April 25-27, 2019
Anthropology Reading Room
Haines Hall 352
University of California, Los Angeles

Stephen Acabado (UCLA) | Miriam Stark (UHM) | Peter Lape (UW)


Economic and social transformations that accompanied the Early Modern period in 14th-19th century Southeast Asia took place in a dynamic natural environment that reflected and shaped its inhabitants. Most scholarship on Early Modern (EM) Southeast Asia attributes European expansion as a catalyst, and the limited environmental research (Buckley and Lieberman 2012; Lieberman 2003) undertaken offers coarse-grained sequences for the region during a substantial climatic upheaval. This proposed research program complements such earlier work through its bottom-up approach to studying local responses to ecological change before, during and after European contact. This research program promises to bring SEAsia to global discussions on environmental change during the Early Modern Period, particularly on reconstructing past environments and studying human-environment dynamics. Our investigations will also complement research programs in other parts of the world, such as the NEXUS 1492 Project in the Caribbean.

EM Southeast Asia (1400-1820 CE) was characterized by major climatic fluctuations that had immense impacts on political patterns in the region. The period also saw European expansionism and subsequent resource extraction that shaped, and continues to shape, present-day environmental and social dynamics in Southeast Asia. Although these historical events are known, there is a dearth of work that synthesizes and integrates investigations focused on the EMP. More importantly, there is no regional research program that emphasizes bottom-up approach to studying local responses to climate change and European contact.

This proposed research program promises to reinvigorate and redirect Southeast Asian studies by linking history, archaeology, ethnography, indigenous studies, humanistic disciplines, and climate and ecological studies in a period where most of our present-day environmental and social transformations started.  As a programmatic research program, it has the potential to push Southeast Asian studies forward. It will also fill the environmental history gap in the Early Modern Period of the region.  We highlight local transformations and responses to better understand macro-level ecological change. This is a critical component in understanding ecological transformations as indigenous societies have not been well studied in terms of environmental history and historical ecology.

To push Southeast Asian studies forward and to fill the environmental history gaps in our knowledge about the region’s Early Modern Period, the proposed research program emphasizes a multidisciplinary approach that offers both time depth and complementary research strategies to study ways in which the Southeast Asian groups responded to both ecological and political transformations. This allows for systematic paleoclimatic, archaeological, and historical research in the development of local histories during Early Modern Period in SEA: tacking between documentary sources and material patterning should produce a holistic understanding of the internal dynamics of this region through time from the inside out. More importantly, the research program provides an avenue where archaeologists, historians, ethnographers, and paleoclimatologists collaborate.



To to forefront EM SEA issues, UCLA organized a planning workshop that will bring together a multidisciplinary group that includes archaeologists, ecologists, historians, and paleoclimatologists. As highlighted in the project description below, Southeast Asia lags behind other regions in the world in terms of environmental history in particular, and the Early Modern Period, in general.  Scholars from other regions in the world that has an established environmental history research program will join Southeast Asian specialists.  The former will provide their expertise to the Southeast Asian specialists in developing the proposed research based on their experiences.



The primary goal of the planning workshop is to establish what is known about Early Modern Southeast Asia (paleoecology [climate, hydrology, environment]; documentary record; interregional social/political dynamics; and, archaeological record) and identify areas that require more research. Discussions on these themes will help chart basic research directions for the field. We anticipate that the discussions will produce the needed knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries that will advance our knowledge about the Early Modern Period in Southeast Asia

Information gleaned from the discussions will then be used as the basis for a UCLA-led LuceSEA project proposal, which will investigate climate change, anthropogenic change, and human responses to these changes. Thus, the workshop will also provide a venue to develop a framework for multidisciplinary integration of Early Modern Southeast Asia studies and determine priority geographic regions for study.

We also intend to use this gathering to develop a multi-authored article that highlights the ecological and social dynamics in the Early Modern Period that will be submitted to Nature: Sustainability as well as groundwork for a journal special issue on Early Modern Southeast Asia for the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.



Fifteen (15) key workshop participants will provide case studies of environmental and social dynamics in EM Southeast Asia. The workshop will have three major sections: 1) Environmental and social change; 2) Epistemologies, Approaches, and Methods; and 3) Synthesis.




Arrival of participants.




Coffee, Reception



Welcome by George Dutton (UCLA CSEAS Director) and Willeke Wendrich (CIoA Director)



Workshop Objectives, S. Acabado (UCLA), M.T. Stark (UHM), and P. Lape (UW)



Setting the Stage: Preparatory Thoughts: M.T. Stark (UHM)



Early Modern Period Southeast Asia: What Do We Know So Far?

This panel provides an overview of the state-of-the-field in Southeast Asian Early Modern Studies. Although studies that focus on the EM in the region have offered a broad view of events and subsequent human responses to the latter, disciplinary differences have created a barrier to multidisciplinary synthesis. The panel presents what we already know about the period from different disciplines, which sets the stage for discussions about multidisciplinary collaboration.



History: Educating Archaeologists and Paleoclimatologists

Barbara Andaya (History, UHM)
Leonard Andaya (History, UHM)
Moderator, George Dutton (CSEAS, UCLA)

Barbara and Leonard Andaya (2015) outlined the major characteristics of Early Modern Southeast Asia, emphasizing how the periodization provided a venue for local realities to enter historiography.  The adoption of the concept has shifted the focus of historical investigations away from the colonial lens, prioritizing the responses of local Southeast Asian groups to culture contact. As mentioned in their work, the EMP saw the intensification of global interconnectedness because of the growth of long-distance trade. In this panel, we discuss the dynamics of these contacts, not only with the arrival of the Europeans, but also of regional maritime trade. For instance, the demand for deerskin in Shogunate Japan is argued to have contributed to large-scale ecological disintegration in Cambodia. Similarly, the urbanization that occurred soon after European conquest would have placed a huge toll on the environment because of resource extraction. As such, this panel will discuss potential sources of information that would provide nuanced understanding of how SEAsian groups responded to various stimuli accorded by cultural entanglements. Particular emphasis will be placed on documentary sources (i.e. dynastic records, Javanese records, etc.) that has the potential to link state responses with environmental signatures.




Moderator, George Dutton (CSEAS, UCLA)



Paleoclimate Overview: Educating Archaeologists and Historians

Brendan Buckley (Tree-ring Lab, Columbia University)
Aradhna Tripati (IoES, UCLA)
Kathleen Johnson (Earth System Science, UC-Irvine)
Michael Griffiths (Environmental Science, William Paterson University)
Lisa Kealhofer (Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara)
Moderator, Tom Wake (CIoA, UCLA)

It has been established that there were major climatic fluctuations between 1400 and 1820 CE, particularly the Little Ice Age and the preceding Medieval Warm Period. In other parts of the world, studies on LIA and its effect on human behavior have been robust, but mostly top-down, emphasizing the role of climate in the patterns of cultural change observed in the archaeological record. Similarly in Southeast Asia, not only is there a very limited investigation on the relationship between climate change and shifts in cultural patterns, almost all studies favor environmental pressures over the suite of human responses. In this panel, we hope to survey is currently known in terms of climatic fluctuations in the region during the EMP.  We aim to highlight that environmental factors play a significant role on human decision-making, but there is limited knowledge on climatic fluctuations in the region during the EMP. Most archaeological studies use environmental proxies to support a model or an argument rather than as a baseline to develop models. We think that this is a consequence of the limited interactions between paleoclimatologists, archaeologists, and historians.  Hence, this panel provides a framework on how environmental scientists, historians, and archaeologists can work with each other.  The panel will focus on what is known about Southeast Asian climatic patterns in the EMP and potential effects on human options.

The panel also discusses how we study paleoclimates and explains the idea of proxies (dendrochronology, pollen, speleothems, and others (e.g. marine sediments). Panel members will also provide an overview of what we already know as well as things that we do not know and want to know.




Moderator, Tom Wake (CIoA, UCLA)






Archaeology Overview: Educating Paleoclimatologists and Historians

Miriam Stark, Anthropology (Anthropology, UHM)
Stephen Acabado (Anthropology, UCLA)
Peter Lape (Anthropology, UW)
Moderator, Chin-hsin Liu (Anthropology, CSU-Northridge)

If environmental and historical studies on the EMP in Southeast Asia are few and far between, it is even scarcer in archaeology, even if a significant number of SE Asian archaeologists are actively investigating the rise and fall of classic empires (and or emergence of states) in the region. Archaeology, as a discipline, is in a position to provide a link between paleoenvironmental studies and historiography, as archaeologists frequently borrow ideas from the two disciplines. The discipline however, focuses on long-term patterns of change based on fine-grained, site-specific datasets that complement paleoenvironmental and historical studies.  In this panel, we highlight the role of archaeology in understanding human responses to environmental unpredictability.  For instance, archaeologists have documented solutions employed by humans to address the unpredictability of environmental problems as well as problems that cannot be fixed.




Moderator, Chin-hsin Liu (Anthropology, CSU-Northridge)



Coffee Break




Peter Lape (Anthropology, UW)
Brendan Buckley (Tree-ring Lab, Columbia University)
David Biggs (History, UC-Riverside)
Moderator, Jeff Brantingham (Anthropology, UCLA)

This presentation, which will be followed by a discussion, focuses on the challenges encountered by archaeologists who use paleoclimatic data in their research. Dr. Lape will use examples from his work in East Timor and Eastern Indonesia to set some of the parameters that the various disciplines represented in this workshop can work together. For instance, there is a need to define climate change themes that matter to archaeologists (e.g. short-term climatic triggers and cycles such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, drought/flood cycles, etc.; and, long term climate issues such as El Nino/La Nina). In addition, temporal resolution and chronological perspective among the disciplines will also be discussed.




Moderator, Jeff Brantingham (Anthropology, UCLA)



Summing Up

Moderator, Miriam Stark (Anthropology, UHM)









Epistemologies, Methodologies, and Approaches

William Balee (Anthropology, Tulane)
Susanna Hecht (Urban Planning, UCLA)
David Biggs (History, UC-Riverside)
Moderator, Miriam Stark (Anthropology, UHM)

One of the goals of this workshop is to lay the framework for the development of a methodology that can incorporate the various datasets from diverse disciplines. In other parts of the world, environmental history has been utilized to articulate ecological change and historical events. This was strengthened by the emergence of historical ecology as a methodological approach that gives primacy to human agency. In this panel, presentations focus on these methods and how they could be used as a frame for understanding ecological change and social responses in the Early Modern Southeast Asia. We highlight ethnographic and ethnohistoric investigations, particularly how indigenous societies interact(ed) with the forests they live in, and the surrounding state(s).




Moderators: M. Stark and K. Johnson



Indonesian Lunch



Roundtable Discussion: Indonesian Foods and the EMP

Barbara Andaya
Leonard Andaya
Peter Lape

The Early Modern Period was characterized by rapidly expanded and intensified global exchange networks. Many of the materials and ideas that moved in these networks were related to food, including plants, animals, intoxicants, medicines, as well as farming, harvesting, cooking and eating cultural practices, many of which we have inherited today  In this roundtable discussion, three Indonesian specialists will talk about how the EMP formed the cuisine of contemporary Indonesia and beyond. They will also link the movement of foodstuffs in the larger discussions on ecological change.



Coffee Break



Thinking Globally

Christopher DeCorse (Anthropology, Syracuse)
Moderator, Willeke Wendrich (CIoA, UCLA)

Dr. DeCorse’s work in Africa and the Atlantic Trade highlighted the various ways culture contact in the region facilitated the subsequent oceanic exploration that resulted in resource extraction and early forms of globalization. With his long history of research in the Atlantic and Africa, DeCorse’s presentation will provide a backdrop to thinking globally as well as raise issues that will help frame the Southeast Asian research program.




Moderator, Willeke Wendrich (CIoA, UCLA)



Coffee Break



Summing Up

Moderator, Stephen Acabado (Anthropology, UCLA)









Framework for Multidisciplinary Integration: Synthesis and Moving Forward

Moderators: Miriam Stark, Stephen Acabado, Peter Lape

To develop a multidisciplinary framework in understanding natural and anthropogenic changes in the Early Modern Southeast Asia requires an active engagement across disciplinary boundaries. By focusing on local responses to both global and local ecological change, we are also able to emphasize bottom-up perspectives. In this sense, we move away from Western colonialist view of Southeast Asia, which would also make the discipline relevant to various communities. The engagement among historians, archaeologist, paleoclimatologists, and humanistic disciplines will provide a broad framework to understand the various ways in which humans respond to crises. For example, the work of ethnographers and ethnohistorians in Bicol, Philippines has documented the dominance of Catholic Saints (Santos) related to disaster. Works such as this (narratives of disaster) is already strong in itself, but a multidisciplinary collaboration will further strengthen environmental history, ecological studies, and environmental humanities.



UCLA LuceSEA Project Planning

Workshop participants will break out into three work groups to discuss potential avenues for collaboration and funding applications. Aside from the LuceSEA Initiative, the group will also explore NSF’s Ten Big Ideas, particularly Growing Convergence Research, NSF INCLUDES, and NSF 2026. Timeline and expectations will be discussed in the break out groups. Discussions will continue beyond the workshop



End of Workshop


We envision that the workshop will result in a research program that will craft a nuanced understanding of human/environment social transformations in Southeast Asia during the Early Modern Period. This includes broader recognition of the impacts of trade in widespread ecological change; effects of trade on demographic change; and, consequence of trade in the rapid urbanization of colonial centers in SEA. More importantly, the multidisciplinary nature of the research program promises to facilitate the development of methodologies that can help isolate natural and anthropogenic changes in the EMP.

The research program will also provide baseline environmental histories from different localities in SEA using multidisciplinary approaches. This involves the compilation of paleoethnobotanical/ archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological, dendroclimatological, and sedimentological datasets from various sites in SEA; analysis of dynastic (i.e. Vietnamese, Javanese, Chinese) records of environmental disasters and other significant ecological events in the region; and, survey European colonial documents (VOC, Spanish colonial records) to identify key environmental perturbations

The components emphasized above will be articulated through the historical ecology approach, which has the potential to facilitate the development of local histories and broaden our understanding of regional-scale change in Southeast Asia. With this research direction, the proposed research will bring Southeast Asia into global discussions of the Early Modern Period.



  • Center for Southeast Asian Studies-Indonesia Studies Program International Institute
  • Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
  • Luce East Asian Archaeology, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
  • Department of Anthropology
  • Department of Art History
  • Environmental Humanities
  • Dean of Humanities
  • Dean of Social Sciences
  • Center for Diverse Leadership in Science
  • Institute for Field Research