Reflections on past lives in the time of Covid-19

Professor Emeritus Alasdair Whittle
Cardiff University

‘Most of our people have never had it so good’ was a famous political slogan of the later 1950s. I can’t be the only archaeologist contemplating the potential lessons of the pandemic for how we understand the remote past. My research generation — I started my doctorate in the early 1970s — was probably more influenced by the post-war times of recovery and prosperity than we like to admit. For long decades, a rather comfortable past was envisioned. Change took place, of course, but in a rather orderly and predictable fashion. Four themes — population levels, violence, migration and disease — serve to illustrate aspects of this rather complacent worldview, which both recent research and current events are helping to shatter. Obviously I am referring to complex arguments and debates so forgive the inevitable generalisations and simplifications. 

Population levels were briefly in fashion in the early 1970s but then rather lapsed from view. It is greatly to the credit of Stephen Shennan and his team, among others, for reviving this in more recent times, and I think his view of cycles of population boom and bust are on the right track, even if the method of using the numbers of radiocarbon dates as a population proxy is deeply suspect. We need to get at this by regional studies and pollen analysis, among alternatives. But the important thing is that a much less stable world is suggested. 

I used to argue that violence was endemic and recurrent but small-scale in the European Neolithic. Now it has been shown that there is much more evidence for individual and inter-group violence nearly everywhere (among others by Rick Schulting, Mick Wysocki and Linda Fibiger, who worked in the department at various times), and there are famous instances of massacres and even a possible battle. Again a much less settled world comes into view. But detailed work on chronological sequences (as in our Times of Their Lives project) shows that there can be long stretches when such evidence is much scarcer, and so we have to formulate more nuanced and sensitive histories. 

Once upon a time, new people were the way to explain change in the archaeological record. My generation largely rejected that view, and went for other kinds of interpretation. In some ways that was liberating, but for many situations it took us way off the track, and it has been a long haul, led by colleagues like David Anthony in America, and now reinforced by the great surge in aDNA studies, to regain a more grounded perspective. People did move in the past, even though there are ongoing arguments about the scale of this in certain contexts (as in the third millennium). Twenty or more years of isotopic research (some of it carried out in this department) have also underlined how many individual lives were shaped by mobility, often on a surprising scale. Once again we bump up against a much less fixed past. 

Finally, there is increasing evidence for disease in the past. The aDNA studies have shown the presence of plague as far back as c. 3000 BC, and there are clear signs of tuberculosis in the sixth millennium in the early Neolithic of central Europe. In one of our ToTL studies we suggested disease as a possible reason for an apparent pronounced gap in the settlement sequence in Alsace, in the early fifth millennium. That was in a paper published in 2017, and now we have all seen for ourselves what havoc a virus can wreak. There are plenty of other contexts where disease might have played a major role in change and disruption, and it will be fascinating to see if ongoing aDNA research can track more of these instances down. 

So, people on the move, people killing other people, numbers on the ground getting out of hand, and people falling prey to disease, were probably all much more prominent features of past worlds like the Neolithic than we have allowed for in many previously comfortable models of the past. It is a good time now to rethink all these issues and combine them, not in another set of static generalisations, but in detailed, nuanced and varying narratives of the successes and failures, the challenges, uncertainties and disruptions, of past lives.