Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview

11

Natural disasters and culture change in the Shumagin Islands

LUCILLE LEWIS JOHNSON


INTRODUCTION

Based on the case study reported here, my short answer to the question ‘What effect might a natural disaster have on culture change?’ is ‘Not much’. Catastrophic natural events may include meteor impacts, volcanoes and earthquakes, with their often attendant tsunamis, and cyclonic storms. These are listed in the order of the potential areal disruption they can cause. Thus large meteors and volcanoes can have worldwide environmental effects, earthquakes immediately disrupt no more than several hundred linear miles, while tsunamis caused by undersea earthquakes can affect an entire ocean basin, and cyclonic storms may impact along a narrow path.

The effects of natural catastrophes on modern society live up to their name in the short run: Pompeii was destroyed (Allison, Chapter 7), the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Alaska and its associated tsunami were responsible for 125 deaths and 311 million dollars-worth of damage (USGS, 1999). However, Roman society did not collapse after Pompeii and people are building on the 1964 fault surface in Anchorage. Major seismic events do have important cultural effects in that they have stayed in people’s minds and imaginations - for instance, Pompeii is an important tourist destination and icon of disaster and there are at least 27,500 sites on the Web which refer to the Alaska earthquake of 1964 (Google, 19 July 2000).

When does a disaster have a significant effect? If my house is destroyed in an earthquake, it is significant for me and I may lose artefacts I treasure, but I can rebuild. If an Aleutian village is destroyed by an earthquake-induced tsunami, the people who survive will certainly remember it and have to put in many hours of work rebuilding their houses and replacing their tools. The question becomes, what is the cultural salience of these effects and can they be observed in the archaeological record? Certainly, surviving a natural disaster will probably have an important effect on individual psyches and on the mental and emotional states of affected communities (e.g. Chapters 1, 16 and 18), but do these effects translate into changes in such things as artefacts, settlement patterns or land-use practices which will be recognisable in the archaeological record?

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