Unearthing the past for clues about the future

Jan. 31, 2012, 1:00 a.m.
Unearthing the past for clues about the future
(Courtesy of Kathy St. John)

A square meter of any archaeological dig tends to unearth bones, stone tools, ceramics, textiles–a little of everything–and a lot of dirt. Some might call it playing in the dirt. Others just dig for expensive artifacts. For history and classics professor Ian Morris, it is an opportunity to unearth the past in a way that helps explain trends of the present.


After many such digs and a large amount of research, Morris formulated some ideas as to why the Western world has become so successful. His most recent book, “Why the West Rules…For Now,” explains the effects geography and natural resources have on the distribution of wealth and power.


For his book, Morris conducted research projects and excavations to analyze the gradual decline of indigenous cultures.


He directed one such excavation in Mote Polizzo, Italy, where native Sicilian society arose. His team focused on what happened when Greeks settled on the coast. Morris discovered that the indigenous Sicilian population grew after the Greeks arrived because they were able to connect to bigger economic networks.


Morris explained how he analyzed archaeological artifacts to help him arrive at these conclusions.


“One way to distinguish archeological artifacts is form and function,” Morris said. “Different vessels are good for different things. Another common methodology is residue analysis, through which archeologists are able to discern what liquid soaked into the material.”


Because the cups are almost indistinguishable from the Greek originals and made from clay found at the site, Morris concluded that the Sicilians actually adopted the Greek’s heating process, much like they adopted a variety of other cultural traditions. Thus, the culture of the indigenous population gradually collapsed after the appearance of the Greeks.


While conducting research for his book, he said his perspective changed drastically. Morris looked at a large span of history while comparing the development of the West with that of other parts of the world.


“That helped me to understand that the West’s success in projecting its power around the world wasn’t driven by some innate superiority of European culture, but rested on…geographical forces,” Morris wrote in an email to The Daily. “People have the same motives, same desires, urges and shortcomings. What makes a real difference in how societies flourish is the geography they are in.”


This quarter at Stanford, Morris brings his archaeological experience to the classroom in an Introduction to the Humanities course, A Human History, a Global Approach.


“Teaching students drawn from all across the University is another big plus,” Morris said. “They bring a tremendous diversity of experiences and approaches to historical questions, which makes the whole thing a lot of fun.”


Morris’s instruction is generally well received.


“He’s very dynamic and keeps the class interesting as we start with a really broad framework and then working towards more specific details,” said Michael Peñuelas ’15.


Ultimately, the class aimed to provide a broad scope of human history in order for students to understand how it relates to the histories of others and to find “what it means for us to be human,” wrote John Corbally, a former teaching fellow for the course, in an email to The Daily.


“By understanding, albeit at a high level, how all ethnicity, nations and creeds of people arrived at this point in history, students are better equipped to grapple with the bewildering professional world awaiting them,” Corbally said.


The course, like Morris’s research, also incorporates other disciplines.


“Thinking about the past as a career suggests that the human story is very like the story of biology,” Morris said.


The symbiotic relationship between the cultural evolution and the biological revolution helps explain why so much of what it means to be a human has changed over the last 1000 years, he added.


And similar principles, he argued, extend further into the past.


“If we look at the whole of the human past, covering the entire world and going back 200,000 years to the origin of our species, we really can explain the patterns that have driven history and make reliable policy predictions about what’s coming next,” Morris said. “This requires us to look at archaeology, genetics, anthropology, biology, linguistics and a host of other fields, as well as the texts that historians normally analyze.”

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