Archaeology for Sustainable Agriculture

Abstract

How will archaeology contribute to agricultural sustainability? To address that question, this overview reflects on the diverse and complementary ways that archaeology has advanced our understanding of sustainable agriculture. Here, I assess recent archaeological research through the lens of the five principles of sustainable agriculture used by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. These principles—efficiency, conservation, rural livelihoods, resilience, and governance—highlight the social and environmental dimensions of agricultural sustainability. By drawing on case studies from around the world, I show how archaeology is uniquely situated to examine the interactions of these social and environmental dimensions over long periods of time. Archaeology’s strongest conceptual contributions to sustainable agriculture are (1) its capacity to demonstrate that sustainability is historically contingent and (2) its attention to outcomes. If transformed into meaningful action, these contributions have the potential to advance modern agricultural sustainability and environmental justice initiatives. This overview is an invitation to clarify a plan for future research and outreach. It is an invitation to imagine what an archaeology for sustainable agriculture will look like and what it will accomplish.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Joyce Marcus for her sustained support during the preparation of this manuscript. I first worked out many of these ideas while teaching a class on the archaeology of agricultural sustainability, so I would like to express my gratitude to the 12 students of University of Michigan, whose questions and feedback brought my thinking into unexplored directions. I would additionally like to thank Kent Flannery, Robin Beck, Henry Wright, Lisa Young, Christian Wells, Traci Ardren, Travis Stanton, and Mario Zimmermann for their collegial support. I prepared this manuscript while funded by the Mischa Titiev Fellowship from the University of Michigan Department of Anthropology. I would also like to thank the editorial board of the Journal of Archaeological Research and the six anonymous reviewers whose comments and direction improved this manuscript.

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Fisher, C. Archaeology for Sustainable Agriculture. J Archaeol Res 28, 393–441 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10814-019-09138-5

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Keywords

  • Agriculture
  • Sustainability
  • Food systems
  • Climate change