Fail to prepare, then prepare to fail: Rethinking threat, vulnerability, and mitigation in the precolumbian caribbean

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The islands of the Caribbean are a particularly interesting geographical region to examine the dynamic relationship between past human communities and sudden environmental change. This chapter examines how past peoples, living on the islands in the Caribbean Sea, were vulnerable to a number of environmental threats. The focus of this chapter is the impact of floods, droughts, and wind shear created by relative sea level rise, precipitation change, and hurricane activity. These hazards were identified as particularly relevant to current debates, given the predicted increase in the risk of such hazards in the near future (Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre 2009; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007). The potential Precolumbian mitigation of these hazards through the development of household architecture, settlement location, food procurement strategies, and networks of community interaction is explored in this chapter; and the relative success in mitigating impact and avoiding disaster is considered. This chapter reviews different scales of analysis, from the global, regional, national, and local, to extract key themes for comparative discussion. These research themes are then examined in more detail using a case study area in north-central Cuba where the author has conducted interdisciplinary collaborative researc with Cuban and international colleagues since 2002. The absence of other causes of sudden environmental change in this chapter- namely earthquakes, volcanoes, and the impacts of El Niño/La Niña- should not be taken as an indication of their relative lack of importance. Rather, these major causes of sudden environmental change would not be given justice in this short chapter; they require, and receive, their own standalone discussion elsewhere (Handoh et al. 2006; Scheffers et al. 2009). However, the key discussions in this chapter that focus on mitigation and resilience to floods, droughts, and wind shear by Precolumbian populations have a direct relevance to all discussions of human engagement with sudden environmental change in the region. In fact, different causes behind sudden environmental change were less important for past human communities than was the similarity in their impacts on the local environment. Therefore examples of past human engagement with the consequences of sudden environmental change often have relevance beyond their specific source of origin and geographical context. This is not because universal rules can be identified in human mitigation and transferred between different geographical regions and time periods; rather, each case study examined in isolation provides one way in which the variables of climate, environment, and human experience have played out in the past. By increasing the number of "case studies" or "experiments" (Nelson et al. this volume) and looking at the relationship between cause and effect, decisions and decision making, planning and chance, we can improve our understanding of these relationships within a global ecodynamics framework that helps us to better understand hazards, mitigate impacts, and avoid disasters. These wider lessons suggest that this Precolumbian "case study" is relevant for modern-day populations of the Caribbean, and the combination of case studies presented in this book has important lessons for the wider populations of the world that currently face sudden environmental change (Alley et al. 2003: 2005; Lenton et al. 2008). The terms vulnerability, hazard, impact, and resilience are increasingly finding their way into academic and policy literature, although their meanings can often be appropriated differently by different disciplines. The term vulnerability is used in this chapter to describe exposure to hazards when the hazard is a potential threat to a past community that has not yet been manifested. Impacts are the consequences of a hazard; they can be both direct and indirect in nature and are relative as a result of potential mitigation strategies that can reduce their impact through intentional or unintentional preparation. Resilience is a more complex term to use given the extensive discussion of its role in ecological and social theory; however, in this chapter it is used in its broadest sense to refer to the relative ability and mechanisms with which past communities lived through the impacts of sudden environmental change while maintaining their core lifeways (Redman and Kinzig 2003).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSurviving Sudden Environmental Change
Subtitle of host publicationAnswers from Archaeology
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9781607321675
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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