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April 2008
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The sunnier side of the street

Satellite The impact of climate change on forced migration

A recent conference in London organized by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) highlighted in stark terms how many people across the world may be forced to migrate if climate change is allowed to continue unchecked. It also drew attention to what actions are needed to prevent such wide-scale humanitarian disasters taking place.

There was near-unanimity among the speakers that runaway climate change is likely to have a devastating effect on the numbers of people forced to abandon their homes, often for an uncertain and dispossessed future. A range of exciting solutions were also discussed, all of which hinge on the political will to implement them. Read more on OnIslam (Formerly Islam Online).

Can history help halt the runaway train?

Stonehenge Dec 12 043Is it possible to use the lessons of the past to combat the acceleration of global warming asks BBC History magazine? Dr Mark Levene, historian and climate change activist, Kate Prendergast and other historians and archaeologists give their views to Gail Dixon

Dr Spencer Weart says:

Some people think the climate change problem is so overwhelming that nothing effective can be done. Exposing them to the history of how people have responded to difficult problems should inspire them to a more hopeful view. It’s not so much responses to scarcity and adversity that we should be looking at but responses to the very greatest ‘security’ threats and moral failings. Holding climate change to a minimum, and adapting to the changes that it triggers, will be a challenge comparable to vanquishing fascism, communism and slavery... although in fact it can be done with a lot less expense and loss of life. Perhaps it’s more comparable to the victories over smallpox and prevention of nuclear war, which have relied on limited funds and international cooperation. Historians can show how all these problems originally seemed horribly insurmountable, but were solved, or at least held at bay, once people got to work.

Dr Spencer Weart is director of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, Maryland, US

The Last Big Meltdown - how our ancestors survived climate change

256px-Saddle_Quern_and_Rubbing_StoneOur prehistoric ancestors survived rapid climate change and rising temperatures as extreme as those we face today. What can they tell us about global warming?

Most obvious is the degree to which they prove how adaptive we are as a species. Large climatic and environmental changes did not make them ‘give up and go home’; instead they adapted, survived – and lived to tell the tale. We might draw some comfort from this, and hope that, unless present-day global warming precipitates a mass extinction event, our descendants will be able to adapt to almost anything, even if the effects of our current actions are hugely destructive.

If we want to see our connection to our ancestors, the first agriculturalists, then our industrialized world lies at the tail end of a millennia-long process in which we have tamed and exploited the Earth and its resources. Indeed, it is these very processes that have caused global warming. But we can’t invoke such continuity without acknowledging the differences. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers and early farmers lived simply in the landscape and adapted to it by respecting and worshipping it. If we want to bequeath a stable environment to our descendants, we need to respect the values our ancestors bequeathed to us. It may be time for us to come full circle and return to more localized agriculture, to the veneration of nature and its fertility and to the interplay between the tamed and the wild, so powerfully expressed in Neolithic ritual, and upon which our lives, like theirs, still depend.

Read more in History Today.

Image from wikicommons:

Neolithic Rock Art at the Avebury Stone Circles in Southern England

015_Meaden, T, Prendergast, K and Pattison, D.(2010) in Monumental Questions: Prehistoric Megaliths, Mounds, and Enclosures, Proceedings of the XV UISPP World Congress (Lisbon, 4-9 September 2006), Vol.7 edited by David Calado, Maxiliam Baldia and Matthew Boulanger.

There is strong academic research on a range of different rock art traditions in Neolithic Britain. These traditions span much of the Neolithic era, and represent a major expressive medium for these societies.  Phone aug 11 206

This paper argues that comparable rock art exists in Neolithic Wessex, specifically at the Avebury stone circles in southern England. It presents evidence for dressed and carved stones and suggests that potential meanings associated with such carvings are integral to the wider ritual and symbolic uses of the monument. Hence it signifies a major, hitherto unrecognised, regional rock art tradition in Neolithic Britain. 

See Di Pattison's website for the full paper.

Sacred territories: astronomy, ritual and the creation of landscape at the passage grave sites of Neolithic Ireland

100_0297This article was published in Landscape in Mind: Dialogue on Space between Anthropology and Archaeology edited by George Dimitriadis, BAR 2009.

It argues that Neolithic passage-graves, and the wider landscape of Ireland and Scotland they inter-connect, was built and understood in terms of the relationship between time and place, the earthly and heavenly realms and the movement of time and its cyclical return.  100_0295

Constructing a landscape out of such ritual and cosmological understandings was, it is suggested, a major influence on the later Neolithic and on the ways in which agriculture came to be accepted and developed across the British Isles. 

Download article (pdf)

Rethinking circumcision as a traditional practice

This paper was originally given to the annual University of Calgary Chacmool archaeology conference in September 2004. It was subsequently published in the conference proceedings: Que(e)rying Archaeology, Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, Michelle Janse-SMekal (Eds.), University of Calgary, 2009.

Traditional vs Modern

Morocco December 2011 058Female circumcision (FC) is currently practiced widely across much of the Middle East and northern and central Africa. There is an extensive debate about how best to understand and respond to FC, which extends across academic, humanitarian and activist discourses. This paper argues that while this debate frequently places the practice in the context of assumptions about ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, these assumptions often have not have been subject to critical analysis. Specifically, it argues that attempts to read female circumcision as a ‘traditional’ rather than a ‘modern’ practice can work to obscure a fuller understanding of the phenomenon and may actively deny the sexual rights of vulnerable women. It therefore suggests these conceptual divisions need revision if we are to develop a fuller understanding of female circumcision, and its justification.

Download article (pdf)

Female circumcision: historical evidence

If it is relatively easy to debunk the notion that invasive circumcision of young girls in Africa and the Middle East is an extensive time-honoured 'traditional' practice, what does the historical evidence actually tell us about the real nature of these practices? It points to a complex history, with roots in the development and spread of Judaism in the Middle East and East Africa in the first millennium BC and which appears to have been influenced decisively by the arrival of the Portuguese and the development of Islam on the East African coast and its trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a subject I will return to in further detail later.

"Cradle of Civilization" plundered by war

Iraq's archaeological record is one of the richest in the world. Along with Egypt and the Indus Valley, southern Iraq was home to one of the earliest civilizations which emerged around 4000 BCE and was built by the Sumerians — as the Akkadians, the later inhabitants, called their predecessors.

The restored remains of the great ziggurat of ancient Ur, in southern Iraq.

The Sumerians were among the first people to build cities. By circa 3000 BCE, Sumer was divided into independent city-states. Each city had a temple dedicated to its god or goddess at its center and was ruled by royal, priestly, and political elites.

At their peak, the Sumerians commanded a formidable agricultural and trading economy, centered on the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and surrounding irrigation systems and canals. Regular tribute, either of labor or money, was paid to the city's temples by the local farming population. This gave the city-states real stability and wealth; allowing them to thrive for over a thousand years. In fact, they were rich enough to raise professional armies and wage war on one another.

It is the archaeological remains of Sumerian cities, as well as those of subsequent civilizations, that have been systematically pillaged since 2003 as the result of our own present-day wars. In the words of UK journalist Simon Jenkins, "Under Saddam you were likely to be tortured and shot if you let someone steal an antiquity; in today's Iraq you are likely to be tortured and shot if you don't."

Read more on OnIslam (formerly Islam Online)