Campus News

"Climate and Culture in the North: The interface of archaeology, oral history and paleoenvironmental science"

Story posted November 27, 2002

We all hear about global warming, but how many of us really experience its effects in our daily lives. Cultures that are tied more closely to their environment than that of modern America are likely to relate differently to climatic changes going on around them, and we can learn both about climate change and about how to adapt to it, by listening to their stories.

Anne Henshaw spoke at a recent faculty seminar about her research into the environmental knowledge of the Inuit.

"Much of the discourse around climate change is often described in global terminology....This is in contrast to local manifestations of climate change that people experience from interacting with their environment," Henshaw said. "I don't think these two perspectives are mutually exclusive."

Many of the most recent studies into climate change in the Arctic have also looked at rather short time frames and not focused on human responses to the changes in climate. With her most recent research, Henshaw took a more interdisciplinary approach to studying climate change and the experiences of the Inuit over a long period of time.

"My research attempts to bridge the gap...by linking archeology, paleoenvironmental science and oral traditions," she said.

Henshaw works in the Nunavut territory of Canada, which comprises 28 communities and a population of about 26,000 people.

"This is a region where climate change is often amplified through high seasonal variability," she said.

Henshaw used previous research and paleoenvironmental records to establish a range of sea ice conditions occurring in the area in which the Inuit live. Sea ice is important in the lives of the Inuit because much of their hunting occurs in these areas, and the ice is also highly sensitive to climatic changes. Henshaw was able to compare settlement patterns spanning about 1000 years to the extremes in sea ice formations over this time. She discovered that settlement patterns did not change depending on sea ice conditions, meaning that over the years the Inuit had learned to adapt to a variety of ice conditions.

In recent years, elders told Henshaw, they have experienced weather patterns that are unfamiliar to them: The snow is different, more like ice crystals than the powdery snow they had been used to; ice is forming later in the year; and the tideline has receded in the past 20 to 30 years. Yet, Henshaw has found that the variability of the ice in the past 50 years or so has fallen within the range of other time periods in the past 1000 years. She suspected that the ability to adapt to recent changes is something that had been transmitted through generations of Inuit, and she began looking at oral traditions to see how that might have occurred.

To understand how oral traditions have been used to pass on climatic knowledge, Henshaw used a technique proposed by Joel Gunn that can be used to predict the mechanisms a particular culture would use to "capture" important information and pass it on to succeeding generations.

The ways in which groups maintain and pass on information regarding their relationship with the climate depends upon the duration of the culture in a particular region and the sensitivity of the region to climate change. The information is transformed into folk tales, ceremonial activities and other cultural practices, and the group's tolerance to climate change will grow as the culture experiences more change.

Henshaw conducted interviews with Inuit elders and younger hunters, recording their weather forecasting techniques and their environmental vocabulary.

"I was blessed with the specificity of their knowledge," Henshaw said. "I was also frustrated by the fact that it seemed to lack a temporal depth."

She had expected, partly based on the Gunn model, to have a broad temporal framework. The fact that she didn't find this, however, didn't mean that it didn't exist. It could be related to problems of translation or different cultural perceptions or concepts of time.

At the same time, Henshaw encountered songs and rituals that seemed to be conveying information about climate and adapting to it.

"A lot of the way people talked about climate and the environment, they shared with me through songs," Henshaw said. The songs are sung across generations and talk about subjects as vital to survival as what the appropriate clothing is to wear at different times of the year in order to stay warm. Other songs expressed joy of surviving the harshest part of the winter.

"Folklore rituals could provide the very vessels for climatic knowledge and adaptive strategies that persist through time," she said.

Henshaw believes some of this collective knowledge can be used to help other societies in learning how to appropriately act to deal with climate change.

In the Arctic, indigenous knowledge has already helped with resource management and other modern issues. Being open to different cultural experiences and a diversity of knowledge can help all of us to face an uncertain future, she said.

According to Henshaw, another way in which climatic knowledge is transmitted through the generations is through the ways in which the Inuit name geographic areas. Henshaw mapped an area of about 1,200 square miles and encountered about 300 names, or toponyms. The toponyms identified characteristics such as the condition of the ice pack, how to travel safely on the land, what animals had lived there, and the type of snow or the water currents in the area.

"I found that these place names actually provide an instruction book for how to live successfully on the land in such a harsh environment," Henshaw said.

Henshaw is still researching to discover how the toponyms and songs relate to climate variability in the past. So far, much of what we know about Arctic climate change comes from the Western Arctic, where change is much more pronounced, so Henshaw's work in the East is a new area of exploration.

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