Extreme Environments in Archaeology: Disaster

  • Eduardo Corona-MEmail author
  • María Isabel Campos Goenaga
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51726-1_2864-1


Historically, the so-called “natural disasters” have been considered an important study object among archaeologists, such as the case of the renowned localities of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Italy), excavated since the eighteenth century. However, the explanation of the disaster has increased throughout the twentieth century, since it has been invoked as the cause of various social transformations, especially because of their effects on complex societies (Sheets 1980; Buren 2001). Currently, it is also claimed that natural hazards and disasters are among the great challenges of twenty-first century archaeology by the growing interest on this issue (Kintigh et al. 2014; d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2016).

However, it is noteworthy that archaeology does not have yet a complete documentation regarding localities, theoretical and methodological approaches, or disciplinary collaborative agreements. Unlike what it has been done from the anthropological and historical perspective (Brown 2017), where various natural phenomena have been documented in a long chronology, such as: El Niño/La Niña events; droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, vulcanisms, among others. The aim of this work is reviewing the protocols for the study of disasters from an archaeological perspective and the impulse that has received from other disciplines, for its characterization and explanation.

Definition: The Disaster Is Social and the Phenomenon Is Natural

Human populations on the planet have colonized and occupied a diversity of environments, from the tundra and the desert to the tropical forests, arising a large diversity of economies going from the hunter-gatherers to the most sophisticated urban populations. All of this produces a great cultural diversity and generate a myriad of attitudes toward to nature (Ramos Roca and Corona 2017; Cooper and Sheets 2012). Then, in human and nature relationships, nothing is static, everything is constantly changing, but also some aspects have persistence. The relationship that societies establish with nature is seen at the same time as an ideological perspective, material reality, and scenario of human activity, where is an increased concern about the dangers of sudden environmental changes or the presence of episodic events that affect them (Arnold 1996; Cooper and Sheets 2012). A central element in the analysis of these phenomena is the tension that exists between the natural and the cultural, since this defines the role of each of them in the social construction of risk, in the accumulation of vulnerability or in the disaster itself. Natural phenomena are described according to the scale of affectation, the location and its area of influence. That is, they can be classified according to their etiology, but also by their scale, in episodic and short- or long-term events (Cooper and Sheets 2012; García Acosta 2005).

Because of its scale, short-term events are related to changes in climate and seasonality, but also to biological events, such as pests and epidemics, would also be located; while the long-term ones are linked mainly to temperature, such as changes in marine currents that affect climate (El Niño/La Niña event), desertification, and environmental erosion, among others. On all of them, societies tend to adapt, but also affect the soils, flora, and fauna, sometimes irreversibly, so that can lead to profound changes in populations and societies, which also increases the risk survival. Others are episodic, high-energy events that affect landscapes and human populations, such as: volcanism, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, frosts, uncontrolled fires, and floods. Finally, another category of dangers may be related to a natural event, but they are more linked to management from the social sphere, such as famines, arson, and social conflicts, including war, which increase both levels of human mortality, as well as those of environmental impact (Cooper and Sheets 2012).

This type of studies considers two premises: societies are not passive recipients of a phenomenon or natural event, therefore, the interaction between society and phenomenon must be considered, characterizing each of them specifically. The episode or incidence of an adverse natural phenomenon is accompanied by other social, political, economic, and cultural facts, which must be assessed to understand the phenomenon and its context, determining its scope, results, and consequences.

For archaeology, that usually has incomplete and interpretative evidence, it can start from the basic proposal to characterize a disaster, which is summarized in Table 1.
Table 1

Basic characteristics of natural disasters (after Shimoyama in Torrence and Grattan 2002)




The original process or event that set the scene for the disaster, e.g., extreme natural events such as volcano, flood, earthquake, and tsunami

Immediate causes

Specific aspects of the event, which have direct effects on human life and property

Local conditions

Natural and sociocultural variables that establish the local setting at the time of the event


Concrete negative effects


Process in which victims and observers assess the extent and repercussions of the damages


Acts carried out following the disaster. These include both short-term actions, such as abandonment and cleaning up, etc., and long-term adaptations, such as moving to a new area, collapse of social system, institution of preventive measures, adoption of ritual practices to avoid further occurrence of disasters, etc.

Natural events can be triggers of a disaster or are threats when they are considered risk agents, based on the probability that it manifests itself in a period of time and in a specific site. Therefore, a risk equation must integrate both the threat and vulnerability, understood as the inability of a human community to respond adequately to the phenomenon. Consequently, disaster, although linked to a natural phenomenon, has a character and a social definition, which must be explored and understood as a whole (Torrence and Grattan 2002; García Acosta 2005).

Historical Background: Key Issues/Current

Although studies on natural phenomena have been recurrent in geography, geology, and other physicochemical and natural disciplines, they considered the societies as passive elements facing the power of nature. In the 1980s, the “alternative model” emerged (Maskrey 1993), which represented the most important effort made up to the moment, in order to integrate a social theory about disasters. This was the first text that systematically presented a radical and integral critique of the dominant physicalist paradigm. Hewitt’s essay was decisive in locating vulnerability, not only as a feature of different threats but, above all, originated by economic, political, and social processes (Buren 2001).

From this, we know, but do not follows, the perspective that addresses the archeology of the disaster, such as that dealing with the urgent requirements of identification of victims and research scenarios, after mass death events, since they were considered more linked to forensic processes (Gould 2013; Harrison 2016).

From the anthropology, it was observed then that there are disasters with a long-term development, those that are manifested after a sustained cultural use of the environment, produced by the population growth and the landscape modification, where some cases are: the urbanization processes, the impact of the infrastructure, the systems of social organization, all of them inserted in the relation of the societies with the environment. At the beginning, researchers proposed that disasters were “natural” and privileged their study in “high-risk societies,” establishing an equation, where the disaster is equal to the risk of occurrence of a phenomenon due to the vulnerability of the affected society. Currently, the concept of risk and its management are linked, so that the disaster is definitely located in the social sphere, which are influenced as much by the threats, i.e., the physical events that may happen, as well as for vulnerability (Maskrey 1993).

In the 1990s, there is the “vulnerability approach” or “vulnerability paradigm,” which makes the analysis of disasters explicit from the perspective of the families and human communities involved. Then, the historical evidence shows that the risk and disaster are multidimensional and multifactorial processes, which is the result from the association between threats from natural phenomena and certain conditions of vulnerability, which are built and reconstructed over time (Blaikie et al. 1994).

From an archaeological perspective, then it must be considered that natural phenomena have an important role as a trigger of a disaster, but they are not the cause. This is of multiple nature and is found more in the socioeconomic and environmental characteristics of the impacted region (Van Buren 2001; Campos Goenaga 2016; Cooper and Sheets 2012).


The study of disasters and natural phenomena is in principle multidisciplinary, involving fields, such as meteorology, geology, and geography, and includes social sciences, such as anthropology and psychology, but up to the end of the twentieth century, they did not have a paradigm in common and each one emphasized some particular natural, social or cultural aspects. Buren (2001) highlights that geography was one of the disciplines where disaster research was developed and of great influence in archaeology, for the emphasis on human populations; however, it had a greater biases and funding towards the technological and physical science aspects, in general, aspects that are related to the economic-industrial impact that these activities could generate, an were debated at these time (Buren 2001).

Perhaps the most complicated issue is how archaeology could characterize and explain the disaster from a social perspective. There are several examples where, although a series of hazard events are documented, but the effects on the populations that inhabited the region are not investigated, as can be observed on volcanism in Central America (Torrence and Grattan 2002) and México (Barrera Rodriguez 1997); floods, plagues, and other events in the European Middle East (Brown 2017); earthquakes, tsunamis, and coastal subsidence in the American Northwest (Losey 2005). In most of all of those cases, a prediction menu was assumed for the situation of the human populations: the destruction of the settlements, the migration, and in the best scenario the adaptation and the environmental resiliencies, with which an image of cultural stability was offered. The prevailing hypothesis was that “simple” societies seemed to be more resilient than complex societies, since the latter relied on a built environment and economies based on labor specialization, redistribution, and extensive trade routes (Torrence and Grattan 2002).

It appears that the researchers concentrated on particular cases of episodic phenomena, which were commonly assigned as “disasters” because their inhabitants could not be facing nature. Therefore, a diversity of variables and situations were omitted, especially with regard to the long-term effects of the event and the possibilities of recovering the environment, human populations, the settlements, and particular habitat that constitutes their environment. It even obscures the discussion about the particularities of the natural event that triggered the disaster, for example, the intensity of the earthquakes, the scope of volcanism, which today anthropology has shown to be key parts to understand as part of the equation that includes vulnerability, risk and disaster itself (Torrence and Grattan 2002; García Acosta 2005; Campos Goenaga 2016).

The methodological aspect is one of the most developed in recent years, where it has been observed the effectiveness of incorporating various sources to analyze these human-nature interactions, considering that archaeology should have the tools for the study of social decline and collapse, since that long-term chronologies could be achieved, and are a central part of the archaeological record. In most cases, where in the absence of written materials, the material remains of societies and stratigraphic contexts are evidences most important to study these phenomena (Brown 2017).

However, the practice to retrieving environmental and socials information through the revision of historical, ethnohistorical, and even ethnographic evidence is practically the most frequent and allows to establish long chronological sequences, related to changes of local or regional landscapes, sociocultural practices, impact and presence of episodic events or events biological as the presence of pests and epidemics. These aspects provide to archaeology with a series of alternative evidences to construct or discuss the hypotheses that are formulated regarding the study of natural phenomena and disasters (Torrence and Grattan 2002; García Acosta 2005; Campos Goenaga 2016.

In that context, an emerging discipline is archaeo-seismology, which although initiated as a “curiosity” collecting data on sources and contrasted with field data, became a multidisciplinary collective effort to obtain the greatest amount of information from ancient earthquakes records, which can be assessed by the growing number of catalogues and the regional and intensity information contained in each one of them. In some cases, this information is the basis for establishing regional cultures for the prevention of earthquake damage (Sintubin 2011).

International Perspectives: What Is the International View From Where the Author Is?

In the light of above process and discussions, various scholars interested in promoting interdisciplinary research have emerged, promoting collaborations with colleagues from the physical-natural fields and the social sciences, either through periodic academic events or establishing research networks.

One of the first experiences in Latin America was the Red de Estudios Sociales en Prevención de Desastres en América Latina (Social Studies Network on Disaster Prevention), which work from 1992 to 2015 (http://www.desenredando.org/). Another one with mainly Ibero-American scope and influence is the Red Temática de Estudios Interdisciplinarios sobre Vulnerabilidad, Construcción Social del Riesgo y Amenazas Naturales y Biológicas (Thematic Network of Interdisciplinary Studies on Vulnerability, Social Construction of Risk and Natural and Biological Threats) (http://sociedadyriesgo.redtematica.mx/). Most recently was announced the work of the Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance (http://www.gheahome.org/).

These are some of the collective academic efforts that offer ongoing dialogue between researchers (Symposium, Congress, Seminars, Workshops), outreach actions (courses, brochures, articles, books, social networks, and mass media), as well as Internet portals for free access to written and multimedia files on all aspects related to risk, vulnerability, disasters, and, in general, perspectives on human-environment interactions.

These efforts are supported by international foundations, by public and private organizations, both at national and international levels. One of the most notable organisms is the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (https://www.unisdr.org/), where it can be found an up-to-date statistics to measure risk and vulnerability in current societies. However, it is worth highlighting the limited and marginal collaboration of archaeology in this growing field of research.

Future Directions

The apparent dominance of humans over nature is daily tested, as populations are increasingly vulnerable to natural phenomena and disasters, among other causes due to the increased rate of population growth, the loss of habitats, and the intensive use of natural resources, including the nonrenewable. In this context, it is reiterated that archaeology can make key contributions to the interdisciplinary study of the disaster in various aspects (Torrence and Grattan 2002; Cooper and Sheets 2012), here is commented some emerging and promising issues in the current literature.

One is filling the gap between salvage archaeology after a disaster, and its later contributions both to the recovery of the spaces of daily life prior to the disaster, and in the understanding of the symbols of loss and, in general, to collaborate in creating a collective memory (Bagwell 2009). A close collaboration with anthropologists and in general with civil and governmental organizations involved in the processes can be made.

The combination of geoscientific and archaeology studies could help to reinterpret the episodic natural phenomena of the past allows providing data and time series in the establishment of patterns that are useful for the establishment of public policies and for outreach processes (Riede 2017).

The archaeology could document the circumstances in which humans adapted to the particular environments that are generated by climatic changes. In several regions the data, however, may be scarce, so it is possible to alternately work in the construction of computational models that allow to recreate in a reliable way the environmental scenarios and thus establish more refined hypotheses about the adaptive strategies used by human populations (d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2016). It should be noted that those models could be adjusted to include the variables referring to natural phenomena, especially in those regions that are susceptible to the presence of episodic phenomena, such as coasts, seismic, hydrographic, volcanic regions, among others.

Recognizing the importance that disasters and natural phenomena have had and have in the daily life of human populations, it cannot be ignored that these can also influence the survival of a series of symbolic elements, either sites or objects, several of them considered as cultural heritage, protected by local, regional or world-wide legislation. Development of methodologies to measure the vulnerability of these elements is important to establish measures of protection or mitigation of risks applied by civil or governmental agencies, responsible for the preservation of those sites (Minos-Minopoulos et al. 2017).

Since the study of disasters is located in the sphere of interactions between humans and the environment, this implies revising the theoretical aspects that allows clarifying its dynamics from other perspectives, especially if the humans were a particular element of the environment, belonging to the past and present biodiversity.

The human is also a species with a sophisticated scientific knowledge, that includes the so-called ethno-knowledge as part of the scientific thinking (Ramos Roca and Corona 2017; Fitzhugh et al. 2018). Then, the research from ethnobiological and biocultural spheres highlights the importance and influence of those local knowledge on the use of humanized landscapes at rural localities and how also that modifies the influence of globalization in the cities of the planet. That understanding of different perspectives may be necessary to address the complex problem of the disaster in a diachronic way, since that affects to all the biodiversity, but also to a particular species, which is human, and whose survival depends on their intuition and ability to dialogue. Our opportunity to continue the hominization process depends, perhaps, on our ability to continue understanding, and of build societies based on collective knowledge with quality of life and sustainable for the planet.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eduardo Corona-M
    • 1
    Email author
  • María Isabel Campos Goenaga
    • 1
  1. 1.Centro INAH MorelosInstituto Nacional de Antropología e HistoriaCuernavacaMexico

Section editors and affiliations

  • Vivian Scheinsohn
    • 1
  1. 1.Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano - Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científico y Técnicas/Universidad de Buenos AiresBuenos AiresArgentina