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Changing Environments, Social Adaptations, Divergent Trajectories: The Application of Socio-Natural Systems Thinking and Geospatial Modeling to the Late Bronze/Iron Age Transition in West-Central Syria, ca. 1350-750 BCE


The transition for the Late Bronze to the Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean is still only incompletely understood, with explanations ranging from social disintegration to environmental degradation. Especially the idea of societal collapse has had a strong influence on this discourse and continues to be frequently invoked as an explanatory model, despite recent advances in the historical and archaeological understanding of this transitional period. Mediated by Classical Greek and biblical tradition, this ongoing appeal of collapse theory can be attributed to the (overt or subliminal) persistence of 18th-20th century CE intellectual paradigms, which are often enmeshed with ill-defined concepts of race, ethnicity, or social evolution. In the context of the Late Bronze/Iron Age Levant, traditional applications of collapse theory reveal more about Western scholarly self-perceptions, than they contribute to an understanding of this critical period.

This dissertation argues that Socio-Natural Systems (SNS) thinking, borrowed from ecology, offers a theoretical and methodological framework with which the Late Bronze/Iron Age transition can be analyzed and understood in more detail. Rather than relying on incompletely understood and ultimately restrictive classificatory labels, SNS thinking promotes the analysis of processes of change across multiple scales, both temporal and geographic. SNS analysis acknowledges the interrelatedness of social processes and environmental conditions, and provides a structure through which the interactions between societies and their respective environments can be studied.

The principles of SNS analysis are applied to a study region in Western Syria and Northern Lebanon, termed West-Central Syria, in a preliminary analysis of socio-natural interactions in the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BCE. Geospatial analysis is used not only to investigate and quantify relationships between social and environmental processes, but also to overcome significant gaps in current data availability. GIS modeling is used to retrodict climatic conditions in the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BCE, but also to develop a predictive model of agricultural suitability, enabling the analysis of the effects of climatic change on the environment and ancient agricultural economies. Combining the results of these models with geostatistical analysis, palaeoenvironmental data, and the historical and archaeological record, this dissertation argues that processes of change and transformation in Late Bronze/Iron Age West-Central Syria were geographically and chronologically specific, and conditioned on a highly complex interplay of both social and environmental factors.

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