When it rains in Auckland it really rains. It’s not this kinda British light drizzle that takes hours before your waterproofs decide not to be waterproof any more. It falls from the sky in bulk. And usually it lasts for about 45 seconds. Rain woke us up this morning in our flat in one of the oldest houses in Auckland, described by a friend of mine as ‘almost like the White House’. The ‘almost’ bit denotes one tenth of the size, one hundredth of the splendour and one thousandth of the recognizability. It is quite nice regardless, with a bar downstairs and a massive garden which is in fact the university campus, the Old Government House serves its purpose well – it hosts visiting researchers at the University of Auckland. Such as us.
Two archaeologists, one specializing in Human Origins the other in Roman studies, are not a common sight on the island colonized no earlier than AD 1250-1300 but this time the research project generously funded by a World Universities Network (@WUNSouthamptonU) grant was all about methods rather than specific time periods. In fact it was all about complexity.
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Remember how when you were a kid you liked to take your toys apart and how difficult it was to put them back together without asking mummy for help? Complexity science is just about the same thing but instead of mummy we have computer simulations. The goal is to figure out how complex phenomena (like human behaviour to name the most obvious one) are created from simple interactions between simple agents (like the neurons in your brain). Funny it’s not called simplexity.
Our project has been designed to investigate the behaviour of hunter-gatherers in a highly unpredictable environment. We are particularly interested in their dependence on two different information sources: a culturally transmitted mental map/template of resource distribution (in this case the waterholes) and immediate environmental cues gathered from their surroundings. It was inspired by the Australian Aboriginal groups of non-coastal parts of Australia where human groups have developed a highly complex set of orally transmitted stories/myths (so-called dreamtime) which encode the location of waterholes and other resources.
Sounds like a proper piece of archaeological speculation but in fact it consists of endless programming hours, dropping into despair over the code reporting errors that no one knows how to solve and stretching our A-level maths acquired a decade ago and swiftly forgotten about a month later.
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So here we are pretending that staring at the computer screen will make the yellow message ‘you can’t use step_by_step in an observer context, because it is a turtle/patch only’ disappear (if you know how to get rid of this error message, please DO get in touch). We use a humanities-students-friendly programming platform – NetLogo but what seems friendly to a computer scientist (and apparently 6 grade kids who are supposed to use it to learn their maths) can be pretty tricky to the history/languages/maybe-a-bit-of-geography archaeology graduate. Slowly, we’re moving on and the model is gaining momentum. A little green fella (he’s actually a group but it doesn’t matter) walks on an imaginary landscape of prehistoric Australia dotted with occasional waterholes. If he doesn’t make it to the next active one by the time he dehydrates he dies. He dies a lot. But to help him out we allowed him to remember where some of the waterholes encountered before are (that’s the glorified ‘mental template’). He still dies a lot but we’re working on it.
The project is being developed by 3 PhD students – two from the University of Southampton (@tombrughmans and I) and one from the University of Auckland and supervised by two University of Auckland professors. When the green fella finally manages to survive for a respectable period of time we will analyse which strategy was the most successful one, write it all up and present at a conference. No mud, no sweat but still archaeology.
– Iza Romanowska