The Hot Zone

Changes in human culture match major climate shifts

Posted by Alison Hawkes on December 7, 2010
Category : Climates of the Past

A changing climate changes the environment. We know that. But it also may change culture.

In a lesson that could have some relevance to human societies today, geographers at the University of Ottawa examined the overlap between climatic change and the changes in tool technology and other artifacts by Native American tribes during three ancient time periods.

Humans have lived on the North American continent long enough to have experienced dramatic shifts in climate caused by ice sheet expansion and retraction that altered patterns in temperature and precipitation. Plant and animal communities changed with these shifts, resulting in new ecosystems by which humans would have relied on.

In a comprehensive look at these shifts beginning 11,250 years ago, the researchers matched pollen and charcoal records with archaeological remains along the Eastern seaboard. They found with every major shift in climate and ecosystem, a corresponding alteration occurred in human cultures.

A microblade from Mesa, Alaska during the Paleoindian period. Photo: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

In the Paleoindian period, characterized by a tundra landscape and a coniferous forest environment  during a cold snap called the Younger Dryas, humans were living in nomadic bands and hunted big game like caribou.

The lifestyle changed with the advent of the warmer Archaic period, about 11,600 years ago. Oak and pine came to predominate forests, followed by hemlock and beech as the climate became moister. These nut and fruit producing trees would have been an important source of nutrients, and humans settlements show the rise of semi-permanent base camps, fishing, and the hunting of smaller game.

The transition from Archaic to Woodland periods, 3,000 years ago, shows a dip in temperatures and deeper snowpacks; human population declined during this shift. But humans recovered and well into  the Woodland they period began experimenting with maize agriculture, pottery, and permanent settlements.The authors write:

“… our work shows a close correspondence between periods of change in ecosystems and the archaeological record, and highlights the complex and multidirectional nature of human-climate
relationships.”

Humans have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new climate and environmental conditions. In today’s era of climate change, adapt or die is no different, no matter how much we can better buffer ourselves from the weather.

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