Honors College Lecture to focus on the human story of climate change

Courtesy of Ben Vining

The Huacas de Moche, an archaeological site located just outside of Trujillo, Peru, was one of the main urban and ritual centers of the Moche civilization from 400 to 900 CE. Archaeological and climatic evidence from this site shows how Moche society lived and adapted to extreme weather events caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon.

Look to the future. This is what we need to do to respond quickly to climate change, according to archaeologist Ben Vining.

Vining, assistant professor of anthropology at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, will present a public lecture, “Climate Change: A Human History,” online via Zoom at 5:15 p.m. on Monday, March 7.

His talk will provide insight into his fall 2022 Honors College signature seminar, Climate Change: A Human History. Please complete this online interest form to gain access to the conference.

“Most of the discussions we have about climate are forward-looking and based on projection models — very good, very robust mathematical models,” Vining said. But these models tend to focus on physical processes.

“We also have humans as a wild card to respond to these climatic events, and we don’t really have good information to understand how it happens.” The key to improving these models, he argues, is to study how peoples of the past responded to climate change.


Vining specializes in climate change archeology, which tracks how people react to changes in rainfall, temperature, and drought. There are classic, much debated examples: the Maya of the ancient or classic period in southern Mexico and northern Central America, the Indus Valley civilization in South Asia, the Sumerian civilization in the Middle East and the Moche and Chimu societies in Peru, which Vining is investigating.

“There are a whole host of different companies that are the poster children of climate history, and each case is unique,” ​​Vining said. The work is thorough, based on imperfect evidence.

“Really, it’s a bit like forensics,” he said. “We have a bunch of evidence, but we don’t have the actual events laid out in front of us – we have the remnants of those events. And so, we’re trying to make the best and most reliable interpretation possible.

Vining is quick to dismiss sensational stories of collapsed civilizations doomed by catastrophic climate change.

“If we look at the long-term arc of human history, we have a general upward trend with ups and downs… We could look at the Mayans, we could look at the Indus, we could even look at the Vikings . We never see the complete and total disappearance of a people, what we see is the transformation of the way they do things, the way they live, the place where they live. And I think those are the lessons that we want to look at carefully.


Vining has been researching the archeology of climate change for 20 years. He has worked in the Andean region of South America since 2001 and is currently leading a multidisciplinary project with American and Peruvian collaborators to understand how past climates affected the societies of ancient Peru. This project specifically seeks to understand how the Moche and Chimu civilizations adapted to the abrupt climate changes caused by the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

Vining has conducted field research in more than 13 countries in Latin America, the Mediterranean, and East and Southeast Asia.


Climate Change: A Human History is one of three Honors College signature seminars scheduled for fall 2022. Other topics to explore include wrongful convictions, taught by Tiffany Murphy, associate dean for academic affairs and director of U of A School of Law and Extractions Criminal Practice Clinic, taught by Toni Jensen, Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Indigenous Studies.

Deans of each college can nominate faculty to participate in this program, and those selected to teach will become Honors College Dean’s Scholars.

Honors students must apply to participate, and those selected will be designated Dean’s Signature Scholars. The course application is posted online on the Signature Seminars webpage. The deadline to apply is Thursday, March 31.

About the Specialized College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and brings together high-achieving undergraduates and the university’s top faculty to share transformative learning experiences. Each year, the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman scholarships that provide $72,000 over four years and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad scholarships. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students benefit from small, in-depth courses and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with cross-disciplinary collaborations encouraged.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas’ flagship institution, the U of A offers an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy through teaching new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and employment development, discovery through research and creative activity while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A among the top 3% of colleges and universities in the United States with the highest level of research activity. US News and World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. Learn how the U of A is working to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.