CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, shot by Julia Poska, 2019.

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

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