5816 The Little Ice Age and the Kuril Ainu: A Study in Complex Human Ecodynamics

Sunday, February 19, 2012: 1:30 PM
Room 211 (VCC West Building)
Ben Fitzhugh , University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Archaeological history in the remote Kuril Islands reflects an overall patterns of persistent occupation by a succession of cultural groups beginning around 4000 years ago.  These maritime hunter-gatherers appear to have thrived in the archipelago between 2500 and 800 years ago, with substantial communities living throughout the archipelago.  Mysteriously, human settlement appears to decline drastically between AD 1200 and 1400, increasing again only about AD 1600, when settlements of the ethnographically known Kuril Ainu are first found.  Because the timing of this apparent abandonment coincides with the peak of the climatic anomaly known as the "Little Ice Age", it is tempting to impute a direct causal connection.  However, evidence of successful adaptation to the archipelago in prior cold periods renders such an explanation insufficient.  Instead, this paper examines a more complex dynamic in which Kuril settlers, by virtue of their dependence on trade networks, were made vulnerable to environmentally implicated political and economic changes in the imperial heartlands of Japan and China.  Complex chain reactions from climate change to political economic change to the ability of small island populations to sustain themselves has direct implications for human vulnerabilities to far more extreme climate changes of the present and future.  Global climate change poses the greatest risks for disenfranchised and marginalized communities who depend on commercial interaction and occasional support from more powerful and wealthy interests elsewhere.  The fate of the Kuril Islanders in the mid second millennium AD provides insights into the nature of such vulnerabilities, and perhaps the resilience of communities to survive despite them.
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