Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview

6

‘The end is nigh’? Social and environmental responses to volcanic gas pollution

JOHN G RATTAN, MARK B RAYSHAY AND RUUD T.E. SCHÜTTENHELM


INTRODUCTION

This chapter revisits themes that occur several times in this volume: that catastrophic events may be invisible in the archaeological record; major environmental trauma need not have a permanent impact on the cultures affected; and we can only understand the nature of events and cultural response by adopting the widest possible research framework. It is clear from earlier chapters that these concerns operate at the level of specific sites; here we explore these issues on a continental scale.

This chapter presents compelling evidence to suggest that toxic gases emitted in a volcanic eruption may be transported over great distances and deposited in sufficient concentration to have a severe impact on environments and perhaps cultures in areas far removed from any apparent volcanic threat. This research has implications not only for the better understanding of the relationship between volcanic eruptions and the archaeological record, but also for the impact volcanic eruptions may have on contemporary human societies and environments.

Consideration of the interaction of volcanic eruptions and human society has generally focused on the perilous situation of those living within sight of the volcano’s slopes. True, passing reference may be made to the natural fertility of volcanic soils, but most writers will move swiftly on to the dramatic hazards posed to human society by lava flows, lahars, pyroclastic flows, blast and ash falls. One need only consider the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii to see this relationship starkly illustrated (see Allison, Chapter 7 in this volume). In the light of such obvious perils few authors pause to debate the potential hazard posed by volcanic gases such as sulphur, ammonia and fluorine; yet in Iceland in AD 1783, while no one was directly killed by the vast lava flows of the Laki Fissure eruption, a quarter of the island’s human population perished following the eruption. These deaths were the consequence of the environmental impact of the volcanic gases emitted, the destruction of crops and grazing, the deaths of nearly 75 per cent of the island’s livestock and the subsequent famine and disease (Jackson, 1982; Steingrímsson, 1998; Thórarinsson, 1979).

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