Spotlight: Liz Berger

Liz Berger  LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

Liz Berger
LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I sat down with Liz Berger, one of four LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellows for 2017-2019.  In the interview, Dr. Berger talks about her research on how ancient people hailing from present-day China dealt with climate change, and potential implications for today.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: First off, where do you call home?

Dr. Berger: I grew up in western Massachusetts, then went to college at Columbia in New York City.  After that I worked for a couple years in Brooklyn in a non-profit.  But then I decided to go back to school for archaeology, which I’d studied in undergrad.

Couillard: When did China come into the picture?

Dr. Berger: I’ve been interested in China since high school.  I had a teacher who started a club for students interested in learning East Asian languages.  She had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese, but the administration decided Chinese would bring more opportunities to the school, so we learned a little bit after school – they didn’t offer it as a regular course.  We established a relationship with a sister school in China and took a ten day trip to visit them in Yangzhou, as well as some traveling in Beijing and Shanghai.

Couillard: So you went to China for first time in high school – what was your impression?

Dr. Berger: Everything was so stimulating and interesting.  I loved the language and I loved the food.  We stayed with host families and went to school in Yangzhou, and I have this distinct memory of riding with the mom on the back of her electric bike on the way to school and thinking, “Oh my God, how did I get here?”

Even though I’ve gone to China quite a bit since then, I still have moments where I look around and think, “I come from a small town in New England – how did I get here?”

Couillard: Haha yeah, I know the feeling.  What about your work now - what feels important to you about the research that you do in bioarchaeology?

Dr. Berger: Climate change is obviously a massive area of concern for modern society.  It’s important to have data that’s not just spatially diverse but also temporally diverse.  We have to have a long record of climate change over time, and part of that is how humans reacted to climate in the past.  Bioarchaeology helps fill in that part of the picture.  We can see what kinds of systems were resilient, what systems collapsed, and what can we learn from that to help us face whatever’s coming.

Couillard: How does the climate change we’re going through right now compare with ancient climate change?

Dr. Berger: There’s been multiple periods of different kinds of climate change.  The one I’m looking at happened roughly 4000 years ago.  At that time the climate all across Eurasia got cooler and dryer – more or less the opposite of what’s happening today.

In Western Asia there’s a lot of research that’s been done on the consequences of that event – cities that were abandoned,population redistribution, that sort of thing.   The climate change was happening in Northwest China as well. During the Neolithic Age, people in that area were farmers, and then after climate change, in the Iron Age, they were semi-nomadic pastoralists.  So the assumption is that this was due to a collapse of subsistence systems caused by climate change.

I wanted to look at that period from the perspective of human health and test that assumption – to see if I could find evidence of an actual collapse.

Couillard: What did you find?

Dr. Berger: I found that there wasn’t evidence of a catastrophic collapse of the farming system.  With the exception of higher altitudes, people who were farming in China in the Late Neolithic continued to farm through the Bronze Age.  They already had animals they were raising for food, and so were able to adjust the plant to animal ratio in their repertoire to adapt to the climate.  So far I haven’t found evidence of collapse – I’ve found that their food system was resilient, flexible, able to adapt.

Couillard:  That’s much less exciting

Dr. Berger: Right, but I think it’s a positive thing. It tells us climate change doesn’t necessarily mean collapse, if the system is resilient enough.

Couillard: Do you think our system is resilient enough?

Dr. Berger: Not at this point.  I think it’s extremely NOT resilient.  But there are lots of people working on this problem.  

Couillard: What kind of an impact do you hope your research will have?

Dr. Berger: I want the data that exists in China to become more accessible and useful for scholars in other parts of the world, and for Chinese scholars to be included more in the international dialogue.  Much Chinese archaeology has been published only in Chinese, which means western archaeologists have very little idea of some of the work that’s going on in China, or for certain parts of China, the best they can do is a reference that’s 20 years old.  I think that’s a shame because China is a massive source of data and collaboration, and that western scholars need to be more aware of it. I think this is gradually changing though.

Couillard: What will you be working on during your time at LRCCS?

Dr. Berger: I’ll be finishing up some publications and starting to fill in some of the temporal gaps from my PhD research.  The conclusions that I’ve drawn from those data are subject to change when I start filling in the blanks.

I’m also involved in several ongoing field projects. I’m part of a team of bioarchaeologists working on Bronze Age skeletons from eastern Gansu Province, at the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, which is a very large and quite interesting collection. I’ve also started to look at evidence for foot binding in Ming Dynasty cemeteries, which is interesting because very little has been published on the actual skeletons of women who underwent the foot binding, and it’s clear that the way it was done and the intended result was different in different times and places throughout China. 

Another project I’m still involved with is an ongoing excavation with the Shaanxi  Institute of Archaeology, and there’s also an archaeological field school there that’s run by the Institute for Field Research.  I was one of the co-directors of that project last summer, and if there are UM undergrads who want more information about doing field work there, they should get in touch with me.

Dr. Berger wishes to thank the following Chinese institutions for their collaboration: Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology, Jilin University Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology, Northwest University School of Archaeology and Museology, Ningxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology