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New textbook: Agent-Based Modeling for Archaeology

The more we learn about the past, the more we come to understand that ancient societies share some striking similarities to our own.

From the first waves of migration out of Africa to the Ancestral Pueblo, the peoples of the past created art, migrated to new lands, fought wars, raised families, and exploited natural resources for housing, food, and tools — just like we do.

Agent-Based Modeling for Archaeology: Simulating the Complexity of Societies
Agent-Based Modeling for Archaeology: Simulating the Complexity of Societies. Photo courtesy of SFI Press.

With the help of a powerful computational tool called agent-based modeling, archaeologists now can discover new frontiers of knowledge that help them better understand not only the past but also today’s world.

The new book, Agent-Based Modeling for Archaeology: Simulating the Complexity of Societies, is intended as a textbook for archaeologists with little or no experience with the technique, explains what agent-based modeling is (a computer simulation that enables investigation of complex phenomena from the bottom up), and shows readers how they can make the most of the tool.

Archaeologists of all specialties will appreciate the examples of agent-based models that are helping to answer some of the field’s biggest archaeological questions. The authors explore how the tool can help decode why some societies thrive while others collapse, for example, and unearth previously hidden migration patterns.

The book is the brainchild of Iza Romanowska, a fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark, Colin Wren of the University of Colorado — Colorado Springs, and Stefani Crabtree, Arizona State University-Santa Fe Institute Biosocial Complex Systems Fellow.

While agent-based modeling is a commonly used technique in ecology, it’s more niche in archaeology, according to Crabtree. Her hope is that the textbook provides guidance and inspiration so that archaeologists can apply the tool in their own work.

“This technology is a couple decades old, but I think there was a need for a textbook to teach people how to do this,” said Crabtree, who along with her co-authors teaches workshops on the technique. “And the need for the tool has never been greater.”

“By using the past as a calibration dataset, we can better understand where we are today, and where we are going,” the authors write in the book. “The past is a powerful tool for examining how individuals and groups react in a plethora of different situations. In this way, it can be seen as a set of already conducted ‘experiments,’ which show us the optimal solutions to the challenges societies face. These experiments are all we have to go on as we attempt to predict the trajectory of our future.”

Readers will find the necessary background; discussion of modeling techniques; and traps, references, and algorithms to use agent-based modeling in their own work. They will also find examples of how other scholars have applied this technology, including the study of the intercontinental migration pathways of early hominins, the weather-crop-population cycles of the American Southwest, and the trade networks of Ancient Rome.

This textbook provides the foundations needed to simulate the complexity of past human societies.

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