaeology: archaeology,geoarchaeology, and history in the Yellow River valley, China

    Tristram R. Kidder & Haiwang Liu

    Received: 15 March 2013 /Accepted: 18 February 2014# Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

    Abstract While geoarchaeology as a practice within archae-ology grew out of many historical roots, a major role has beenthe explication of site formation processes and site-level con-textual analysis. In recent years, geoarchaeological researchhas branched out to encompass larger geographic scales, andto play a greater role in environmental archaeological investi-gations. This paper argues that geoarchaeology has a greatdeal to contribute to the understanding of human history andto archaeological theory through the application of multiscalarapproaches that place human behavior in a physical, environ-mental and ecological context and by creating linkages be-tween physical processes and human responses. We usegeoarchaeological data from the Yellow River valley to showthat drainage/irrigation canal and bank/levee building hadcommenced in the lower reaches by ca. 29002700 cal B.P.The emphasis on flood plain flood control infrastructure was aresult of long-term increases in sedimentation caused by largepopulations farming with increasingly efficient technologiesin the fragile environments of the Loess Plateau. Ever increas-ing sedimentation set in motion a cycle of further investmentin flood control works eventually leading to a massive floodcatastrophe in the first 20 years of the first millennium A.D. asthe Yellow River exceeded natural and human geomorphicthresholds that constrained it in its previous course. Thesefloods arguably triggered the social and political events thatbrought down the Western Han Dynasty but the root causesare clearly more complex. Geoarchaeology thus contributes to

    an understanding of the multiple causes and consequences oflarge-scale social and political collapse.

    Keywords HanDynasty . Archaeology . Geoarchaeology .

    History . Yellow River . Floods . Rigidity traps

    The proliferation of specialized subfields in archaeology has ledto an explosion of research while at the same time fostering theincreasing fragmentation of specialists into intellectual domainsthat are ever more technically sophisticated but whose focusedapplications seem limited in their theoretical scope. A historian ofthe field scanning the pages of highly ranked publications wouldbe understandably inclined to see the early part of the twenty-firstcentury as a period of focus on what could loosely be consideredmid-range archaeological theory. Geoarchaeological research isnot exempt from this increasing emphasis on technical applica-tions and mid-range assertions seemingly at the expense ofhigher-order theoretical generalizations or larger contributionsto our understanding of human history and behavior. Perhapsderived from our historical association with earth-science disci-plines, some might even question if there should be ageoarchaeological theory or theory of geoarchaeology (Butzer2008; Boivin 2004; Jusseret 2010;Goldberg andMacPhail 2006;Rapp and Hill 1998). The danger lies, however, in forgetting thatthe archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people [be-cause] Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows (Wheeler1954). Because theory, broadly speaking, is how we conceptu-alize the roles and places of people in the archaeological andhistorical record, those of us who identify as geoarchaeologistsshould bear in mind Wheelers words.

    The temporal scope and geographic scale ofgeoarchaeological research makes it unwise to offer a universaltheoretical prescription for our work. Instead, we discuss aspectsof our recent research in the Yellow River in China (Fig. 1) asone example of how geoarchaeological research can be set in a

    T. R. Kidder (*)Department of Anthropology, Washington University, St. Louis,MO, USAe-mail: trkidder@wustl.edu

    H. LiuHenan Provincial institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology,Zhengzhou, Henan, China

    Archaeol Anthropol SciDOI 10.1007/s12520-014-0184-5

  • theoretical context. Using the concept of rigidity traps derivedfrom resilience theory, we offer an explanation for how long-term human-environmental interaction and sociopoliticaldecision-making interacted to generate a fixed pathway thatcreated a situation where massive flooding would inevitablyhappen in the lower reaches of the river. This flooding isimplicated in the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty andshapes the arc of Chinese history. Our research incorporatesthree theoretical perspectives that illustrate how geoarchaeologycan bridge some theoretical gaps in the field: first, it ismultiscalar (Stein 1993, 2001; Stein et al. 2003) and multisited;two, it situates the research agenda within a larger framework ofhuman-environmental interactions to test contemporary asser-tions about the role(s) of humans in altering the environment;and third, it eschews the notion that geoarchaeology is only asubset of the larger field of archaeology. Indeed, we think it isthe capacity and desire of those who identify asgeoarchaeologists to think of themselves not as specialists butas archaeologists first and foremost that has the most prominentplace in any roadmap to escape the specialist cul de sac.

    Collapse, resilience, and rigidity

    Collapse has become a major focus of much recent research.Many explanations exist for why a political system collapses

    (Tainter 1988, p. 42) and scholars vigorously debate collapseand its root causes (Butzer and Endfield 2012; Cowgill 1988;Diamond 2005; Goldsworthy 2009, pp. 1125; Heather 2005,pp. 443459; McAnany and Yoffee 2010b; Schwartz 2006;Turchin 2003; Ward-Perkins 2005, pp. 110; Yoffee 1988).Typically, catastrophic environmental and climate events havebeen invoked to account for large-scale political upheavalsamong a variety of states and societies (deMenocal 2001;Diamond 2005; Fagan 1999, 2000, 2004, 2008; Weiss 1997;Weiss and Bradley 2001; Weiss et al. 1993). Counter narra-tives that emphasize political, social, economic and moralfailures are abundant, however (Brta 2008; Bowersock1988; Gibbon 17761788; McAnany and Yoffee 2010a;Tainter 1988, 2006; Webster 2002). Recently, the role ofhumans as an agent of negative environmental and evenclimate change has been emphasized (Chew 2001; Diamond2005; Montgomery 2007; Ruddiman 2003, 2005, 2007). Inmost instances, these explanations rely on a single cause as theprimary agent of change and multicausal or network linkedinteractions and amplifications are only now being recognized(Dearing 2008; Dugmore et al. 2012; Dunning et al. 2012;Kinzig et al. 2006; Redman 2005; Redman et al. 2004;Redman and Kinzig 2003). As noted by Butzer (2012, p.3632), though, collapse is multicausal and rarely abrupt.We are still a long way from understanding the effects ofclimatic and environmental changes on historically known

    Changan Zhengzhou

    A

    B

    Yellow RiverBe

    ijing

    C H I N A

    Fig. 1 The Yellow River, China,and location of research discussedin text. Box A indicates the extentof Fig. 2; Box B indicates thelocation of Fig. 3; the star in BoxB is the location of the Anshangand Sanyangzhuang sites. Theapproximate extent of the LoessPlateau is indicated by shading

    Archaeol Anthropol Sci

  • human societies and here a multiscalar approach togeoarchaeology can contribute a meaningful perspective onsociopolitical transformations. Here, we generally followTainter (1988, pp. 45), for whom collapse is a rapid signif-icant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.

    The example we use is the collapse of the Western HanDynasty. The Han (206 B.C.A.D. 220) was one of theworlds great empires, but during the last decades B.C. andthe first decade A.D., the Dynasty was withering and in A.D.923, Wang Mang seized the throne from the Western Hanemperor and instituted a new dynasty.WangMangs reign wasbrief; he was overthrown in A.D. 23 and replaced by the firstEastern Han emperor after more than a decade of civil war.There is considerable debate about the circumstances attend-ing to these events but Chinese historians emphasize the moraland social failings of the late Western Han emperors and notethe importance of diminished governmental control of theeconomy and courtly intrigues in the waning years of thedynasty. The most common causes ascribed to Wang Mangsfailure is that he was excessively ambitious, prone to overreliance on Confucian principles of governance not suited tothe times, and fundamentally incompetent; he thus lackedmoral authority to lay claim to the Mandate of Heaven (Ban1962; Clark 2008; Fan 1965).

    In contrast, Western scholars have ascribed Wang Mangsfailure to external factors. Bielenstein (1947, 1953, 1986)argues that floods in the lower Yellow River caused wide-spread famine, political unrest, and ultimately rebellion thatdirectly lead to the collapse of Wang Mangs government.Many Western historians have accepted the conclusion thatflooding caused the collapse of Wang Mangs brief reign(Bielenstein 1986, pp. 242244; De Crespigny 2007, xvi, p.196; Hansen 2000, p. 135; Kruger 2003, pp. 142143; Tanner2009, pp. 111). Recent geoarchaeological investigation atSanyangzhuang confirms that there were massive floods atthe end of Western Han and strengthens the argument thatmajor environmental change is implicated in the collapse oflate Western Han (Kidder et al. 2012b).

    External causality of this sort requires that we assume aone-to-one correlation between a climate/environmental eventand historical causation; in this instance, historians have ar-gued that floods are debilitating and cause collapse becausethe flood dispossessed a large number of peasants from theirfields and starvation and disease caused large-scale unrest thatultimately was mobilized into popular rebellion against theemperor (Bielenstein 1986). However, while we can discernthe presumed causality in the context of the Han collapse, wedo not as yet understand what caused the floods that led to thishistorical collapse. Here, we use geoarchaeological ap-proaches to explore the complex interactions between climate,environment, population, politics and religion, and technolo-gy and the ways these myriad influences acted over differentspatial and temporal scales to shape the specific circumstances

    that led to the floods that caused the collapse of Western Han.In this instance, we focus on evidence for human interventionin the Yellow River fluvial system and the ways these anthro-pogenic efforts shifted the river beyond a geomorphic thresh-old leading, inevitably, to massive flooding.

    Much of the recent emphasis on thinking about collapsesand their causes and consequences have been framed in termsof the Resilience Theory (Holling 1973; Holling andGunderson 2002). In contrast with traditional collapsemodels,which assume that decomposition is an end state for all socialforms, the Resilience Theory posits cyclicity and adaptability.Thus, socio-natural systems do not change continuously orchaotically; rather, change is episodic. Periods of relativestability are punctuated by sudden change that releases andreorganizes the entire system. Changes are neither uniform norscale invariant; change is discontinuous, patchy, and non-linear at all scales. These socio-natural systems do not havea single equilibrium with homeostatic controls to remain nearit; instead, multiple equilibria commonly define functionallydifferent states. These conditions yield the important observa-tion that socio-natural systems that apply fixed rules toachieve constant results, independent of changes in scale andcontext, attain a false stability that is unable to absorb changes,thereby losing resilience and becoming vulnerable to failure(Abel et al. 2006; Folke et al. 2010; Holling and Gunderson2002; Martin-Breen and Anderies 2011; Redman 2005).

    One of the critiques of the Resilience Theory is that it is asystems-based approach that describes a process but fails toexplain how the process is actually transformed. ChallengingResilience Theory forces us to think about the role of humansas agents of socio-natural change, adaptation, and innovation:Things dont just happen, they happen because people(agents) make choices. However, the agency is never whollyfree; it is always constrained.

    Resilience theorists have articulated the concept ofRigidity Traps as one form to explain how systems andagents as parts of systems get locked-in to certain pathwaysthat are effectively socially pathological because they do notsustain resilience. Rigidity traps occur in socialecologicalsystems when institutions become highly connected, self-reinforcing, and inflexible. Further, the rigidity trap is char-acterized by low heterogeneity and high connectivity of enti-ties There is little capacity to dissipate stress, and stress mayaccumulate to high levels (Carpenter and Brock 2008). Asnoted by Hegmon et al. (2008), Rigidity traps may be unin-tended consequences of numerous repetitive acts that repro-duce or extend the [socio-natural] structure (i.e., a bureaucra-cy). In other cases, some segments of a society may contributeto the creation of a rigidity trap by intentionally attempting tomaintain a situation that they perceive to be beneficial.

    Rigidity traps may be the outcome of unintended conse-quences: e.g., environmental change creates path dependencythat generates a situation where one response is perceived to

    Archaeol Anthropol Sci

  • be (or may in fact be) the only viable option. Theymay also bethe outgrowth of sociopolitical systems attempting to ensurehomeostasis. Rigidity is the inverse of resilience, and must beunderstood as a social phenomenonan outcome of socialchoices about how to respond to other social actors as well asthe extant social rules and physical resources (Beck et al.2007). But explanations/definitions of rigidity traps fail whenthey require tautology-rigidity ensues when a system becomesinflexible. There is nothing inherently rigid in a human insti-tution that is highly connected or self-reinforcing. In fact, atlarge social scales (e.g., states) high connectivity can haveexceptional benefit by being able to rapidly respond to novelsituations and to mobilize large numbers of agents to act in aconcerted fashion. For example, the Chinese response tofamine relief was, for much of time, and certainly in earlyHan times, quite flexible (Li 2007) despite the inter-connectedness and self-reinforcing tendencies of the ChineseImperial system and its ever expanding bureaucracy. One ofthe key ideas in Resilience Theory is that while the systemdoes benefit from high connectivity in the short term, the sameaction should lead the system to the fragile phase in the longrun, eventually leading to the collapse of the system.However, this presumes that agents are incapable of interven-ing to correct the system. We feel that the Hegmon et al.approach, seeing rigidity as an outgrowth of unintentionalactions or of the specific strategies of agent...