New research confirms what many of us already know: The more you know your neighbors, the better off you will be when disaster strikes.
For their new study, researchers from the University of Arizona School of Anthropology found that communities that were more connected with their neighbors had a better chance of successfully managing a crisis than communities with fewer outside connections.
“In a lot of modern research in crisis management, people are looking at how communities mobilize along social networks to overcome traumatic environmental crises, like we saw with Hurricane Katrina,” said Lewis Borck, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“We’ve known for a long time that people rely on social networks during times of crisis. What we didn’t know, or at least what we haven’t really been able to demonstrate, is exactly what happened to the social networks at a regional scale as people began to rely on them, or how people modified and changed their networks in reaction to social and environmental crises. This research gives us insight into that.”
For the study, Borck and his co-authors, including anthropology professor Dr. Barbara Mills, focused on the years 1200-1400, which included the 1276-1299 megadrought in the southwestern United States.
To understand how different communities interacted with one another, the researchers examined data gathered by the Southwest Social Networks Project. The project maintains a database of millions of ceramic and obsidian artifacts, compiled by Mills and collaborators at Archaeology Southwest.
When the same types of ceramics are found in similar proportions in different communities, it indicates that a relationship existed between those communities, the researchers explained.
Borck and his research team studied the relationships of 22 different subareas in the Southwest, based on an analysis of 800,000 painted ceramics from more than 700 archeological sites.
What they found is that during the 23-year drought, relationships between many groups grew stronger, as people turned to their neighbors for support and resources, such as food and information.
“It seemed to be a way to mobilize resources and to increase your variability of resources, by increasing your interaction with more distant people,” Borck said.
“The Hopi people, still present in what is now northern Arizona, are an example of a population that employed this type of crisis management,” he said.
Still, some groups remained more insular, he noted.
The study found that communities with larger social networks had a better chance of withstanding the drought without having to migrate, and for a longer period, than the more insular groups.
“Most of the groups that were only interacting with other communities in their group didn’t persist in place,” he said. “They all migrated out.”
There was one exception — the Zuni people, who, despite not having strong external social networks, remain in western New Mexico to this day, Borck pointed out. Their success was probably due to the large population and the diversity of resources available within the area they inhabited, he suggested.
Mills said the study provides empirical support for the importance of social networks in times of crisis.
“A lot of people have hypothesized that this process of having more extensive social networks is sort of a backup strategy for people, but this is one of the first times we’ve been able to demonstrate it at a very large, regional scale,” she said.
“It backs up a lot of these hypotheses about ‘social storage’ being as important as the real storage of actual items,” she continued. “The flip side is that if you are highly insular and protectionist and don’t interact with a lot your neighbors, you’re really susceptible.”
The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
Source: University of Arizona