How Ancient Cultures Were Affected by Climate Change

climate change

Though climate change is a much talked about current issue, there is evidence to suggest that previous civilizations also had to contend with the effects of changing climates. Recently, two very different places and cultures, Egypt and Ohio, have been examined in various ways to determine the ancient effects of climate change.

A report slated to be published in an upcoming issue of Journal of Archaeological Science touches on that very topic. An archaeologist at Cornell University, Sturt Manning, worked with a team of scientists from around the world to investigate climate changes in ancient Egypt.

By examining tree rings in various wooden artifacts, the researchers were able to come to some basic conclusions regarding the influence climate change may have had on cultural development at that time. It has long been accepted that tree rings, the concentric design one sees when looking at a slice of a tree, offer a useful recording of the various patterns of weather in that particular region. One of the assumptions that can be made is the thicker the rings, the greater availability of water during that specific season of growth.

Something that was revealed by the Egyptian wood was that there was a brief, yet intense, drought around 2200, BC. Manning said that this drought could have easily caused major disruptions for the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. He goes on to say that the record indicates that changes in climate do not need to be on a catastrophic level, like an Ice Age, in order to wreak some havoc.

In Ohio, scientists are lacking a useful tree ring record from ancient times. They do, however, have another way of extracting that type of information. Each spring, the air is filled with a variety of pollens. As some of the pollen settles at pond bottoms, it accumulates within the layers of pond muck. The layers can be compared to book pages and, like the tree rings, are recordings of the immediate vicinity. By examining these mucky pollen layers, scientists are able to determine, year by year, what kinds of plants were growing near the pond.

An archaeologist at Ohio University, Elliot Abrams, joined with some of his colleagues to study pollen layers taken from Patton Bog, which is in Athens County. The results were published in Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. What they found was a change that occurred at about 1000, BC. The pollen layers, once predominantly from trees, was dominated by pollens from grasses.

The southern Ohio hunters and gatherers would have been greatly challenged by this change. These ancient people relied heavily upon tree nuts for their survival. The fewer the number of trees meant there were less nuts to eat. According to Abrams, it was around this time that farming began to take hold in the region. This would have been a direct result of changes in the climate.

The drier climate resulted in a reduction in the numbers of available nuts. The people adapted to this change by modifying their diet. They began gathering and eating seeds from the goosefoot and sunflower plants. Eventually, they planted their favored seed varieties. Within a few hundred years or so, these former full-time hunter-gatherers had become part-time planters. By 1, AD, fires were being set to clear land for bigger plantings. Layers taken from this period showed charcoal from the burns.

Both studies indicate that climate change can be a real game changer. By paying close attention to the lessons that can be gleaned from these and future studies, better informed decisions can be made for the near and distant future. The valuable science of archaeology will help in deciphering the ancient affects of climate change through its ability to read unwritten records, as has been shown in Egypt and Ohio.

By Stacy Lamy


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