Anthropology of archaeodisasters

The cross-cultural study of the response by human groups to major environmental disruptions brings together experts in order to assess the damage potential of various types of natural and man-made disasters. Footprints of early hominids preserved in volcanic ash demonstrate that humans lived and interacted with natural hazards since the dawn of time. In every person's lifetime, at least one natural hazard will likely have some impact on their life. Apart from causing severe damage, hazards may provoke irreversible reactions and reform the human behavioural patterns, too.

Wandjina petroglyphs from Kimberley, Australia. About 5,000 years old

There are many reasons why it has proved very difficult to obtain a consensus on the meaning of the terms 'disaster' and 'catastrophe'. Firstly, the disciplinary orientations restrict a unanimous approach. Some scholars regard them as synonymous, while others consider them as descriptive of different levels of impact. Thousands of titles relating to hazard assessment exist already worldwide causing interminable discussions.. Instead of imposing a numerical threshold on disaster, not a particularly successful practice, we propose an alternative approach.

Sea peoples were a confederacy of seafaring raiders of the second millennium BC who sailed into the Eastern Mediterranean due to extended environmental disasters of that time, caused political unrest, and attempted to enter or control Egyptian territory during the late 19th dynasty and especially during Year 8 of Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty. Later on , the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah explicitly refers to them in his Great Karnak Inscription. They seemed to have been also invading Cyprus, Hatti and the Levant

A quite long catalogue of natural and man-induced hazards is always a useful tool, in order to understand the variety of risks, which the archaeoenvironments were prone to (e.g. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, impacts, electromagnetic storms / solar tsunami, tsunami and flooding, sea-level fluctuations, soil liquefaction, terrestrial or submarine landslides, submersion or emersion of land, rapid climatic changes, drought and excessive heat, avalanches and rockfalls, snow storms, torrential rainfall, wild landfires, hailstorms, lightning, hurricanes, salinization and desertification, soil erosion and sedimentation, decrease in number of species within local ecosystems, expansion of marshes, epidemics, extended migrations of people, use of weapons for mass destruction, wars, dwelling in hazardous locations, pollution and contamination, famine, catastrophe of food resources, overpopulation). There is also another group of hazards, especially human-induced (e.g. industrial, technological or natural triggered by human action) that refer to modern landscapes, either natural or cultural. They must be equally studied, if we want to present a more holistic view of hazard analysis.

The Goddess Kali, 1940s Poster art. Hindu goddess associated with eternal energy. Her name means black, time, death, lord of death, shiva etc. Since Shiva is called Kāla - the eternal Time, Kālī, his consort, also means "the Time" or "Death". Hence, Kali is considered the goddess of time and change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, she is largely conceived as a benevolent mother goddess, too

According to the availability of information , we can also define a number of escalated or measurable parameters: Predictability of the event, Probability of the event, Reversibility, Magnitude, Intensity, Duration, Frequency, Targets affected (human losses, injuries,crops, goods and holdings, facilities and services, infrastructure, buildings, landscapes, biodiversity, cultural universe), Severity of Consequences.
Evenmore, according to the availability of information , we can define a number of escalated or measurable parameters: Carrying Capacity of the area (ecological, anthropological), Differentiation of stress (ecological, cultural, biological), Determination of risk level (environmental, ecological, technological, anthropological / biological, cultural, economic, political). In other words, the number of people exposed to danger, the existence of social or other groups of people prone to specific hazard, the physical / mental conditions of humans, the possibility of quick recovery and the parameters that block it, the alternatives and the choices, are some of the criteria , which may be further a nalyzed in a systematic way.
Additionally, according to the availability of information , we can define a number of escalated or measurable parameters: Visible or invisible results, Direct or indirect results, Short term or long term results , Permanent, transient or periodical results
The reaction of ancient population to crises may differ considerably: have the possibility to avoid the risk, have the possibility to control the risk, have the possibility to reduce the consequences of hazards, have the possibility to reduce the likelihood of their occurrence, have the possibility to transfer the risk, fully or partially.

At Knossos (Minoan Crete) divinities are mentioned in contexts dealing with offerings made to them. Among the cult personnel, the priestess of the Winds (A-NE-MO I-JE-RE-JA = hiereia anemon) is most often mentioned. She receives honey on behalf of the powers which she serves. Each prominent maritime civilization all over the world should have an apt knowledge of climatic / meteorological / astronomical phenomena, in order to perform successful open sea voyages in a steady base. Furthermore, it should built a symbolic system within social network, in order to insure the proper elaboration of its continuity

Ancient societies (nomadic, pastoral, agricultural, nautical, industrial, other, mixed) may have chosen diverse methods and ways of proactive planning, mitigation and adaptation: establish a suitable administrative and legislative framework in order to protect the environment and the population from hazards, improve management policies, invest on long term values (e.g. ecosystems’ equilibrium, quality of life, human lives versus economic profit, prevention through education), increase storage capacity, keep a stable transportation network, enhance adaptability to landscapes’ evolution over time, present alternative scenarios for the day after, acquire a profound knowledge of nature’s mechanisms and environment’s potential, tie the bonds between the stronger and weaker members of the society, protect the targets the most easily affected by hazards, overcome political, religious, phyletic or other restrictions when facing hazards, adopt new technologies, ideas or ways of help to overcome a disaster, show a more flexible and adaptable profile toward crises.

The skeleton called the "Ring Lady" unearthed in Herculaneum. V
ictim of the Plinian eruption of Vesuvius, August, AD 79


➘ In general, the ‘lifecycle’ of hazards includes several situations, dynamically interrelated: Prevention- Preparedness - Response- Mitigation - Recovery. Even if there were not functioning the first two, ancient societies had to deal with the rest crucial stages.

Disaster Psychology is a relatively new discipline focusing on culturally relevant, community-based crisis intervention and stress reduction for survivors. It enables humans to understand the lingering trauma and mental wounds of men, women and children, that might otherwise go unrecognized, yet last a lifetime.  It includes refugees and survivors of torture, terrorism, genocide attempts, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunami, and other manmade or natural disasters.

emotional (- Anxiety and/or fear - Guilt - Grief and/or depression - Anger),
cognitive (- Nightmares - Confusion and/or disorientation - Difficulty concentrating),
physical (- Nausea and/or upset stomach - Dizziness - Headache - Restlessness - Difficulty sleeping) and
interpersonal effects (- Avoidance and/or withdrawing - Emotional outbursts - Erratic behavior)

➘  Unfortunately, limited attention has been given to the varied social implications of hazards and disasters in the lives of people, especially from a gender perspective. During the majority of human history and in many parts of the wolrd, even today, women as a group generally face greater marginalization and oppression than their male counterparts. Special social relations  produced and reinforced gender differences and inequalities in any given context, especially when relating to natural resources or natural hazards, in the past , as well as in modern human communities


"In times of chaos and change a key element is creating sanctuary for self, family and friends" - Michele Lessirard
A "new" form or a revival of an old form of "Shamanism", a system that comprises a range of beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spiritual world. It is an inner journey into healing, well being, spiritual and/or mystical experiences, that awakes the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual parts of the self  to new possibilities, by fulfilling the soul's potential.
Ancient soul-retrieval practices which focused on the fragmented self, include post-traumatic experiences after disasters, that may be pushed back to the unconscious clinging there like being in 'the cave of the lost children', as the author of  Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, Sandra Ingerman, presents.
Shamans always believed that illness, depression and chronic fatigue, as well as a variety of mental and emotional disorders have as common source the soul loss. When someone suffers unbearable pain, trauma or grief, he/she loses a part of vital energy. Substance abuse, physical violation,and/or the shock of an accident or medical crisis, even breakup of a relationship or loss of a loved one may results into soul's loss, as Robert Moss in his Dreamgates highlights


The increase in number and severity of disasters and the growing vulnerability of  major human populations, intensified the interest of Anthropology's scientific field in the issues that surround both hazards and disasters. The multidimensionality of disasters illuminate the complex interconnections of physical / ecological, biological, political, economic and sociocultural systems, which need to be analysed through the holistic perspective and methodologies of Anthropology: Risk perception / Preparedness / Mitigation