Historian’s research, teaching gives students a window to an ancient world

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Yale environmental historian Joseph Manning goes to great lengths to emphasize the lessons that he teaches his students — even as far as taking them to Nevada.

Manning, the William K. and Marilyn Milton Simpson Professor of Classics and History, is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the link between human history and climate change. Manning wanted to demonstrate what he was teaching in his graduate seminar, “Climate, Environment, and Ancient History,” so he took his students on a field trip to see first-hand how historical data on environmental conditions and climatic change can be linked to a range of societal responses, including, in some instances, massive human migration.

Manning’s Yale-based NSF project is an international collaboration among historians, scientists, hydrologists, and statisticians who seek to understand how large volcanic eruptions can reduce average global temperatures and suppress average global precipitation, causing dramatic effects on annual rainfall on the Nile watershed in ancient times. The human response to this annual flooding, and to its variability over the years, was the major driver of Egyptian history up to the completion of the high dam at Aswan in 1970, notes Manning.

Manning traveled with his students — some of whom are participating on his NSF project — to the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada, a center that is considered to be a world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change. The students worked one-on-one with Joe McConnell ’82, a research professor at DRI, to learn how historians can use the study of ice cores — which contain layers showing the annual snowfall over thousands of years and thus the atmospheric conditions — to learn more about the human impact on climate change.

As a result of that trip, says Manning, the students now know how to critique articles on ice core geochemistry, a critical part of the research for the NSF grant.

Manning and students at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada.
From left to right: Kevin Hoffman, Pamela Santibáñez, Monica Arienzo, Nadia Grisaru, Joe McConnell, Joseph Manning, Meghan Poplacean, Nathan Chellman, Joseph Morgan, and Nazim Can Serbest. Manning took his graduate seminar, “Climate, Environment, and Ancient History” to the Desert Research Institute in Nevada.

Joining the graduate students was Nadia Grisaru ’20, a geology and geophysics major and the project manager on Manning’s NSF grant. What she learned at DRI couldn’t be replicated in the classroom, she says. “I previously knew about glaciers and ice sheets, but had never seen or helped analyze an ice core myself,” says Grisaru. “The trip to DRI was a fascinating experience — from touring the facilities, to meeting the scientists and learning about their work, and getting to help process a core in the lab. It also helped me imagine myself doing work in a similar field.”

Grisaru adds that being at DRI with the students in Manning’s graduate seminar also enhanced the experience. “Hearing about the individual research projects and specializations of each of the students was a great way to understand how important this project could be for creating a conversation between the fields of history and science. It was also exciting to hear from people who are studying such different things but sometimes use similar processes,” she says.

The trip was also an opportunity for Manning himself to learn new, “extraordinarily technical” research from McConnell, who is “a pioneer in these techniques,” says the Yale historian.

Back on campus, Manning continued his lessons outside of the classroom by taking his NSF project team to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where he used ancient papyri in the library’s papyrus collection to show the students how to trace societal responses to environmental conditions.

Manning illustrated how it was possible to reconstruct climate environment and societal changes from the human archives to show the complexity of the human response to these changes. This research, says Manning, gives us a new window on the ancient world and will also broaden our understanding of best-practice responses to the changing climate in the modern world.

The work that we are doing in the human archives is to reconstruct climate, environment, and changes to show us the complexity of the human response to these changes,” says Manning. “This project is fundamentally changing how we do premodern or preindustrial history.”

When observing the papyri at the Beinecke, Grisaru says, she was “blown away by the ability of the historians in the room to understand and infer so much from such tiny, seemingly insignificant pieces of information. Whether it was dating the papyri based on the person addressed in the letter or inferring agricultural prosperity based on the number of units of donkey feed mentioned, they were able to decipher the writing, and use their larger knowledge of the historical context to place and understand the significance of each document. To think that these papyri were but a few in the collection under study is staggering,” she says.

This research gives us tremendous insights into a more dynamic understanding of human beings and how we are extraordinarily flexible and resilient in the face of climatic change — until we are not,” says Manning.