People are turning to the past to contextualize the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 racial injustice and anti-police violence uprisings. But doom-and-gloom predictions or overly hopeful takes are often simplistic comparisons between the past and now. Our research has shown that while events like pandemics and social unrest cause suffering, they also create opportunities for people to create more just systems. At the same time, people profiting off the old system will be using these crises to their advantage as well.
Last year the world was on fire. This year, it’s the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu, and in the US, the biggest public uprising in recent history. Catastrophizing is now en vogue and falling down rabbit holes of “disaster porn” is no longer limited to crazy uncles and online message boards. Well-respected scholars and even medical professionals are predicting downfall-of-civilization outcomes. It’s become a burgeoning pastime. However, as archaeologists who have surveyed, excavated, and analyzed the material culture of ancient societies and their reactions to similar crises, we don’t see catastrophe as the inevitable result of pandemics. Because of the one-sided way that history is written and reconstructed, we sometimes overlook that many collapses are often the crumbling, even smashing, of unjust social systems. Elites almost certainly viewed such outcomes as societal collapse, but for workers and oppressed groups – while riddled with heartbreak and trauma – severe social disruptions often created a bridge to a less oppressive future. While there are many voices using the past to make dire predictions and capitalize on the pandemic danger we are all in, we should see these periods as lessons, not as warnings.
“This is just like the collapse of the Roman Empire”, or “Our current state of affairs mimics the end of Egypt’s first dynasty”, or “We’ll see a rise in nationalism and authoritarianism like the Plague of Athens”: with death tolls rising, economies floundering, and social uprising spreading across the globe, one doesn’t have to look far to find dire comparisons and predictions made from past events.
At first blush, both the bubonic plague and the 1918 influenza seem like good historical warnings for COVID-19, but they fall apart under scrutiny. Bacteria, not a virus, caused the bubonic plague, a significant difference in terms of communicability, treatment, and immunity. While the frail were most at risk, and infirmity was more common in the lower classes, the bubonic plague decimated the upper classes as well. Also, the Black Death’s long-term impact lessened the stark inequalities in European economic systems, the exact opposite of what is happening economically with COVID-19 so far.
The 1918 Spanish flu seems a better corollary as it was a virus and more recent. And yet, in a 2018 assessment of readiness for a new pandemic timed partially as a centennial remembrance of the 1918 flu, the U.S.’s CDC had no firm answers as to whether the U.S. is more or less vulnerable compared to a century ago. The 1918 flu was so deadly because of transmission through wartime population movement and the governmental restriction of information. While globalization has increased interpersonal connectivity that may create similar vectors to a global wartime troop movement, information is now exchanged at a speed that most governments can’t contain. In some countries, this has been leveraged to limit COVID-19’s transmission. In others, it hasn’t.
The incongruities between these previous pandemics and COVID-19 should demonstrate that, at best, historic outbreaks serve as roadmaps for the present. But instead of Google Maps, they’re a 1918 folding paper map being used to drive from New York City to Los Angeles in 2020.
Using the past to make simple doom-and-gloom “hot takes” does not consider unique changes in history, which were themselves built upon past histories. A comprehensive examination of the past considers more than detrimental responses to social disruptions. Archaeology has shown that people are able to adapt, even thrive, amidst severe crises (1,2). Research in the Mimbres region of southwest New Mexico (3) has demonstrated that instead of violence, famine, and collapse, people underwent a cultural florescence during a severe, century-long drought in the 900s AD. Changes to religious practices, residential patterns, and more allowed them to respond as needed (4). Across the American Southwest from the 1100s to 1450 AD, sporadic but often devastating and long-lasting droughts impacted tens of thousands of square kilometers. Yet research has shown that in the late 1200s, during one of the worst drought events, groups innovated in new ways to persist and to establish resilient practices, the most frequently successful built around expanding community.
If you were surprised by the sudden uprising and popular support against oppressive social and state practices in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic, history wasn’t. In northern New Mexico during the 1100s AD, a drought revealed stark and long-deepening fissures between elites and commoners. The Gallina people left and established a large-scale egalitarian society in distant highlands to challenge those unjust systems (5). It would be another 200 years before the commoners that remained in the hierarchically ruled regions would follow in their footsteps. The Salado social movement in what is now southern Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of northern Mexico, comprised of ancestors of contemporary O’odham groups and some contemporary Pueblo groups, created a multi-ethnic social movement that raged like wildfire through the Southwestern deserts during a time of rampant inequality and sparse rainfall. This massive movement of Indigenous commoners eventually collapsed the power of elites in the region and appears to have returned self-determination to individual households and communities (6).
These four examples, while particular to specific times and places, show us that our histories – our historical moment – and our environment play key parts in how we react to crises, and the success of those reactions.
Droughts, inequality, and pandemics are quite different events, yet they are all societal hinge points. And like a good gate hinge, they can move two ways. It is too simplistic to use the past as a tool for making negative predictions about the future – doing so sensationalizes and decontextualizes the past. We must closely examine particular contexts to properly leverage historical lessons.
For example, a more nuanced lesson from the 1918 Spanish influenza considers similarities in rising nationalism and xenophobia, how this affected the response to the virus, and even how the virus was exploited to further ostracize disenfranchised communities. Indeed, COVID-19 has already impacted historically marginalized groups more severely than others (16,17), which the historic record reveals is typical of disease outbreaks. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has climbed startlingly, with historic unemployment numbers growing alongside record profits of industry giants, politicians profiteering and, as Naomi Klein warned, the passage of contentious legislation and agendas during mass tragedy.
Yet resilient practices have also emerged. Community coalitions have formed to take care of homeless people that the state has left behind. Organizers have set up extensive mutual aid networks to care for each other, including producing PPE for medical professionals from donated supplies when state and federal responses fall short. And all across the US, people have risen up against racial inequality and oppressive policing practices that create and reinforce ethnic and class inequalities, with cross-class and cross-ethnicity community coalitions supporting one another.
We should learn from the past. However, to predict that modern society is doomed simply because past pandemics seemingly correlate with dramatic social “collapses” relies on false equivalency. Many “collapses” were absolutely freeing for the commoners whose labor fed aristocratic greed in rigidly hierarchical societies.
The past has always been a multivocal and many-headed beast. If history and archaeology have a lesson for this moment, it’s this: we can withstand seemingly catastrophic disturbances and may be able to use them to provide opportunities for beneficial change. But those who have power and money will be using them to create more of both for themselves as well.
Jakob Sedig and Lewis Borck
- McAnany, P.A. and Yoffee, N. “Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire,” 2009.
- Cooper, J. and Sheets, P. “Surviving Sudden Environmental Change: Answers From Archaeology,” 2012.
- Sedig, J.W. Doctoral Dissertation. “The Mimbres Transitional Phase: Examining Social, Demographic, and Environmental Resilience and Vulnerability from 900-1000 A.D. in Southwest New Mexico,” 2015.
- Sedig, J.W. “Environmental Precarity and Religious Transformation during the Mimbres Transitional Phase,” Kiva, 2020.
- Borck, L. “Sophisticated Rebels: Meaning Maps and Settlement Structure as Evidence for a Social Movement in the Gallina Region of the North American Southwest.” In Life Beyond the Boundaries: Constructing Identity in Edge Regions of the North American Southwest, 2018.
- Borck, L. Doctoral Dissertation. “Lost Voices Found: An Archaeology of Contentious Politics in the Greater Southwest, A.D. 1100-1450,” 2016