Posted by: Johan Normark | September 6, 2012

The Anthropocene and Precolumbian land use

In a short paper that I sent away for review a couple of weeks ago I used a quote from McAnany and Yoffee (p 8) that in hindsight seems wrong. I wrote that “the humanability to impact environment on a global scale is newfound and cannot be pushed back beyond the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.” This refers to what some geologists call the Anthropocene, the geological time period when human activities affect global ecological processes. There is debate on how far back in time we can push this time period. McAnany and Yoffee clearly think it is around two centuries old. Others trace it back to the “Neolithic revolution”. I have no actual opinion about when it “began” but it seems to be older than two centuries. What made me think differently about this issue was an article by Dull and others (2010) that I read last week. I was looking for climate studies that focused on the Spanish contact period and this article suits my objectives like a hand in glove.

In this article it is stated that Precolumbian land use has been neglected in global greenhouse forcing. It is argued that aggregate carbon footprint of Neotropical farmers (the area between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn) was enough to raise global temperatures via greenhouse forcing long before the European encounter. However, the epidemics that spread around the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries led to the abrupt abandonment of agricultural clearings. Human fire ignitions therefore decreased dramatically. The Little Ice Age cooling and its decrease in atmospheric CO2 followed the native population collapse (particularly in the Amazon). This thermal anomaly (-0.1 degrees C between 1550 and 1750) has earlier been attributed to solar-volcanic forcing. Climate skeptics have used such “natural” processes to argue against the claim that global warming today is caused by anthropogenic causes. What this study indicates is that the demographic collapse in the Americas either caused or at least intensified the global cooling. The supposedly “normal” temperature before this event was upheld by slash-and-burn farmers.

The more people burn the more fire prone the forest becomes. More burning leads to “more forest openings, more forest edges, drier fuel loads, higher wind speeds, and greater susceptibility to future flammability…Conversely, the absence of anthropogenic fire in most tropical biomes leads to rapid increases in woody biomass…and a “hardening” of the forest against future fire incursions” (Dull et al 2010:758). This is important to know when we study the earlier Maya collapse. With the disappearance of these forest clearings it began increasingly difficult to re-occupy the inland during the Postclassic period. This in combination with new trade routes kept the forest in the central and southern Maya lowlands more or less free from settlements (with the exception of the Itza and Kowoj states and refugees from the later Spanish empire). In fact, there were even less interest in clearing the forest during the Colonial period as the forest was a place for hideout.

McAnany, Patricia A. and Norman Yoffee (2010). “Why We Question Collapse and Study Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire.” In Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, 1-17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dull, Robert A. et al. (2010). “The Columbian encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt land use change, fire, and greenhouse forcing.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100 (4):755-771.

Posted by: Johan Normark | September 5, 2012

Water on the radio

I will appear on Vetenskapsradion (“The Science Radio”) tomorrow at 1:20 PM (13:20). It will be the first of two interviews. This one deals with water as an archaeological material/object. The second interview will appear on Vetenskapsradion in December since it deals with the 2012 phenomenon.

Posted by: Johan Normark | September 4, 2012

Agroforestry and caves

Readers may wonder what is happening to my articles and book on caves, settlement change and climate change in the Cochuah region. The thing is that I constantly find new and old articles that I need to integrate in my own texts. I never get to send them away. In the past week or so I have found a couple of articles that is interesting for my claim that the Cochuah cave sites were largely uninhabited and perhaps even were “sacred grooves” during the periods with few known droughts (Early and Late Classic). One such study of interest deals with agroforestry practices at Tikal.

The study by Lentz and Hockaday (2009) focuses on beams and lintels from two palaces and six temples at Late Classic Tikal. Agroforestry practices would have changed as wood resources became scarce and a decline in wood supply would also be reflected in the selection and quality of timbers used in these major buildings.

Only two tree species were used in these buldings. The favored tree for construction was the zapote tree (sapodilla) (Malinkara zapota). It grows in moist mixed upland forest and it grows slow to moderate. An old tree can reach a height of 30-40 m and has a trunk diameter of 1.5 m. The wood is hard, durable and weather resistant. It is carved while still green and then allowed to dry to iron-like hardness. The other tree species used at Tikal was the wetland logwood (Haematoxylon campechianum). It is shorter and is slow-growing. Today it is used as a source of dye. It can become 8 m high and it often has a crooked trunk. The tree needs clayey soil and is tolerant of standing water. Such trees were likely grown in seasonal wetlands. The heartwood is dense and highly durable.

Only sapodilla was used in the first three major temples (II, I and IV). Lintel beam diameters reached their greatest dimension around AD 741 (Temple IV). In the following four decades logwood became important for Temple V and VI. The palaces have a mixture of woods. In the final temple, Temple III, sapodilla wood was once again used but the lintel diameters were much smaller than in the earlier temples.

A lintel from Temple IV, with a radius of 27 cm, indicates that it was 280 years old when it was cut down. This means that the tree came from old growth forest. This indicates that the Maya practiced some kind of forest management since high forest pollen signature remains in pollen records. The trees may have come from ancestor estates/”sacred” grows where the sapodilla was protected and planted.

The switch from sapodilla to logwood indicates that the uplands finally had been depleted of high trees around AD 750. The return to sapodilla in Temple III indicates that a second grown forest had been used.

In my study I argue that since the Cochuah cave sites show two major phases of settlement that coincide with drier conditions, the Late Formative and the Terminal Classic, the areas surrounding the caves during the wetter periods in-between (Early and Late Classic) may have sustained old-growth forest/”sacred” grows. Deforestation and drier conditions may have forced people to settle around these sites during the Terminal Classic to perhaps utilize/burn down the last remaining high forest.

Lentz, David L and Brian Hockaday (2009). Tikal timbers and temples: Ancient Maya agroforestry and the end of time. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:1342-1353.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 31, 2012

I am a man (79%)

Rosemary Joyce writes about a website (Genderanalyzer) that from the content of a blog analyzes the gender of the blogger (or is it the blog itself?). I made the test myself and they think that this blog is written by man (but they are only 79% sure). Is it because I write about climate change, Maya warfare, male-dominated object-oriented ontology, 2012, etc.? What makes them 21% not sure? My gender studies?

I entered the website’s own address to see if it can analyze itself. It did not work since an error occurred in the analysis: “Sorry, we could not extract enough text from We could only find 178 words. We need more than 300 words to analyze a web page. More text gives better result!” Since the creators of the website have Swedish names I can make a 100% accurate analysis without the help of the website. Genderanalyzer is written by two men…

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 30, 2012

Stephen Colbert, order-words and the Colonial Maya

On facebook I saw this image and a quote of Stephen Colbert that reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of order-words in A Thousand Plateaus. Order-words refer to the capacity to create commitments through statements. It is not related to the communicative functions of language but rather the impersonal transmission of statements.

For people to obey they must believe in the legitimacy of the claims to authority expressed by these commands. A teacher gives order and commands. These are not external or additional to what is being taught. An order concerns earlier orders and hence ordering is redundancy. Order-words are not communicated, they impose semiotic coordinates on a child. Therefore, language is made to be obeyed and to compel obedience. A rule of grammar is a marker of power before it becomes a syntactical marker. Colbert is therefore right that arbitrary rules make us disciplined. They do not teach us logic. Religion and politics are made to make us disciplined. Unfortunately, science also tends to follow order-words. There is probably no way around that.

We can apply order-words on historical and archaeological data as well since order-words are dated. For instance, declaration of war expresses an instant incorporeal transformation of bodies. Farmers turn into soldiers, friends into enemies. Its instantaneousness gives it a power of variation in relation to the bodies. The order-word is a death sentence since it brings death to the identity of those who receive the order. It is also a warning to flee. In this light, the order-words to turn to Christianity or to congregate Maya settlements expressed by the Spanish missionaries triggered flight in Colonial period Mexico. The slow emergence of Maya reducido (William Hanks term for the Colonial Maya language adapted to Christianity) ultimately reduced the lines of flight and territorialized the Spanish empire and the later Mexican state.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 28, 2012

Urban variation

Since I will be participating in Per Cornell’s project on the Early Modern Town next year I should mention that the project arranges a four days long symposium in February next year. I will probably present something regarding the early colonial congregations in the Cochuah region and how they relate to earlier Maya settlements, the “rotted towns“.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 24, 2012

2012: Public lecture

I will give at least one public lecture on the 2012-phenomenon. For long I have decided not to do so because my dealing with the phenomenon is supposed to result in a study about how to deal with “public archaeology” through the blog medium (i.e. my own blog). After some consideration I have decided that the lecture probably will not affect the study in a negative way. In any case, the one and a half hour long lecture will be held in Swedish, at 18:00 (6 PM), October 31, 2012. The location will be Stora Hörsalen, Humanisten, University of Gothenburg (I have not reserved it yet). Here is the title and “abstract” in Swedish:

2012 – årtalet som inte har mycket med mayakalendern att göra

De forna maya förutspådde varken jordens undergång, en medvetandehöjning, eller ankomsten av utomjordingar. Ändå tror många människor att när ”mayakalendern” når sitt påstådda slut den 21 december 2012 så kommer något av detta att hända. Vad är sant och falskt när det gäller de forna maya och deras kalendrar?

Translated into English it goes something like this:

2012 – the year that does not have much to do with the Maya calendar

The ancient Maya did not predict the end of the world, a transformation of consciousness, or the arrival of aliens. Still, many people believe that when the “Mayan calendar” reaches its supposed end on December 21, 2012, some of these things will happen. What is true and false when it comes to the ancient Maya and their calendars?

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 22, 2012

Interview and new studies on the Maya collapse

Later today I will be interviewed by Tobias Svanelid at Vetenskapsradion (“The Science Radio”) for my research on “water as an archaeological material/object”. I will also take the time to talk a bit about the 2012 phenomenon and relate it to apocalyptic fears regarding the impending ecological disaster. This gives me reason to relate to the Maya collapse.

Since my current research on water has developed out of my former research on climate change and cave use it is interesting to note that there are many new studies focusing on the Maya collapse. Most of these studies emphasizes droughts as the main cause, like this one where deforestation made the droughts worse. There is now a “new” study by Turner and Sabloff that uses a complex systems theory where climate change is one of several causes behind the collapse. Since both authors have been proposing the same ideas for at least 25 years there is probably not much new stuff in the study. Considering the amount of new studies focusing on the collapse I should probably send away my own articles and book manuscript a.s.a.p. while there still is interest in this kind of research. Instead of complex systems I use Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage approach (but there is a substantial amount of complex systems theory within his assemblage theory as well).

I wonder if the authors of these articles or the editors of the journals intentionally or not have aimed to publish these studies in the year of the fake apocalypse…?

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 17, 2012

What is it like to be a cave from a speleocentric perspective?

During the early part of my vacation I read Ian Bogost’s (2012) book Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s Like to be a Thing. Bogost is one of the four best known object-oriented philosophers (the others being Harman, Bryant and Morton). Like the others he is fighting a battle against correlationism and he does it primarily by using examples from his expertise in video games. If we wish to understand objects themselves we must set humans as subjects to the side since objects do not just exist for our amusement. Objects exist in their own right.

Bogost proposes a tiny ontology because being is simple. Instead of Bryant’s two-dimensional plane of a flat ontology, Bogost suggests that we can have a spaceless ontology, which is one-dimensional. He states that “if any one being exists no less than any other, then instead of scattering such beings all across the two-dimensional surface of flat ontology, we might also collapse them into the infinite density of a dot. Instead of the plane of flat ontology, I suggest the point of tiny ontology” (P 21, emphasis original). It contains everything entirely even though it spread and expand like a mess. A cave contains everything it needs, it is not lacking anything for its own existence.

Instead of the term object, Bogost uses unit which is anything “made up of a set of other units (again human or nonhuman), irrespective of scale” (P 19). Unit is an ambivalent term since it is indifferent to the being it names. It is isolated, unitary and specific. Unit operation is used to describe how units behave and interact. In systems theory an operation is what transform an input. Caves machinate within themselves and mesh with other objects, such as ceramic vessels, bats, guano, rain, archaeologists, spelunkers, spiders, etc. Caves act and react to properties but still keep secrets. A unit is always a set of other units and any unit operation is fractal. The unit operation is a process by which a unit attempts to make sense of another unit. It is a prehensive capability in Whitehead’s sense. So how does a cave make sense of water dripping inside it? It is not enough to simply observe this from our own human perspective. The traditional characterization of an experience through objective and external mechanisms leads us farther from understanding how and entity may experience. Understanding how something operates is not the same as understanding how that thing understands that operation.

Bogost’s alien phenomenology does not specifically refer to extraterrestrials but to the unknown found everywhere. The prehensive capabilities of a cave are as alien to us as E.T. and a Space Jockey. However, the “only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy” (P 64). Hence, the risk of falling into anthropocentrism is unavoidable but the same is true for any unit. If we remove the subject-object correlate and only correlates object with other objects we still need to resort to centricity that is not anthropocentric. Caves are speleocentric and water is hydrocentric. When we study these objects we can never reach the way them themselves prehend other objects. We have to allude to a thing, i.e. to talk about it without talking about it.  This is simply done through metaphors. We “never understand the alien experience, we only ever reach for it metaphorically” (P 66). Harman suggests that relation takes place as a metaphor. Bogost proposes that metaphor itself should be used to understand alien objects’ perceptions of one another. However, metaphorism is anthropomorphic (slightly better than being anthropocentric). Bogost uses Husserl’s concept of intuition to account for instincts that are not related to sense perception. Categorical intuitions can function in an “ideative” manner. Bogost applies this to speculative metaphorisms of object relations that are disconnected from the way we perceive them. Hopefully we have then reached a better understanding of how objects prehend other objects, not how humans perceive the same relation.

I wonder if we ever can reach an archaeology where the artifacts, ruins, etc. actually becomes the centers of research themselves? As long as we follow the practice of fitting artifacts into arborescent models, like “Maya culture”, “Maya cosmology”, etc. we are trapped in a narrow anthropocentric narrative. My project on water as an archaeological material/object aims to change this.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 15, 2012

Miscellaneous stuff from Java

These are probably my last photos and post about my vacation.

The largest turtle in the world? Pantai Kartini, Jepara.

Three lizards in the “welcome drink” on Karimunjawa.

You can swim with these sharks in the Karimunjawa archipelago.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 14, 2012

An onticological response to New Age nonsense

I make use of Levi Bryant’s onticology and his writings about apocalypticism and media ecology in an upcoming article and book on my blogging about the 2012-phenomenon. Apparently he has been busy dealing with a New Ager as well. I feel that his response to this individual can be applied to most 2012ers. However, they accuse me for misrepresenting them as well but that should not come as a surprise if we follow Bryant’s own work on communication.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 13, 2012

Colonial architecture in Semarang

Since I am affiliated with the project on the early modern town my family and I strolled through the old Dutch quarters of Semarang on the northern coast of Central Java.  Semarang came into Dutch control in 1678. The octagonal Blenduk church dominates this area. It was built in 1753 and is the oldest church in central Java.

There are a plenty of other colonial buildings in this part of the town. I am not sure how old they are.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 13, 2012

Sand dunes in Vietnam

If Java had the volcanoes, Vietnam had sand dunes, particularly those at Mui Ne.

Sunrise at the white sand dunes

Same, same but different

The red sand dunes, good for sledding

Wading in the Fairy Spring


Posted by: Johan Normark | August 11, 2012

2012: Information needed about the real galactic alignment

It has come to my attention that one of the proponents of the so-called galactic alignment theory, John Major Jenkins (JMJ), is putting together information about people that have different opinions than he has. It seems that he has gone from pseudoscience to pseudodetective work. JMJ will use these “dossiers” to publicly bash his opponents with details from their private life. As far as I know, he has not made one of me yet. I am rather disappointed, what does it take to be “honored” a dossier?

Anyway, for my future book on blogging about the 2012-phenomenon I will include a chapter on the galactic alignment idea(s). Who came up with it first for the Maya area? Was it the private investigator JMJ or was it the fortune-teller Mardyks? Who actually cares? Apart from describing various claims made in the “theory” itself I am also interested in describing how JMJ has publicly appeared while debating his position. I do have plenty of stuff from this blog, his “review” of David Stuart’s book, his facebook page, etc. If you, reader of this blog, has any additional information regarding the public debate of the galactic alignment, please send them to me. The “JMJ dossier” may appear on this blog in an extended version.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 10, 2012

Volcanoes on Java

During the vacation we visited a couple of volcanoes and their surroundings. Here are some pictures.

This is either Sindoro or Sumbing, seen from the road to the Dieng Plateau.

Sikidang crater on the Dieng Plateau

Telaga Warna on the Dieng Plateau. Lake with many colors.

Bromo and other volcanoes at sunrise (Bromo is the low “grey” crater on the left). In the background is Java’s highest peak/volcano, Semeru (3676 m.a.s.).

Bromo seen from the hotel. One of the best hotel views I have ever had.


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