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Insider: Do Civilizations Really Collapse? Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Eric A. Powell

Scholars gather to challenge popular author Jared Diamond's take on societies' "ecocidal" tendencies.

(Ken Feisel)

On a blustery October day atop Tumamoc Hill, a tall butte near the center of Tucson, a dozen social scientists scramble across volcanic rock piles and weave through stands of saguaro cactus to look at traces of human habitation: large rock terraces, or trincheras, that cling to the side of the hill, and the faint remains of small pit houses that date from 300 B.C. to A.D. 450. The wind sometimes carries away the voices of their guides, archaeologists Paul and Suzy Fish of the Arizona State Museum. So the cultural anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists strain to hear them describe the desert lifestyle of the people who made their home at this trincheras site, one of the biggest in the Southwest. Paul and Suzy tell a good story, so the scholars don't want to miss it.

This diverse group is visiting Tumamoc Hill while taking a break during a four-day seminar called "Choices and Fates of Human Societies," a gathering where the topic of storytelling is a matter of some urgency. Hosted by the Amerind Foundation, an archaeological research institute in Dragoon, Arizona, the seminar is dedicated to analyzing and countering ideas popularized by Jared Diamond, perhaps America's most well-known storyteller when it comes to the human past. The UCLA geographer and physiologist's two enormously popular books have been credited with turning a new generation on to the science of the past, but at the same time have generated grumbling and even alarm among some specialists, who say Diamond's attempt to reduce the history of societies to one grand narrative obscures the uniqueness of individual cultures.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), Diamond offered an ambitious "short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years," an account that explained the gulf between the first and third worlds largely as a matter of geographical accident. In his most recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail (1996), Diamond uses "vanished" ancient cultures such as the Classic Maya and Easter Islanders to illustrate how past societies that mismanaged the environment were doomed to catastrophe, committing what he calls "ecocide."

Diamond's vision of history is celebrated in the popular press and even by many academics as a welcome synthesis of a number of different historical disciplines. The fact that his ultimate goals as a writer are to challenge the idea that the West is superior because of racial or genetic differences and to raise awareness of the environmental catastrophe facing contemporary society make his work all the more compelling.

The problem, say many scholars, is that Diamond gets the past wrong. Criticism of his work focuses on a concern that Diamond fails to appreciate the complex role that culture plays in the development of societies. Anthropologists and archaeologists whose lives are devoted to studying the complexity of culture recoil at Diamond's statement that "historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as the study of dinosaurs."

Eric A. Powell is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America