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Plants and AnimalsCataloging the Past for Clues to Future Climate Adaptation

Cataloging the Past for Clues to Future Climate Adaptation

Cataloging the Past for Clues to Future Climate Adaptation

Researcher Kristina Douglass holds an elephant bird egg and an ostrich egg.

Kristina Douglass holding a solid of an elephant bird egg and an ostrich egg for scale. Credit: Bill Guth, Yale

Kristina Douglass, an associate professor and the primary faculty hire for the Columbia Climate School, credits her unconventional upbringing for her interest in archaeology, anthropology, and human-environmental interaction.

Douglass was raised in a family of adoptees. She and her siblings were all adopted from different countries—an experience and way of regarding the world she now says set the stage for her research and profession trajectory.

“None of us in my family have shared genetics or culture. We come from everywhere in the world and we grew up moving everywhere in the world because our parents worked in foreign aid and development, and international public health,” she said.

Growing up, Douglass lived in several countries on the African continent and offshore Madagascar, in addition to in Ukraine. In these different settings, she became “sensitized very early to the importance of distinct histories and cultures and the way they play out in our present-day lives, but in addition in how we predict in regards to the future and the way we are going to cope with issues like climate change and other environmental disruptions,” she said.

Returning to Madagascar as an adult, Douglass has spent greater than 11 years directing the Morombe Archaeological Project within the Velondriake Marine Protected Area of southwest Madagascar, an initiative that comes with archaeological, biological, and paleo-ecological findings to review the evolving relationship between humans and their environment. Douglass was previously the Joyce and Doug Sherwin Early Profession Professor within the Rock Ethics Institute and assistant professor of anthropology and African studies at Penn State University.

Within the Q&A below, Douglass discusses her profession path, ongoing research, and the courses she plans to show on the Columbia Climate School.

What drew you to your current research combining archeology, anthropology, and climate change?

I used to be all the time very aware of how our culture and background shapes who we’re and influences the choices we make. Once I look back now, it makes perfect sense to me that I’d have found my way, though not directly, to anthropology and to archeology, each of which permit us to delve into the cultural contexts and long term histories of various places, after which the knowledge derived from experiences getting passed from one generation to the following.

Within the work I’ve been doing in Madagascar, I used to be really interested by environmental and climate conditions that folks reply to and have responded to over many generations—tons of to 1000’s of years’ value of transmission of information. I knew that one way or the other we would have liked to make higher connections between that past knowledge of human response to climate variability and other changes, and what’s happening today.

Our research there hopes to construct a bridge between knowledge from the past, including really deep time knowledge. What’s happening with communities today who’re on the front lines of the climate crisis and what can this help us do in the longer term once we know conditions are going to worsen in some ways, especially for communities who produce a majority of their very own food—fishing communities, pastoral communities, agricultural communities. They’ll be most directly impacted and have the smallest amount of buffer in the case of intensifying climate change.

Quite a lot of my projects do involve traditional archeological methods like surveys and excavating sites and analyzing the fabric culture that we get better, but we also rely very heavily on oral histories, technologies like distant sensing and machine learning, and geochemical methods to higher understand past environments.

What has been the response of the communities you’ve worked with? How do you foster effective collaboration?

Anthropology and archeology do not need an awesome track record of being community centered. At worst, there are a number of experiences wherein archeologists and anthropologists have done a number of harm.

As any individual who was adopted and who moved around lots, I feel the best way I operate as a researcher and a scientist may be very much tied to that sense of getting to seek out a method to create and develop into a part of communities wherever I’m going.

That is paired with the indisputable fact that, as a graduate student, I felt very very like an imposter within the discipline. I didn’t study any anthropology as an undergraduate. I studied classics and environmental science, and I majored in classical archeology. Once I got here into the Ph.D. program, I had almost no experience with excavation. Archeology can also be a predominantly white field, so there wasn’t really anybody who looked like me. It was difficult to seek out and discover many mentors who could help me feel like I had a spot there.

But the results of that’s after I went to Madagascar to begin doing reconnaissance for a possible Ph.D. project in 2011, I went in pondering, ‘I don’t know anything. I would like to seek out people who find themselves willing to show me.’ I knew I desired to work on Madagascar partly because I had grown up there and I wanted to return as knowledgeable to tackle a few of the questions on environment and the way ancient communities had influenced and shaped Madagascar’s really extraordinary environment. I approached people in these local communities as leading experts on the landscape, environment, and cultural and social contexts.

I actually have built an exquisite set of collaborations with communities within the Velondriake Marine Protected Area within the years since. It’s about 35 different villages in Commune de Befandefa. All the choices we make in regards to the project are community-driven. I’ve learned that real collaboration involves not only bringing people to the table, so to talk, but in addition relinquishing power over decision-making and over establishing what the general goals are.

After all it’s not an ideal process. In 2019, we wrote a paper together wherein we examined critically the degree to which we were a collaborative and community-centered project. It was a very illuminating exercise.

A research team in Madagascar standing in front of their field lab.

The Morombe Archaeological Project field team standing in front of the sphere lab in Madagascar at the tip of the 2014 season of survey and excavations within the Velondriake Marine Protected Area. Credit: MAP Team

What current initiatives or projects are you most enthusiastic about?

One project that is absolutely exciting is the Vezo Ecological Knowledge Exchange. Vezo are communities of fishers on the southwest coast of Madagascar, which a lot of our collaborators would discover with. This project began as a two-week travel exchange where we got funding internally at Penn State on the time to bring a team of eight delegates from southwest Madagascar to the U.S. We spent one week at Penn State and one week on the Smithsonian.

The concept was, on the U.S. side of the team, we all the time get this chance to go to Madagascar and be hosted by community members there and to work on the project. But then we take our samples and we leave to do evaluation, processing, cope with our grants and funding, and work on the publications. What we learned from that self-critique paper was that as soon because the team splits off, that degree of knowledge- and power-sharing drops, and so the project isn’t any longer really collaborative.

With this group of delegates, we were in a position to create a recent level of relationship, to host them in our own homes, to indicate them the ins and outs of the university and museum settings we work in. We had workshops in a wide range of different labs and discussed what sorts of scientific questions might be posed. It was a tremendous opportunity to generate recent ideas, share and exchange knowledge, and create a recent level of transparency within the project. After the trip, we continued with a series of workshops held in Madagascar with the delegates. They’ve now develop into really essential collaborators by way of community outreach.

One other exciting project is co-led by considered one of my current post-docs and my former advisee at Penn State, and the team in Madagascar. There’s a number of discuss having communities adapt to things like climate change using knowledge about what adaptations could work or what initiatives might be implemented, but a number of times initiatives fail and it’s not clear why. We developed a tool kit wherein you solicit a community brainstorm of existing challenges, and you are trying to seek out out all of the potential opportunities and constraints. And then you definately generate, collectively with the community, an inventory of ideas for a way those particular challenges might be met in ways which can be locally relevant and appropriate. We did the case study in southwest Madagascar in December and ran a variety of community workshops, and now we’re writing up the project and attempting to publish the toolkit. It’s a really practical instrument that I feel might be useful to a wide selection of organizations.

We even have a National Science Foundation–funded project, constructing on previous work through a Carnegie Fellowship I used to be awarded a few years ago, to mix paleoclimate reconstruction with oral history recording and archeology. We’re attempting to trace social memory of responses to climate change in southwest Madagascar. For instance, if we’re talking to local historians and so they tell us that when drought conditions last greater than three years in a row, people start to have interaction in rainmaking ceremonies where they arrange altars or particular spaces to encourage the rain to fall. What does that appear like? And would traces of those altars preserve within the archeological record? We’re calling those material signatures of human response. Through oral histories, we’ll attempt to create a protracted list or database of what these signatures may be after which we’ll use traditional archeological methods, go into deeper time, discover sites that span the previous couple of thousand years, and see if we discover any of those material signatures after which in the event that they correspond in any method to the paleoclimate record we’ve got for the world.

The research team in Madagscar presenting their archeological research.

The Morombe Archaeological Project team presenting archaeological research to the Velondriake Association, which was formed by communities in Commune de Befandefa, Southwest Madagascar, to sustainably manage local fisheries. Photo credit: MAP team

What classes are you looking forward to teaching on the Columbia Climate School?

One class I’d prefer to teach here is Black Ecologies. The way in which I’ve taught this previously is to take a look at deep time examples of how African and Afro-descended peoples have interacted with their environment. We cover topics going way back to domestication of varied plants and animals on the African continent. Then partway through the semester, we cross the Atlantic and we spend time understanding the experiences of Black peoples within the Americas and the Caribbean as they navigated the system of slavery and mercantilism and the intense environmental injustices that followed. The category can also be designed to shine a lightweight on how much of the built and “natural” environment that surrounds us has been shaped by innovations, stewardship of and developments of Black scientists and communities. In that class, we also discuss redlining and issues in urban contexts which have disproportionately impacted Black communities. Latest York City could be a great place to take a look at this.

I’d also love to show a category that examines how we all know what we find out about past climate change, and the way can that help us cope with the present climate crisis. How will we know once we reconstruct an accurate climate record? How far back can we extrapolate from one particular climate record previously? Can the past actually teach us anything of value as we’re facing a reasonably unique and way more intense climate crisis today?

What advice would you offer to students who want to pursue similar research areas?

Don’t be afraid to focus first on asking the essential questions. Sometimes I feel students get a bit bogged down wanting to learn a method first and becoming an authority at a selected method, like learning tips on how to do distant sensing or using satellite imagery. That’s an exquisite set of skills to have. But moderately than simply specializing in that, don’t be afraid to think first about what the questions are that may drive the science. Ideally, they needs to be community-centered questions, but that’s a separate conversation.

Don’t be afraid to tackle something simply because you don’t feel like you’ve all of the expertise needed. The climate crisis and the challenges we face more broadly are going to require superstar teams, and that just means multidisciplinary teams that draw on the range of our intellect and skills. Everybody has something of value to contribute and we’d like to develop into more comfortable constructing strong partnerships and collaborations.


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