Stories of Ancient Resilience

Human responses to climate stress and catastrophic events like hurricanes, drought, and resource conflict have been oversimplified for years — portrayed as either miraculous tales of survival or total collapse. This project seeks to understand, instead, what ancient societies can tell us about resilience — not as the ability to bounce back to a previous state after a crisis, but as the ability to embrace transformation to bounce forward, and as the ability to preserve core values and traditions even in the face of tremendous loss.

SOAR research focuses specifically on ancient water management and human mobility and migration, using a variety of methods ranging from ancient DNA analysis to LiDAR survey to chemical analysis of water and bone. This quantitative information is integrated with the qualitative results of archaeological excavations and historical investigation to develop vivid alternative narratives of survival, change, and adaptation in times of stress. Our discoveries will help Texans and our global community better understand the relationships among climate, migration, health, equity, and human and environmental wellbeing. The project will also provide insights about difficult challenges such as the trauma entire communities must confront when faced with mass relocation. Ultimately, we seek to offer new ways of envisioning our future to help us make decisions about local and global responses to the current climate crisis.

Central Research Questions: 

How have past human societies responded to major environmental challenges, especially challenges involving management of water resources and major demographic shifts in urban contexts? How can a better understanding of the deep past inform our current challenges surrounding climate change adaptation?  

What problem(s) is this project attempting to solve? 

Human responses to climate stress and catastrophic events like hurricanes, drought, and resource conflict have been oversimplified for years — portrayed as either miraculous tales of survival or total collapse. Our team uses human experiences in the past, especially with respect to environmental/social stress, mobility, and water management, to create new ways to think about resilience and imagine the future.  


Anticipated Outcomes and Impacts:

  • Public knowledge about how past groups preserved identity and key systems over the long term in the face of disruptive change  
  • Use of LiDAR data for research and policy-making with respect to mobility and migration of people and animals between Mesoamerica and TX 
  • Knowledge of traditional practices and historical ecologies in a range of locations becomes a larger factor in public policy decisions regarding water resources and human/animal mobility 
  • Multiple TX schools incorporate SOAR teaching module(s) on past water management into history/science/geography curricula 
  • Indigenous perspectives on resilience/survivance are more commonly incorporated into scholarly work and teaching on past human-environment interactions 
  • General public stops thinking about climate-change futures in terms of black and white "collapse or change nothing" scenarios, changing voting and policy-making behavior to promote concrete and feasible action while coming to terms with fact of unavoidable loss 

Geographic Areas of Interest: All of Texas, Mesoamerica, Italy, Romania, the Caribbean  

Partners: K-12 Schools, Drama for Schools, International Collaborators, Indigenous Cultures Institute   


Team Members

Melissa Kemp
Department of Integrated Biology
Daniel Breecker
Geological Sciences
Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach
Geography & the Environment
Timothy Beach
Geography and the Environment
Gabriella Sturchio
Art and Art History
Katie Dawson
Theater and Dance
J.E. Johnson
Texas Performing Arts
Jay Banner
Geological Sciences
Michael Holleran
Historic Preservation
Tom Garrison
Geography and the Environment
Vagheesh Narasimhan
Integrated Biology
Martha Menchaca
Geological Sciences and Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering
Arlene Rosen
Fred Valdez
Rabun Taylor
Jonathan Jarvis
Texas Archeological Research Laboratory
Astrid Runggaldier
The Mesoamerica Center
Tim Shanahan
Geological Sciences
David Stuart
The Mesoamerica Center