Traditional history as it developed during the 19th century depended on written documents that were produced sometime in the past. Originally these sources included only “official documents” produced by government and kings as well as merchants and traders, such as charters but also correspondence. During the 20th century the nature of historical studies changed radically and who is now surprised when historians use economic ideas and data in their studies, or use insights from anthropology, sociology and gender studies? But combining historical sources with data from the sciences takes historical research to an entirely different level. Here is a short guide of the use of documentary evidence in conjunction with data from the natural sciences.
Conventional history based on written sources has its limits when we study the interaction between humans and society in the past. There are several problems, though not unique to environmental history, that go beyond historical sources used by most historians. The time span of many processes that affect the relations between human culture and the environment are often extremely long, hundreds or even thousands of years, and exceed written records. Another obstacle is that lliteracy was, and often still is limited in many parts of the world and during most periods in the past, for example Prehistory in Europe. But even in literate societies environmental changes/impacts are often not recorded because these are seen as normal processes and activities that form the backdrop of day-to-day life. Only some extreme disastrous events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or flooding are sometimes recorded. In general we may conclude that the natural environment in which human history unfolds is poorly served by written history – we need collaboration between humanities and natural sciences to tell their stories! What is needed, apart from documentary historical evidence, are the tools of the environmental and natural sciences to unravel untold stories. What kind of evidence and tools are available to the environmental historian? Let’s examine some of the tools available to the climate and vegetation historian.
For climate and vegetation history we can of course rely on written sources, paintings, photographs and recorded instrumental observations. Historical documents contain a wealth of information about past climates but also descriptions of the landscape used to reconstruct climates and landscape change dating back several hundred years back in time. Observations of weather and climatic conditions as well as the landscape and resources such as forests and peat deposits (for fuel) can be found in farmers, travellers and gamekeepers diaries, newspaper accounts, ships logs and other written records. Landscape paintings or photographs can provide information about woodland cover, use of the land and perceptions of landscapes. When properly evaluated, historical data can yield both qualitative and quantitative information about past climate and landscape change.