Working in Madagascar, an island country known for its biodiversity, Penn State archeologist Kristina Douglass seeks to understand the dynamics of this remarkable place—how humans have managed to carve out a niche here in order to survive in a constantly changing climate. And how, over two thousand years, the impacts of human adaptation have in turn altered the landscape.
Douglass is bringing together communities and researchers in Madagascar to see how humans impact the environment around them. Her approach reconstructs the past through archaeological materials and connects them to the present by interviewing and collaborating with groups of migrating fishers, herders, foragers, and farmers.
The oral history project captures generations of local knowledge about how these communities have managed to adapt to environmental challenges. She believes the community should share in the benefit of the research through active participation: The MAP team in Madagascar is made up mostly of Vezo fishers. Although many team members have a limited school-based education, she regards them as equal partners in the production of scientific knowledge.
Kristina Douglass, Joyce and Doug Sherwin Early Career Professor in the Rock Ethics Institute and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies, Penn State College of the Liberal Arts
Because learning from the past helps us adapt to the future
My wish, as a scientist and human being, is to help science become a more robust field by developing and building approaches to inclusion, like co-produced science.
“How can we build on the human experience over thousands of years to better understand climate change, food insecurity, and other problems that we face today?”
Bridging the past and present
The Morombe Archeological Project (MAP), started by Douglass in 2012, relies on ecological and geospatial methods, including remote sensing combined with predictive modeling, and traditional archeological surveys and excavations to uncover how the impacts of human adaptation have altered the landscape.
Douglass is working to reconstruct that past using archeological materials—shared artifacts and technologies, trade items, as well as animal and plant remains—as proxies for the social connections between ancient communities. Douglass employs both standard methods, such as measuring carbon and nitrogen isotopes in cattle bones to infer past diet and response to drought, as well as more innovative techniques, like oral histories that prioritize community knowledge.
“As an archeologist, I study the past—the people, materials they used, the landscapes. What I really want to understand is how a community’s past experience can help us address our problems today..”
During a two-year project led by Douglass and postdoctoral fellow Tanambelo Rasolondrainy that ended in 2018, team members interviewed over 100 local elders in 32 communities within Velondriake. The team also used live drone footage of the Mikea Forest, played through virtual reality headsets, to help jog participants’ memories related to specific archeological sites.
Comparing the archeological evidence she is amassing against the existing paleoclimate record, Douglass looks for correlations between climate change and human response across the span of the region’s ecological history. Ultimately, she says, “What you end up with is a localized understanding of what it means to be resilient, to weather a storm.”
“Having strong community relationships—especially when they are transparent, mutualistic, and reciprocal—improves the quality of the research, and, ethically, makes you more responsible for the outcomes.”
Douglass’s integrated approach is underpinned by a commitment to working collaboratively—not just with other scholars but also with members of the local community. She is recognized as a leader in what has come to be called community-based participatory research, or co-produced science.
For Douglass, the concept links back to the idea of relevance; her belief that the people and communities she studies should share in the benefit of that research. In this case, sharing means active participation: The MAP team in Madagascar is made up mostly of Vezo fishers. Although many team members have limited school-based education, she regards them as equal partners in the production of scientific knowledge.
“All humans engage in empirical observation, asking questions and posing hypotheses,” Douglass explains. “I consider everyone that I work with in Madagascar to be a scientist. These are people who have lived in and derived their livelihood from this area, and have multi-generations worth of knowledge of the regions’ ecological and geological and climate processes.”
“These are people who have lived in and derived their livelihood from this area, and have multi-generations worth of knowledge of the regions’ ecological and geological and climate processes.”
Expanding the vision
How did ancient communities adapt to deal with environmental changes? What are the strategies that have sustained them in the past? Will those strategies be enough to sustain them now? These are some of the questions that Douglass hopes to answer in the next phase of the Madagascar Archeological Project.
A prestigious Carnegie fellowship will allow her to expand the oral history work, in tandem with a coral coring project to reconstruct the paleoclimate record, looking for clues to how local fishing communities have dealt with climate change in the ancient past. Douglass believes that what the team is learning “can help us ultimately understand and better deal with the challenges ahead.”
“Learning about the past is critical to living sustainably because we have thousands of years’ worth of cumulative experience of the things that work and the things that don’t work.”
The answers she seeks echo far beyond southwest Madagascar. Douglass is part of a pending proposal that would extend the study to subsistence communities around the world facing similar challenges—in Puerto Rico, Ethiopia, Fiji, and the Arctic. “These communities may look different from one another,” she says, “but they are completely interconnected.”
Douglass believes whether it’s Madagascar, Ethiopia, or Pennsylvania– these communities are united through the human experience. “People are trying to build and sustain livelihoods. These people are trying to connect the knowledge that has been transmitted to them from previous generations, grandparents, great grandparents to deal with the challenges that they’re facing today. They are all facing extreme pressures from the globalized world that we live in.”
“Surviving in Place,” by David Pacchioli, originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Research/Penn State magazine, details Kristina Douglass’s ongoing work in southwest Madagascar.
Douglass and her team were featured in the international science journal Nature in an article highlighting emerging leaders in community-based participatory research, or co-produced science.
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