What Will Climate Change Do to Our Past?

The soft sandstone cliffs of Point Reyes are eroding, and sea level rise will make the problem worse. (Molly Samuel/KQED)

Mike Newland, an archaeologist at Sonoma State University and president of the Society for California Archaeology, is leading an effort to record California’s archaeological sites before they’re destroyed by rising seas. In October, an all-volunteer team surveyed 30 miles of Marin County’s coastline, and turned up 20 new-to-science archaeological sites.

Earlier this year I reported on his work with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and the National Park Service to figure out what to do about sites in Point Reyes that are threatened by climate change. You can hear that story on The California Report or read a blog post about it.

I spoke with him again last week once he’d gathered the results of the Marin survey. This is an edited version of our conversation.

How did you get started on this project?

Models show over the next century, we’re going to lose big stretches of coastline either from inundation from sea level rise or from coastal erosion. Lots of sites are right on top of cliffs, and they’re going to fall into the ocean.

I realized sites everywhere were going to be destroyed, sites all over the coastline and all over the U.S. I didn’t know if anybody was doing a survey at state level, to learn what are we really going to lose. So I decided to start looking at the coastline, and to my knowledge this is first at this level in the U.S. And it’s mostly volunteer.

Tell me what you found in the Marin survey.

Shell, a little bit of obsidian, which they would have made into tools. There were handstones, used for grinding up small seeds, and possibly some pestles that would have been used for grinding up larger seeds. This would have been the Coast Miwok, are the folks we’re talking abut here.

As we get further south, we’re going to be finding more and more military structures starting from the Civil War-era and going right up to the Nike missile silo complex north of Battery Townsley.

So we’re not just talking about one era or group of people.

It’s not just going to effect one cultural group. This is the history of all of us, everywhere, worldwide that’s going to be impacted by this.

Can you imagine what’s going to happen to the Greek coastline and all the islands? Holy cow. North Africa, the Middle East. The whole Aegean is going to get hammered. If you get six feet of sea level rise, what’s going to happen to Venice? These are some of our most important sites as a species.

Is this a whole new problem for the field of archaeology?

Back in the early 1900′s anthropologists and archaeologists were really concerned with what they saw happening with Native American communities, particularly federal government approaches to interacting — or not interacting — with the tribes. So they went about recording as much as they could — sometimes sensitively, sometimes not — recording as much as they could of the Native American cultures that were disappearing.

In some ways we’re kind of embarking on the same kind of mission, which is, we can see systemically across the state, we’re going to lose our coastal heritage. Native American and maritime, early ports, anything that’s along the cliffs or beaches, we are concerned about.

It’s the future of our field in a lot of ways. And not just the coastal stuff, but what’s going to happen with the forests if we get massive tree die-offs, what’s going to happen in the desert areas, what’s going to happen in river systems? California is such a dynamic state, you can really start to see what some of our trouble areas are going to be.

I see this as a way for archaeologists to enter into the conversation about climate change. Not just what we’re going to lose, but how we’ve dealt with it before.

So it’s not just about, what will climate change do to archaeology, but also, what can archaeology tell us about climate change.

Archaeologists have a pretty good understanding of climate change. We’re the ones who have been studying it for the past century: how people have responded to climate change. Humans have not always been successful. We’ve failed this challenge on several occasions in the past. It’s not that we’ve always adapted. There’s many times we didn’t adapt and we failed because of it.

Why not just dig all the stuff up, put it in museums and save it?

If I can put on my science hat, many of these are going to be important sites. They have information that would be good for us to have before they’re gone. I at least want to have a written record, a pattern of what’s there, before they disappear. I want us to at least try to get that done. I want to be able to look archaeologists in the face 100 years from now and say, “Hey, you know what? We gave it our best shot.”

But not all these sites are going to end up being really important. There’s going to come a time when we have to make decisions about what sites we really want to focus on, which ones are going to give us the most information. And really, there’s no room in the museums and collection facilities of the world to house just the metric tons of artifacts that are going to come out of these sites if you think globally. So everybody, not just us, is going to have to make some hard decisions about what to look at, what to keep, what to dig, what to let go.

The other part is, depending on which tribe you work with, these sites are sacred to them. You don’t just go dig a site up. For many tribes, to damage a site will physically cause harm to people within that tribal community, there’s a cause and effect there.

Sites that are going to get destroyed, the question to the tribe is going to be, is it OK for a site to be naturally destroyed? And for a lot of tribes, it is. A site that falls off in the ocean is supposed to fall off in the ocean. The question is going to be, how do they view climate change? Is climate change natural or not? If it’s man-made, which is what the scientific community is firmly behind, do they still let the site fall off in the ocean or are there burials or items they want to move further inland?

It’s very important to me that everywhere we go along the coastline, that the tribes have full participation at whatever level they choose. We’re not collecting, we’re not digging, we’re not taking artifacts away, that’s not the intent. We’re just trying to get an idea of what’s out there and what we’re about to lose.



  • David Siegel

    Molly Samuel is right that archeologists know a lot about climate change. But somehow, she misses the greater point: archeological science has proven that climate change happened again and again, countless times in the past, including throughout ancient human history before industrialization. For example, because of the work of archeologists, we know that in the southwestern US, there are now deserts where there were once moist savannahs and forests. Archeology has shown that climatic change started during the period of earliest human habitation, and took several thousands of years to transform the Southwest landscape to what we see today.

    Archeologists (and geologists) ARE uniquely qualified to prove climate change scientifically. If they would speak up objectively, they could produce incontrovertible evidence of climate change over many millennia – long before the industrial era. But, with few exceptions, they haven’t done so, and their continued silence is both baffling and deafening.

    • Newland

      The reason for this silence is that, while indeed there have been numerous climatic shifts, those climatic shifts are fairly well understood and have well documented sources within the natural world, particularly Milankovitch cycles. We are not experiencing any such natural fluctuations right now– the changes we see in the environment begin shortly after the start of the industrial revolution, are entirely consistent with human-generated pollutants into the atmosphere, and cannot be attributed to any other non-anthropogenic phenomenon. The global scientific community is in 97-98% agreement on this: climate change is occurring, it is human-caused, and it could be at least stemmed, if not stopped, if we act in time.

      The deafening silence is actually in the other direction– why there hasn’t been more vocal outcry that the evidence clearly points to this being our doing is deeply disappointing, though the scientific (e.g. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/contents.html), business (e.g. http://www.businessinsider.com/investment-firms-warn-on-climate-change-2012-11), and military establishments (e. g. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=us-military-forges-ahead-with-plans-to-combat-climate-change) are all getting on board–finally.

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