Is lockdown behaviour an ancient art?

Are there similarities between the ancient civilisations of Khmer and changes in the modern world?
Are there similarities between the ancient civilisations of Khmer and changes in the modern world?

The resilience and persistence Australians have shown over the past two years of rolling COVID lockdowns may be something we have picked up from ancient civilisations, new research shows.

Working from home, homeschooling, learning to Zoom, doing crossfit classes in our living rooms and perfecting the online grocery shop may not seem like civilisation-saving skills.

But our ability to adapt our work and lifestyle practices at a time of crisis may just be the talent that sustains us.

As we abandoned our urban lifestyles and retreated into smaller day-to-day existences to weather the pandemic, University of Sydney earth scientist Daniel Penny noticed similarities with the ancient civilisations of Khmer, in mainland Southeast Asia (including Angkor), and Maya in Mesoamerica.

"History shows us that ... we humans, we are incredibly resilient and that societies, cultures, cultural practices, people - they persist," Professor Penny told AAP.

Popular thought has long been that extreme weather conditions - so-called 'mega droughts' lasting decades - resulted in urban communities belonging to ancient civilisations disappearing off the face of the planet.

But Prof Penny says he is sceptical of the notion of "climate-driven collapse" and evidence suggests they did not disappear but adapted their lifestyles and industries and migrated out of the cities that could not pivot to accommodate the climate variability.

"During COVID, here in Australia at least, our city centres were largely abandoned," Prof Penny said.

"(Likewise with Khmer and Maya) you have this kind of unavoidable evidence of the continuity of culture and the continuity of people and the persistence of societies, cultural practices, cultural identity through these episodic periods of disruption.

"Nine hundred thousand people didn't suddenly disappear into smoke.

"People just went back to their farms and kept doing what their what their great grandparents had done."

The threat of mega droughts seems all too salient and ominous after Australia endured its deadliest bushfire season last year and as the whole world faces a century of unimaginable climate change.

However unlike in the 14th and 15th centuries, relocating a civilisation isn't as simple as tethering your livestock to a cart and setting up settlement down river.

"We just don't have the freedom to move our capitals very much anymore," Prof Penny said.

All we can do is prepare - by making sure the systems that make our cities work are not vulnerable to disruption.

"There are certain characteristics that make systems resilient ... they have the capacity to absorb some kind of disturbance without a loss of function," he said.

In Khmer and Maya the agriculture and infrastructure systems were so complex and deeply interconnected, when one element failed, everything collapsed.

"Whenever we have a power outage or where Facebook falls over ... sometimes we can see exactly those process (failures) occurring in the past," Prof Penny said.

People building critical systems today are aware of this and design them to be modular and better able to tolerate disruption.

"And increasingly, our critical infrastructures, whatever they might be, are being designed with climate change in mind," he added.

Australian Associated Press