40,000 Years of Human Challenges: Perception, Conceptualization and Coping in Premodern Societies


Humankind has been continuously confronted with challenges to the well-being of individuals and to the stability and functioning of social structures. In recent decades, overpopulation, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and unexpected wars have threatened the subsistence, the health, and the lives of millions of people around the globe. Challenges can be starting points of development and change, stagnation and progress, as well as success and failure. At least since the appearance of modern humans in Western Eurasia about 40,000 years ago, both individuals and communities have developed practices to cope with various forms of challenges. For a deeper understanding of present and future challenges and possible solutions, the diachronic and cross-cultural study of short- and long-term developments offers insightful data. Only such a long-term perspective makes it possible to identify patterns of action, continuity and change, as well as key factors in the perception, conceptualization and coping of challenges. For this reason, the interdisciplinary profile area focuses on three central research questions:

               How do people perceive challenges?
               How do they describe and conceptualize these challenges?
               What strategies and practices are developed to cope with challenges?

The Top-level Research Area analyzes the closely interconnected processes of perception and conceptualization of challenges as well as the resources and strategies that have been used to overcome them. Whether communities perceived and conceptualized challenges differently depending on time, space and context, whether they reacted differently to similar challenges or whether patterns can be identified that are independent of cultural or temporal factors are major research questions. By focusing on those challenges that are associated with, or directly result from humans living together in communities and interacting with each other, the overarching goal is to better understand how humans deal with challenges and to examine whether and to what extent ‘challenge cultures’ or ‘challenge mentalities’ can be discerned. In this way the Research Area will also contribute to the debate on whether individual characteristics and cultural dispositions or rather general characteristics and ‘anthropological constants’ determine human behavior and action and the question to what extent the perception and management of problems, disasters, stress and conflicts are specific or universal. By doing so, the Research Area addresses essential questions of human life and development that are highly relevant for contemporary societies around the globe.


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