Climate Change: The Archaeological Evidence

What the Past Tells About Coping with Climate Change

Archaeology is the study of humans, beginning with the very first human ancestor who ever made a tool. As such, archaeologists have studied the effects of climate change, including both global warming and cooling, as well as regional changes, for the past two million years. On this page, you'll find links to the large scale record of climate change; studies of disasters which had environmental impacts; and stories about some of the sites and cultures which have shown us what we can expect as we face our own struggles with climate change.

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Greenland: A Laboratory For The Symptoms Of Global Warming
Professor David Noone from the University of Colorado uses a snow pit to study the layers of ice in the glacier at Summit Station on July 11, 2013 on the Glacial Ice Sheet, Greenland. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Paleoenvironmental reconstruction (also known as paleoclimate reconstruction) refers to the results and the investigations undertaken to determine what the climate and vegetation were like at a particular time and place in the past. Climate, including vegetation, temperature, and relative humidity, has varied considerably during the time since the earliest human habitation of planet earth, from both natural and cultural (human-made) causes.

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Sunburst over Grand Pacific Glacier, Alaska
Sunburst over Grand Pacific Glacier, Alaska. Altrendo Travel / Altrendo / Getty Images

The Little Ice Age was the last painful climate change, suffered by the planet during the Middle Ages. Here are four stories about how we coped.

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Spiral Clock Face
Spiral Clock Face. Alexandre Duret-Lutz
Marine Isotope Stages are what geologists use to identify global shifts in climate. This page lists the cooling and warming periods identified for the past one million years, the dates for those periods, and some of the events that happened during those tumultuous periods.

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Ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull Volcano
Ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (Iceland). Photo by MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA via Getty Images
According to historical and archaeological evidence, there was a persistent dust veil covering much of Europe and Asia Minor for up to a year and a half. Here's the evidence. The dust plume in the photo is from the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010.

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Toba Ash Deposit Excavated at Jwalapuram in Southern India
Toba Ash Deposit Excavated at Jwalapuram in Southern India. © Science
A massive eruption of the Toba Volcano in Sumatra about 74,000 years ago dumped ash on the ground and into the air from the south China Sea to the Arabian Sea. Interestingly, the evidence for planet wide climate change as a result of that eruption is mixed. The image illustrates the thick deposit from Toba's eruption at the southern Indian Paleolithic site of Jwalapuram.

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Woolly Mammoth at London's Horniman Museum
Woolly Mammoth at London's Horniman Museum. Jim Linwood
Although the jury is still about exactly how the large-bodied mammals disappeared from our planet, one of the major culprits had to have been climate change.

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Impact Crater on the Lunar Surface
Impact Crater on the Lunar Surface. NASA
Contributing writer Thomas F. King describes the work of Bruce Masse, who used geomythology to investigate the possible comet or asteroid strike that led to disaster legends. This image is, of course, on an impact crater on our moon.

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The Ebro Frontier

Neanderthal Sites North and South of the Ebro Frontier in Iberia
Neanderthal Sites North and South of the Ebro Frontier in Iberia. Base map: Tony Retondas

The Ebro Frontier may or may not have been a real block to the population of the Iberian peninsula by humans, but the climate changes associated with the Middle Paleolithic period may well have affected the ability of our Neanderthal kin to live there.

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Giant Ground Sloth at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Giant Ground Sloth at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. etee
The giant ground sloth is just about the last survivor of the large-bodied mammal extinctions. Its story is one of survival through climate change, only to be overwhelmed by human predation.

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Garðar, Brattahild and Sandhavn, Eastern Settlement, Greenland
Garðar, Brattahild and Sandhavn, Eastern Settlement, Greenland. Masae
One of the bleaker stories of climate change is that of the Vikings on Greenland, who struggled fairly successfully for 300 years on the cold rock, but apparently succumbed to a 7 degree C temperature downturn.

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Angkor Palace Complex, with Buddhist Monks
Angkor Palace Complex, with Buddhist Monks. Sam Garza
However, the Khmer Empire collapsed, after 500 years of strngth and control over their water requirements. Climate change, assisted by political and social upheaval, had a role in its failure.

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West Baray Reservoir at Angkor taken from Space
West Baray Reservoir at Angkor taken from Space. The simulated natural color image was acquired on February 17, 2004, by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite. NASA

The Khmer Empire [AD800-1400] were flatout wizards at water control, capable of changing the microenvironments of their communities and capitals.

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Melting Glacier, Greenland
Glacier, terminal moraine, and bodies of water in the fjords of southern Greenland. Doc Searls
The Last Glacial Maximum occurred something like 30,000 years ago, when the glaciers covered pretty much the northern third of our planet.

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Prehistoric Wells of the American Archaic

Well at Mustang Springs
Archaic-period well at Mustang Springs. Note bore hole near the center. David J. Meltzer

An extreme dry period occurred in the American plains and southwest between about 3,000 and 7,500 years ago, and our American Archaic hunter-gatherer ancestors survived by hunkering down and excavating wells.

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Map of the location of Qijurittuq Site on Hudson Bay
Map of the location of Qijurittuq Site on Hudson Bay. Elinnea

Qijurittuq is a Thule culture site, located on Hudson Bay in Canada. The residents successfully lived through the so-called "Little Ice Age", by building semi-subterranean housing and snow houses.

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Iceland Vista taken from Borgarvirki in Vestur-Húnavatnssýsla
Iceland Vista taken from Borgarvirki in Vestur-Húnavatnssýsla. Atli Harðarson
Landnam is the agricultural technique that the Vikings brought with them to Greenland and Iceland, and using its techniques despite climate change is believed by some scholars to have resulted in the end of the colony on Greenland.

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Moai with Shell Eyes on Coast, Easter Island
Moai with Shell Eyes on Coast, Easter Island. anoldent
There are multiple and intersecting reasons which scholars have come up with to explain the crash of the society on the tiny island of Rapanui: but it seems clear that some environmental alterations of the neighborhood.

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Tiwanaku (Bolivia) Entrance to Kalasaya Compound
Tiwanaku (Bolivia) Entrance to Kalasaya Compound. Marc Davis
The Tiwanaku (sometimes spelled Tiahuanaco) were the dominant culture in much of South America for four hundred years, long before the Inca. They were agricultural engineers, building terraces and raised fields to adapt to changing conditions. But, the theory goes, the climate changes experienced were too much for them.

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Susan Crate on Climate Change and Advocacy

In a 2008 article in Current Anthropology, anthropologist Susan Crate considers what anthropologists can do to work on behalf of our indigenous research partners who don't have the political clout to act on climate change.

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Floods, Famine and Emperors

This classic book from Brian Fagan describes the effects of climate change on many different human cultures, spanning the entire range of our residence of this planet.