New Collaborations between History and the Sciences: Historian John R. McNeill on the Future of Historical Research
Stefan Hanß: John R. McNeill, Professor of History at Georgetown University, authored and edited twenty books, more than seventy journal articles, and just as many book chapters throughout his impressive career. Early modernists will be most familiar with his Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1640–1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), which explores the role of mosquitoes in shaping the colonial world of the greater Caribbean. As environmental historian, John R. McNeill also published influential work on the twentieth-century Great Acceleration (Harvard University Press, 2016). In 2019, he served as President of the American Historical Association (AHA).
In his presidential address held in New York City on 4 January 2020, John R. McNeill calls for new interdisciplinary collaborations between historians and scientists. At some future time, he states, there will be a moment in which historical research that is merely based on the analysis of texts may lead to less relevant new information about the human past than research that applies scientific tools and techniques. In light of such a “peak document”, John R. McNeill reminds historians of “the relative significance of documentary sources”, and that “the blending of textual and non-textual sources should eventually give us a fuller and finer history than we have been able to assemble so far.” Such considerations are also at the heart of the upcoming British Academy event Microscopic Records: The New Interdisciplinarity of Early Modern Studies, c.1400–1800. How can historical research look like in the future, and how may this transcend established disciplinary boundaries between the humanities and the sciences? John R. McNeill took the time to reply to some follow-up questions.
Fig. 1: John R. McNeill during his AHA presidential address in New York City on 4 January 2020. Image credit: AHA-https://youtu.be/XR8VEQaPNdo.
SH: What inspired you, as a historian, to this AHA presidential address?
John R. McNeill: Many, many different things inspired me to choose this subject for a presidential address. First, I wanted to say something that might be of interest to as many historians as possible. A talk on my next research project—not an unusual choice among AHA presidents—would not fit that bill. I hoped that a fresh look at our methods as historians, and their implications, might spark interest. (I don’t know whether I succeeded or not). Second, I’ve been thinking about this general subject for thirty years, ever since I first encountered palynology—the study of fossil pollen, spores, and dust—when preparing to write a book called The Mountains of the Mediterranean World (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Palynology allows reconstruction of past vegetation regimes, which was part of my ambition in that book. Third, I’ve had the good fortune to rub shoulders with colleagues, not necessarily historians, who research the past using a variety of methods and lines of evidence other than written texts. Tim Beach, a geo-archeologist and all-around environmental scientist, now at the University of Texas, alerted me to many avenues to the past that historians typically neglect. More recently, some of my younger colleagues at Georgetown—Kate de Luna, Dagomar Degroot, Tim Newfield—have deepened my appreciation for the possibilities of historical linguistics, climate proxies such as ice cores and speleothems, and paleogenomics. But, as you can tell from the address, I’ve also found many intriguing examples in the work of scholars and scientists I’ve never met and never will meet.
SH: I am sure you did succeed. Many historians listening to and reading your AHA presidential address will reconsider subject matter and methods of historical research, and how to engage with our own discipline’s established boundaries. You highlight the importance of collaborative environments: this is where new ideas and methods for studying the human past may develop. In Strasbourg in the 1920s, medievalist Marc Bloch and the early modern historian Lucien Febvre left their office doors open; and soon colleagues from sociology, geography, and psychology joint their discussions. What followed was a revolution in historical thought: the Annales reshaped research agendas, concepts of scale, and practices of interdisciplinary exchange for decades, within the discipline of History and beyond. You decided to start The Mountains of the Mediterranean World with a quote from one of the great historians of this tradition, Fernand Braudel, who is also widely acknowledged in the work of environmental researchers and archaeologists. In current years, historians have become ever more interested in these disciplines. In your AHA presidential address, you highlight the significance of LiDAR, a method of remote airborne light ranging, for uncovering the history of “the under-documented world”. For research on the early modern period, such large-scale explorations have indeed revealed stunning new insights. Archaeologists identified fifteenth-century indigenous settlement structures, many of which interconnected, across southern Amazonia. LiDAR also unveiled indigenous settlements in New England and the hitherto unknown complexity of fifteenth- till eighteenth-century urban structures in South Africa. However, what can be said about the role of small-scale interventions in future historical research?
JMcN: While I am no expert in LiDAR, I would expect that it will prove less helpful in small-scale research than in broad survey research. Its particular virtue is that at relatively low cost it can provide imagery of acres and acres, showing landscape features beneath forest canopies, features that may well be undetectable to anyone walking the ground. So it is great at finding new sites for archeologists to excavate. Of course it can help archeologists find small sites as well as large ones, but I suspect the archeologists will prefer to begin with the big ones (but I could be wrong!). Once those are exhausted, which might take a long time, they will be left with the smaller ones at which to dig. But the significance of what they may find is not strongly correlated to the size of the sites at which they dig, so it is perfectly plausible, indeed I should say likely, that LiDAR will lead archeologists to small-scale sites of large significance. My expectation is that in the forested tropics—in the Americas, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Oceania—we have only the slimmest idea of human history, and LiDAR will help change that.
SH: Beyond LiDAR, archaeologists have pioneered in developing and enhancing many tools to study remnants from the past. Many of these technologies indeed focus on rather small-scale analysis aiming to fully explore the microscopic record of historical artefacts, thus, the hidden and often invisible information of an object. Uncovering such microscopic records through scientific analysis often reveals astonishing details about history. I envisage material culture historians to take a leading role in designing new collaborative projects with archaeologists, museum curators, conservators, and scientists, as well as in exploring new methods of investigating and interpreting microscopic records of artefacts. Early modern historians have been particularly innovative in bridging the disciplines and in connecting archives with museums and laboratories for developing methodologically reflective ways of writing material culture history. What can be said about the past if we truly reach beyond the written record? How can embracing the analysis of artefacts and materials reveal a fuller history of the early modern world? By posing such and similar questions, material culture historians and historians of early modern material culture in particular have pushed the very boundaries of the discipline of History within the last years. How do you understand the role of material culture research in shaping the future of History?
JMcN: Again, I have to confess I am no expert in the realm of material culture history. But I have been impressed with the ingenuity of early modernists—as in my youth I was impressed by the ingenuity of early modernists working with texts, in the manner of Natalie Zemon Davis or Carlo Ginzburg. The subset of material culture history that I find most exciting at the moment involves what is called proteomics, the study of proteomes—or the full set of proteins of an organism or a cell. I came across it by accident, when reading a magazine article. That led me to a few scientific papers in which I learned, for example, that it is possible to make inferences about the diet of seventeenth-century clerks in Milan from the smudged residues of proteins their fingers left behind on the papers they handled. Proteomics has considerable potential for amplifying our knowledge of the history of food, nutrition, and disease, especially for times and places where the textual record is thin or non-existent. At the moment the chemistry involved is fairly expensive, although that might change, but it will always be the case that only some sorts of materials store evidence of proteins across the centuries. So proteomics, like every form of research, has its limits. Still, to me it is fascinating that the dust and oils embedded in old sheets of paper can tell us things that the language embedded on those same sheets of paper, through writing, cannot. If COVID-19 ever relents, I might try to work with a proteomics lab, although at the moment that remains a very abstract ambition.
SH: You are right, proteomics is indeed very promising. However, proteomics is still rather unconventional in historical research as can be seen in the acknowledgements of the article that you are referring to: “We appreciated the comments of referee No. 2 who, after ‘only’ four rounds of revisions, commented: ‘I’m happy to recommend publication of this non-conventional proteomics paper’! Needless to say, we are happy too!” Ever more reason, I would say, to make more researchers “happy” by further pushing for such explorations in microscopic records of the past. I would be thrilled to see such future collaborative research evolving, and I am also excited to see you referencing Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg. Their achievements in rethinking the concepts, practices, and implications of causation, narration, scalability, and contextualisation, I think, are of crucial importance for future interdisciplinary research between historians, archaeologists, and scientists. When developing the concept of “material microhistory” in an article published in Forum Kritische Archäologie, I argued that microhistorians’ debates on the complexity of the past, the problems of historical knowledge, the implications of doing historical research, their experiments with narratives, and their critique of coarse-cut master narratives resemble core questions of current debates on critical archaeology. Microhistory, I would say, is highly significant when venturing into a new kind of micro-historical research: the theoretically informed exploration of microscopic records of material remains from the past in collaborative projects bridging the humanities and the sciences. Such new collaborations between material culture historians and scientists will also impact our understanding of the interplay between human and non-human protagonists in shaping history. This has been also a recurrent topic in your own research on environmental history. If you would be involved in a collaborative project with the sciences today, ten years after the publication of Mosquito Empires, would your monograph look different?
JMcN: Well, if I could get natural scientists to work on questions I choose—an implausible scenario—and I were trying to do a better job on Mosquito Empires, the first thing I would ask for is to have geneticists work out the details of the evolution of the yellow fever virus and certain mosquitoes that serve as vectors for yellow fever and malaria in the Americas and Africa. Some work along these lines is in fact being done, at a lab at Yale University, but the questions those scientists are most interested in are not exactly the same as those that I would ask. The next thing I would want is a geo-referenced dataset of all seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sugar plantations in the Caribbean and all rice plantations in the Carolinas, derived from archeology as well as texts, which I would then try to overlay on to the geography of yellow fever and malaria outbreaks. That would offer something of a test of my argument that these specific sorts of plantations created conditions especially favorable for specific mosquito vectors, although the disease data are sufficiently sketchy that the test could not be conclusive. Lastly, and this would be impossibly expensive and politically implausible as well, it would be interesting to have paleopathological work, and possibly paleogenomic work, done on the skeletal and tissue remains of people in the Caribbean from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Retrospective disease diagnosis is a difficult business, and rightfully mistrusted by many historians. But it can be buttressed—meaning its uncertainties can be reduced—by evidence from old bones and old DNA, as is commonly done now by a handful of labs in Europe and North America. But so far, they’ve done almost nothing on the Caribbean.
Pathogens and mosquitoes have their own histories, which texts do little to illuminate. Those histories, in the case of the early modern Caribbean, were intimately bound up with human history. So any avenue that takes us to these histories is one we should eagerly explore, even if it requires us as historians to wrestle with unfamiliar concepts and data, and to operate well outside our comfort zones.
SH: Much to think about and much to look forward to when reading your next books. Thank you for having taken the time for this interview.
Watch and read the full AHA presidential address here:
For research publications discussed in this interview, see:
D’Amato, Alfonsina et al., ‘Of Mice and Men: Traces of Life in the Death Registries of the 1630 Plague in Milano,’ Journal of Proteomics 180 (2018): 128–137.
Gregorio de Souza, Jonas et al., ‘Pre-Columbian Earth-Builders Settled Along the Entire Southern Rim of the Amazon,’ Nature Communications 9 (2018), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03510-7 (accessed 12 May 2020).
Hanß, Stefan, ‘Objects that Made History: A Material Microhistory of the Sant Crist de Lepant (Barcelona, 1571–2017)’, Forum Kritische Archäologie 7 (2018): 18–46, http://www.kritischearchaeologie.de/repositorium/fka/2018_7_2_Hanss.pdf.
Johnson, Katharine M., and William B. Ouimet, ‘Rediscovering the Lost Archaeological Landscape of Southern New England Using Airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR),’ Journal of Archaeological Science 43 (2014): 9–20.
McNeill, John R., ‘AHA Presidential Address: Peak Document and the Future of History,’ The American Historical Review 125, no. 1 (2020): 1–18.
McNeill, John R., Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1640–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
McNeill, John R., The Mountains of the Mediterranean World: An Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
McNeill, John R., and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
Sadr, Karim, ‘Kweneng: A Newly Discovered Pre-Colonial Capital Near Johannesburg,’ Journal of African Archaeology 17, no. 1 (2019): 1–22.
John R. McNeill, Georgetown University
Stefan Hanß, The University of Manchester