One of the basic tenets of geological studies is that “the present is the key to the past.” The concept was originated by James Hutton, the “father” of geology, in 1795, in his explanation of landforms. He believed the Earth was much older than the commonly accepted biblical notion of a few thousand years and that we could learn more about its history and formation by investigating and measuring the rate of changes to the landscape currently taking place.
Uniformitarianism, as it came to be known, was popularized by Sir Charles Lyell in 1830, in his treatise, Principles of Geology. He emphasized that essentially the same uniform and continuous processes are operating today to shape the Earth that have always existed, and that will continue to exist. We can learn a great deal about what we see in the geologic record by studying how the Earth is currently being modified.
Historians generally accept and advise that knowledge of the past is important in understanding the present and looking into the future. In his important work, The Life of Reason, George Santayana noted philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s fine in dealing with human activities for which there have been written records, but not much help in unravelling natural conditions for which humans were not involved or responsible.
For example, if we want to know how ancient strata was formed by fluvial systems we can look at how modern rivers carry and deposit sediment and what vertical and lateral relationships the beds have with each other.
If we want to know more about ancient volcanic eruptions, from tens of thousands or millions of years ago, we can examine volcanoes active today and see how they form and develop. That was true when Krakatau erupted in 1883. Major studies were made at the time and for years after in order to build a record of that singular eruption. Recently-installed communication networks had allowed the world to learn about the event almost as it occurred. The data collected was then used to interpret what the results might have been when similar eruptions took place many thousands of years ago, and what the effects they made have had around the world.
The concept has been expanded to include short-term events like weather-related storms and floods, and how they impact communities.
If we want to be able to comprehend how peoples’ lives might have been changed by natural catastrophes from storm or flood damage in ancient times, we might only have to review the results documented in modern-day newspapers or the TV news for more recent disasters.
The idea can also be applied to interpreting how natural phenomena affected political and social systems, in addition to physical environments.
If we want to understand how famines came about and how people responded to, or were impacted by them in centuries past, we need only to look at the history of famines in more recent times. The 1877-79 famine that resulted from a major El Nino, recounted in many books, articles and even pictures, illustrate for us what could have transpired during the Great Famine of the early 14th century, at the beginning of the Little Ice Age.
The desperation of people confronted by disasters, whether created by Mother Nature or humans, leave a lasting mark on those who experienced the events and may also have significantly affected succeeding generations. The further back in history such occasions happened, the fewer records will exist to describe the physical and, especially, emotional impacts.
Few public reports such as newspapers exist from before the 18th century, but we can get glimpses into the hardships endured from notes recorded in parish registers or through correspondence of those who witnessed the incidents. From those records we might be able to compare those observations with more comprehensive descriptions from more recent events and gain a clearer picture of their effects.
Genealogists, in particular, tend to delve into the past to unravel our family story and thereby gain some insight as to how we got here. But the past has limited resources to allow us to assemble a complete narrative, certainly in terms of how natural events played a role in our ancestors’ lives. In terms of the environment in which people lived, we can perhaps get a bit more insight into how people faired if we look at more recent examples that will be described in much more detail.
Look to the present as a key to the past!