The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On climate change, archaeological paper digs into the effects of colonization and maltreatment

A flooded, littered street in the Dominican Republic after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Archaeologists did a study on the climate in the islands of the Caribbean and southwestern Indian Ocean. (Tatiana Fernandez/AP)

When researchers assess communities’ vulnerabilities to climate change, they look at an area’s physical, biological and human systems. But new research suggests they might want to look at historical injustice, too.

In research published in the journal PNAS, a pair of archaeologists examined the climate in the islands of the Caribbean and southwestern Indian Ocean and found ways changes have been magnified by histories of colonization and injustice.

Caribbean islands face increasingly intense hurricanes fueled by warming oceans, and those threats are expected to grow along with human-caused global warming.

But, the researchers found, colonization forced residents of island communities to move away from resilient ways of building homes. Archaeological excavations in places throughout the Caribbean have revealed a history of round buildings with deeply embedded posts made of strong local wood and lightweight thatched roofs.

But after islands were colonized, European household architecture took over. Today’s homes are made of reinforced concrete, not locally available materials, and are easily overwhelmed during hurricanes. That makes it harder to survive and rebuild after intense tropical storms.

Similarly, Madagascar’s forests and other land resources were decimated by Europeans intent on wresting more profit out of colonies there. Today, the descendants of the indigenous people inhabit poorer land that shows the scars of soil degradation, erosion and deforestation, making them even more vulnerable to climate change.

“Historical environmental injustices have really weakened people’s ability to use knowledge they’ve accumulated over generations, sometimes millennia,” says archaeologist Kristina Douglass, an assistant professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University who co-wrote the paper. “People and nature are not separate.”

By considering historical injustices — and what adaptations ignored or lost during colonization — scientists can develop more nuanced climate assessments and unearth more effective ways to develop resilience, Douglass says.

“We should use science and combine that with indigenous knowledge to see how we can improve our strategies,” she says.

To read the paper, visit

Madagascar’s lemurs face a grim future because of human activity

At climate conference, divide widens between those countries that pollute and those that suffer from it

What does ‘dangerous’ climate change really mean?