Examples of Adaptation of Farming to Extreme Climates
February 11, 2007 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for historical accounts and analysis of the adaptation of farming to extreme climates. A few weeks ago I spent a relaxed Sunday afternoon learning about early settlement, farming, and society in Iceland. Fascinating stuff! I now have the opportunity to research the adaptation/failure of farming in extreme climates for a term paper.

Any region and historical period is of interest; homesteaders in Montana, ancestral Pueblo farming, etc... I have virtually no familiarity with this subject, so suggestions for regions and cultures to look into are very welcome.

So far I have turned up (broad descriptors so that I am not adding a long list of books and articles):

Dry farming in arid parts of the Mediterranean and Africa.
Lots of Iceland.
Homesteaders sent to Montana with no idea what they were facing.
Early desert farming and irrigation (American Southwest).
I know of/have read Jared Diamond's Collapse.

Suggestions in the areas I have some traction are welcome; the list is intended to give you an idea of what I don't know. Specific titles are helpful, but I would really love to have some broad avenues of inquiry revealed to me in terms of places/times/cultures to research and resources to do so. I have access to the KU library system, which has a very good extended digital network, although I am used to using the online resources for hard science research.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you could make broad groupings, in terms of the type of "extreme" climate involved:

--high altitude (eg altiplano, Nepal)

--limited space (eg small islands)

--floating gardens (eg Mexico City)

--high-salt environments

--farming during rapid climate change (cf the article on farming in Niger in todays New York Times, and in particular the groups of widows who are using backbreaking labor to reclaim unusable lands)

--extremely dry or wet, and extremes of cold and heat

--Perhaps most interesting to me is agriculture under "extreme" social climates, such as hillside farming by slaves, and farming and livestock raising on trash dumps in many large cities in the developing world

But really, if you are doing this as a term paper, why are you not asking this question of your professor, and of leading professors in the field? You will get some good suggestions here, but I think there is a better approach you could be following. I'd be thrilled if a student turned in a paper with a "personal communication" citation from a leading researcher that lead to a solid research paper. Most researchers are thrilled to have someone express interest in their work, and will talk your ear off given half a chance.
posted by Forktine at 12:15 PM on February 11, 2007

See the journal "Human Ecology", its very good for this topic, especially the 2005 special issue “On the Windy Edge of Nothing”: A Historical Human Ecology of the Faroe Islands". A beautiful series of papers on the first settlement of the Faero Island by Norse farmers and how they adapted. Working backwards from the references in these papers will cover most of the North Atlantic for you.

Perhaps the most interesting, recent case is the failed Norse settlement of Greenland. While climate played a part in the failure, there is some evidence that Norse over-identification as cattle agriculturists prevented them from adapting, to the extent they seldom or never took advantage of the immense fish resources of South Greenland (and please don't buy everything Diamond says about the Norse, everytime my expertise and his books have intersected I find his interpretations and command of the facts to be seriously flawed).

Keep in mind that 'extreme climates' is a vague term - marginality due to excessive cold or aridity is one thing, but unpredictability (risk/uncertainity) is another, and can pertain in otherwise reasonable climates, yet both can make agriculture a non-viable option. Human Ecology is a good journal for this, so is Evolutionary Anthropology. There is a big literature on the human/cultural ecology of risk/uncertainty.

There is a vast literature on the American Southwest early maize horticulturalists and their strategies re: drought.. The rise of pastoralism there, post-Spanish, with the ca. 1500 AD arrival of Dene speakers (Apache, Navaho) from Canada could also be of interest to you because that was a marginal, unexploited niche until the right combination of animal and people came together.

other areas:

Arid farming in Peru, especially the altiplano. Here, as in many places (e.g., Negev desert), archaeologically-rediscovered techniques are replacing historical ones, with great benefit and longer term sustainability.
The seaweed-eating sheep of Shetland and Orkney - important adjunct alloweing pastoralism on a small land base.
Homesteading in the most marginal areas of Alberta and British Columbia.
Klondike agriculture -- don't know much, but the 3 dollar chicken egg in 1890s Klondike may well be the tip of a fascinating story.
Some Pacific islands were just fine for agriculture but became marginal as people over-exploited them, precipitating soil erosion. Easter Island an obvious example, but even moreso look into the failed occupations of Pitcairn and Henderson Islands by Polynesians. Similar story in some areas of North Africa (minus the Polynesians, natch)

Using the library tool "Web of Knowledge", with social science and humanities option boxes checked is a good all around tool. Also see if KU has "Anthro Plus" which captures more obscure archaeology journals and well as book chapters, not captured by Web of Science.
posted by Rumple at 12:17 PM on February 11, 2007

You might find something to get you thinking amongst Case Western's excellent set of resources on Tibet, though unsurprisingly the focus is on pastoralism, which I'm not sure would fit your criteria.
posted by Abiezer at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2007

Similar in tone and scope to Jared Diamond's work is Charles C. Mann's '1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus'. It has some incredibly interesting sections on early South and Central American farming techniques that evolved to cope with swampy, arid, mountainous, or otherwise extreme climates. Also goes on to relate those practices to the cultures of their respective populations. It's not an exhaustive scientific study, but the bibliography would almost surely point you to some good resources. Good luck!
posted by JohnFredra at 12:28 PM on February 11, 2007

The Matanuska Valley in Alaska was settled in 1935 as an agricultural community, part of a Depression-era government project. You might look into that; the area is now known for producing gigantic cabbages and strawberries, the result of extremely long days in summer.
posted by Quietgal at 12:30 PM on February 11, 2007

Response by poster: Forktine: I have asked my professor, and he set me loose to find enough primary and secondary sources to make for a viable project. I'm a physics major, so I don't know who the leading experts are in this field, or in any other area of history. Not my specialization. I will contact anyone I discover through this thread or my own research.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:20 PM on February 11, 2007

The development and deployment of drip irrigation in Israel is well documented.
posted by jet_silver at 1:25 PM on February 11, 2007

When Iceland was settled, it wasn't as extreme an environment as it later became. Iceland and Greenland were settled by the Vikings during the Medieval Warm Period, which was a lot warmer than it is now. "Greenland" was named that because it actually was green at the time.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:31 PM on February 11, 2007

Response by poster: SCDB: True, but I'm under the impression that Icelandic farming practices and societal adaptations such as the communal grain trust used to bail out a farm having a bad season or recovering from a disaster were fairly unique adaptations to a comparatively marginal environment
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:31 PM on February 11, 2007

There was an article in the NYT in January about aquaculture in the Israeli desert, which might be worth a look.
posted by Upton O'Good at 2:42 PM on February 11, 2007

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