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One Man’s Trash: Anthropologists Study Prehistoric Waste To Compare Societal Growth And Decline

Artifacts on a cart: This waste can include charred wood and other organic items and can help researchers date archaeological remains.
Lauren Bennett
USU's Museum of Anthropology

A group of anthropologists has released new anthropological and archaeological research that spans 10,000 years and across four continents about human energy consumption.

The research, which began three years ago, uses prehistoric waste from around the world to track ancient population’s rises and declines. This waste can include charred wood and other organic items and can help researchers date archaeological remains. The project involved scientists from Utah to Chile.

Jacob Freeman is an assistant professor at Utah State University and lead author for the research. He said the project began with one question in mind: Do human societies grow and decline at the same rate?  

“We just started discussing what kinds of questions can we answer about humanity," Freeman said. "Because when we have these big data sets we can see and ask questions that we’ve never been able to ask before.”

As for the answer to the original question...

“What we found is that there’s a lot of what’s called synchrony in that human societies are growing and declining together over the last 10,000 years," Freeman said. "It might be happening on a different scale than what it did in the past but this idea that societies become intertwined is really deep in the history of human societies."

“My name is Erick Robinson, I’m a postdoctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Wyoming.

Erick Robinson is a postdoctoral researcher in the anthropology department at the University of Wyoming. He said the research has shown that people are dependent on each other through all of their differences.

“What we’re finding is people are actually highly interdependent on each other, regardless of their cultural differences and their cultural variability or their regional environments," he said. "People are still increasingly interdependent on each other over time. It shows despite our cultural differences, we’ve relied on each other on different cultures for a long period of time.”

The research has been presented internationally to all sorts of different groups from the scientific community beyond archaeologists, including climatologists and ecologists.   

Freeman said the main goal of the research going forward is to learn from our ancestors and see how past societies handled changes in their environment. One theory that stands out as a crucial element to prevent a society from collapse is human adaptability.

“It’s important to be attendant to the differences between the past and today – there are differences," Freeman said. "But understanding how people adapted can give you some insight about what’s similar in what we’re facing today and what’s different and what might we need to know of that.”

Robinson explained this idea through an example.

“Where are the people in Miami, Florida going to move to when sea level rise increases? And if they move to the most local large city, metropolitan area, it could be Atlanta, Georgia," Robinson said. "The question then becomes can Atlanta, Georgia support those people that are migrating to that area? And only with the archaeological record do we have these instances of human migration and how human migration puts new unforeseen stresses on the environment that people are actually migrating to.”