CentreTerm: Climate Change and Human Society in the Past
Centre College’s unique, three-week CentreTerm in January allows students the opportunity to focus intensely on a single class, and academic options include courses where classwork is mixed with out-of-classroom activities or travel.
Students in “Climate Change and Human Society in the Past” with Robyn Cutright, associate professor of anthropology, followed-up their first week of study in the classroom with visits to key archaeological sites in the American Southwest in order to investigate what the past can tell us about collapse, strategies to mitigate risk and cultural resilience.
“Climate change is an extremely important issue facing us today,” Cutright says. “One of the ways that we can understand how it might impact us is to look back into the past, to human societies that were impacted by past climate upheavals. We can understand how they felt the effects of a changing climate, the strategies that they adopted to adapt and how these strategies worked out over a long time frame.”
After studying the ramifications of climate change on ancient civilizations in the Andes and the American Southwest, Cutright and her class headed out to do an onsite case study in New Mexico.
“After we landed in Albuquerque, we immediately traveled to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center,” Cara Barnett ’18 says. “The 19 pueblos of New Mexico have a rich history, and by studying the climate trends of these societies over the past 10,000-plus years, we can learn how ancient civilizations adapted to periods of prolonged climate variability.
“We can use this to better understand the lives of these ancient societies,” Barnett continues. “We also can apply this information to our current problems with climate change, both anthropogenic (human-caused) and non-anthropogenic, in order to create strategies for combating and limiting this change.”
Cutright explains that the current drought in the western United States has not yet reached the level of severity that people in the past faced; however, she says looking at their responses could help shed light on how to cope with extreme events, giving students a broader perspective on climate change and a sense of what can be learned from the past.
“I hope the class also serves as a cautionary tale,” Cutright explains. “Archaeologically speaking, all societies collapse, and major climate change has often played a role in triggering, or at least contributing to, social and political collapse.”
Students and their professors see the unique advantages to the CentreTerm format.
“The intensity of the one-class focus of CentreTerm gives an extra push and drive for students to become really invested in their class,” Barnett says. “We have studied in detail many aspects of these cultures that would take up to a half-semester to cover during the longer Fall and Spring terms. After taking this course, I have a better understanding of the relationship between both the aspects of culture and climate change in ancient societies.”
“The nice thing about CentreTerm is that it seems like students feel more free to experiment with courses outside their major, so we have a great mix of perspectives that add to our class discussions,” Cutright says.
“CentreTerm frees us up to bring all these perspectives to bear on a focused question, which I think is an advantage. It also gives us a chance to get out of the classroom and visit some of the places we’ll be reading about and get a firsthand sense of how people lived their lives in the past.”
Pictured above: Cutright’s class at the largest kiva (ceremonial structure) at Chaco Canyon.
by Cindy Long
January 28, 2016