Our Mission: Learning and Education

The Center for Human-Environmental Research is a   501(c)(3) nonprofit research institute committed to learning and teaching about the complex diversity of human relationships with the environment and the immense political, economic, and social problems facing humanity today. As human societies in the 21st century grapple with problems stemming from climate change, CHER conducts scientific research and ethical inquiry aimed at putting current problems into the contexts of both modern cultural diversity and the immensity of human prehistory. Our research bridges the fields including archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, sociology, political philosophy, economics, geoscience, and ecology.

CHER is also dedicated to the dissemination of our research through a variety of outlets and through numerous public outreach activities. We produce open-access publications reporting on our findings and outlining innovative approaches to research problems having to do with human-environmental interaction. CHER publishes freely available papers, podcasts, and videos on topics ranging from human evolution and prehistoric cultures, to the causes of climate change, and the changing human roles in the ecosystems of Earth. CHER staff also make public lectures in a range of venues and participate in other outreach activities aimed at educating the public on issues concerning environmental variability, human prehistory, and cultural diversity.


Staff Research Projects: Community Resilience in Coastal Louisiana

Coastal Louisiana is one of the most culturally diverse and historically rich regions of North America, and it is widely recognized that local cultural traditions have played a crucial role in helping communities cope with disaster and environmental change at a generational time scale. At the same time, Gulf Coast communities face an extremely difficult situation in terms of socioeconomic problems related to storm surge events, coastal erosion, subsidence, sea level rise, and ecological degradation. Today, as disaster risks and environmental problems continue to multiply, it seems fundamentally important to build a better understanding of how the social systems of coastal communities have worked in buffering risk and enhancing community resilience. From our base in New Orleans, CHER staff are seeking to understand the social dimensions of resilience in Louisiana’s coastal communities and examine the process of resettlement from the perspectives of social networks, social identities, institutions, and attachment to place.

CHER research on coastal resilience is headed by our Executive Director, Dr. Grant S. McCall, and Director of Ethnographic Research, Dr. Russell D. Greaves. Combined, McCall and Greaves have over fifty years of experience in conducting ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological fieldwork across the globe. In addition to their experience as ethnographers, McCall and Greaves are also highly trained “dirt” archaeologists, and this experience has resulted in a detailed knowledge of alluvial and coastal geology and geomorphology. Therefore, McCall and Greaves are uniquely qualified in recognizing the geological basis of landscape features, as well as the dynamics that have shaped them over time. 


Archaeological Research on the Louisiana Gulf Coast

The CHER staff is also working to understand and preserve the substantial history of human activities in the dynamic and fluctuating context of Lower Mississippi Valley coast. For thousands of years, prehistoric human groups have moved in concert with the evolving geological landforms and ecosystems of the Mississippi River delta. Immense and precocious sites like Poverty Pointan enormous mound village made by Louisiana hunter-gatherers more than 3,000 years agotestify to the scale and complexity of human settlements in this region from a very early time period. More recent mound villages, such as Bayou Grand Chenier and the Adams Bay mounds in Plaquemines Parish, show the adaptability of late prehistoric and early historic populations that occupied coastal Louisiana around the time of European contact.

Yet, the archaeological record of the Louisiana Gulf Coast is existentially threatened by the geological and environmental problems of coastal erosion, subsidence, and sea level rise. On the one hand, archaeological sites are being lost with frightening rapidity as they are literally being washed away by processes of coastal transgression. These sites are virtually certain to disappear within our lifetimes, meaning that the priceless information they hold about the past peoples of our region will be lost forever.

CHER research on coastal archaeological sites is headed by our Director of Archaeological Research, Brian Ostahowski, our Executive Director, Dr. Grant S. McCall, and Research Scientist, Theodore P. Marks. This research team combines decades of field expertise in coastal and alluvial geoarchaeology, historic preservation, human settlement systems, prehistoric technology, and political economy. Thus, our staff is uniquely qualified to make inferences about prehistoric social and economic systems along the Gulf Coast while working to preserve archaeological sites for future generations.

Staff Research in the Namib and Kalahari Deserts

CHER staff also maintain active research programs in numerous locations around the world. Our staff focus much of their research on the major desert of southern Africa: the Namib and the Kalahari. Here, our work has examined how cycles of aridity have influenced prehistoric human activities, including the evolution of our ancestors and the origins of modern humans. Our archaeological research combines concerns for prehistoric technology, animal bones and botanical remains, and symbolic systems. More broadly, our work combines perspectives from the fields of ethnography, ecology, geology, paleontology, and climate science to put the evolution of modern human populations into an holistic perspective.

How past human societies have dealt with cycles of aridity is crucial question, as modern populations in southern Africa face this problem more intensely than ever before. Furthermore, our work in this region has helped to show that many of the very features that we take as defining our species arose in response to Pleistocene climatic fluctuation on the margins of arid regions. In recent years, our staff have conducted archaeological fieldwork in the Namib Desert at the sites of Erb Tanks, Mirabib, and Namib IV. Our staff have worked with personnel from the National Museum of Namibia, the Gobabeb Desert Training and Research Centre, and the University of Namibia.

 

Staff Research Projects: Anthropological Critiques of Contemporary Political Philosophy

Why do political philosophers write so much about prehistory but do such little research on it? The state of nature, the origin of property, the genesis of government, and the primordial nature of war and inequality are perennial favorite topics in political philosophy, but their use is often ambiguous. Are these merely illustrative examples? If so, what do they illustrate? If not, what claims do they make about prehistory? This project is dedicated to uncovering the ways in which modern philosophers perpetuate myths about prehistory. It examines political theories to show how—despite significant equivocation—the most influential justifications of government and of private property rely on the seldom-questioned empirical premises about indigenous peoples. 

This project uses primary philosophical research to examine the meaning and use of claims about human prehistory. It uses secondary archaeological, historic, and ethnographic research to investigate the truth of these claims. In the process it reveals that much of what we think we know about stateless peoples comes not from scientific investigation, but from the imagination of philosophers. This research project is being conducted by CHER Executive Director, Dr. Grant S. McCall, and Research Associate, Dr. Karl Widerquist, who is an associate professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. The project combines McCall’s expertise in anthropology with Widerquist’s expertise in political philosophy to bring the best evidence from one field to bear on the most pressing questions in another.


Other Staff Research Projects

CHER staff also maintain other research programs at sites in the Unites States and around the world. These projects include the following:

  • The origins and ecology of complex societies in the Southeastern and Southwestern U.S.
  • The earliest human settlement of the New World
  • Hunter-gatherer variability in Southern Africa, North America, and South America
  • The transition from foraging to farming in the British Isles
  • Technology and trade among the ancient Olmec and Maya
  • Neanderthal life ways in Eurasia
  • Global traditions of hunter-gatherer rock art