Experts Discuss Previous Periods of Rapid Climate Change and Implications for Our Warming Planet

Public forum, “Climate Crises in Human History,” will conclude two-day conference at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

16 OCTOBER 2008, PHILADELPHIA, PA—For the first time in human history the Earth’s climate is changing—and we know about it in advance. The ancient Egyptians, the Maya, the Roman Empire and medieval Europeans—all of whom faced dramatic climate change—did not. Some adapted to changing conditions; some did not. What can we learn from their strategies—both the successful and the unsuccessful, as we face our own climate crisis?

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) and Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science have organized an intensive two-day scholarly meeting of 18 leading researchers convened by Robert Giegengack, Professor Emeritus, Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Penn, Richard Hodges, Williams Director of Penn Museum, and Claudio Vita-Finzi, Research Associate, Department of Mineralogy, Natural History Museum, London. The participants will explore the impact of past climate change on human civilization based on examples from geologic, archaeological and historical archives, share their findings, challenge each other’s assumptions and combine their expertise to begin to see what we can learn from the past—so we can prepare for the future.

The culmination of this meeting will be a wide-ranging forum, Climate Crises in Human History, on Wednesday, November 12th at 7:30 p.m. in the Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium. At this free public program, selected participants of the conference will summarize the main points of agreement and disagreement from their scholarly exchange. Conference conveners will then open the program for questions and discussion. Reservations for the free program Climate Crises in Human History can be made by calling the Events Office at (215) 898-4890.

“Climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage”

-Brian Fagan, Popular author, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at U-C Santa Barbara

The question of whether or not the current global climate crisis is primarily caused by human action has largely obscured the fact that rapid climate change is nothing new. The Earth has experienced long cycles of both warming and cooling in the span of human history. We know this from a vast array of disparate sources from ice cores and tree rings, from archaeological investigations and farmers’ almanacs, from satellite imaging, radiocarbon dating and mass spectronomy. We also know that some societies were winners and some were losers; that some learned to adapt and some did not.

Among the researchers participating in the conference are:
Brian Fagan is an author of popular archaeology books and emeritus professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent book, published in March 2008 is The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. His book The Little Ice Age was published in 2001. Fagan is an archaeological generalist, with expertise in the broad issues of human prehistory. He has written textbooks, specialist papers, been an archaeological consultant to the National Geographic Society, PBS and the BBC and appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 1996 he was awarded the Society of Professional Archaeologists’ Distinguished Service Award for his “untiring efforts to bring archaeology in front of the public.”

Jennifer Smith is interested in the interaction between humans and their environment as recorded in the archaeological record using sedimentology, geomorphology and geochemistry to reconstruct the landscapes and environments of prehistoric peoples. Smith, an assistant professor in the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has worked over the past six years as part of the Dakhleh Oasis Project in the Western Desert of Egypt.

Stefan Kroepelin is a member of the African Research Unit at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology. His research interests include environmental and climate change in the present-day desert regions, especially the eastern Sahara, paleomonsoon variations and geoarchaeology.

Michael E. Moseley has done most of his archaeological research in Latin and South America. He is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida. He has conducted field research in the Cauca Valley sites in Columbia, in Peru, Bolivia and the Andes Mountains. In 1993 he began the project to map the architectural ruins on Cerro Baul in southern Peru that was the Wari imperial colony from 600-800 A.D. that is known as the Masada of the Andes. Today his research is centered on the irrigation system that supported the colony with emphasis on how tectonic activity and ecological patterns influenced the fate of that society.

Anthony L. Peratt, PhD in Electrical Engineering, author of "Physics of the Plasma Universe", Springer-Verlag (1992), is a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he has been since 1981 and also serving as Science Advisor, U.S. Department of Energy, 1995-1999. His research interests include experiments in high-energy density plasmas, z-pinches, where he discovered instabilities which bear his name. In 2000, he discovered that mankind recorded, as petroglyphs around the world, what appear to be representations of high-current, z-pinch auroras: the geometry of the petroglyphs coincide with images Peratt has made of his laboratory plasma experiments. Peratt has organized a team of about 800 investigators who continue to add to his global database, now exceeding 4 million petroglyphs. He has published papers in 2003 and 2007 in IEEE "Transactions on Plasma Science", and has papers in press describing the latest 2 years of his research.

The scholarly conference and public forum on Climate Crises in Human History are part of an occasional “catastrophe series” that began in 1999 and has examined droughts (2005), warming-induced glacial age (2004), giant tsunamis (2003), large mammal extinctions (2002), volcanoes (2001), asteroids (2000) and flooding (1999).

This climate change conference is made possible through the generosity of the Mainwaring Archive Foundation.

Make It a Climate Change Doubleheader

Two programs on climate change are offered back-to-back at the Penn Museum
on Wednesday, 12 November 2008.

Penn Museum and the Penn Humanities Forum (PHF) offer related programming on the topic of climate change. At 5 p.m., the PHF presents Climate Change: Moral and Political Challenges with New York University Professor Dale Jamieson, a leading authority in environmental ethics and bioethics. In his talk, he considers the challenges facing humanists who would try to approach the topic of global climate change. Pre-registration at or (215) 573-8280.

Attendees can purchase light supper fare at the Museum Café from 6:30 –7:30 p.m. and re-fuel for the second program.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at

3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 898-4000


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