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UMaine Today Magazine

Adapting to change
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On the Brink

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Tree ring data from the prehistoric American Southwest, approximately 1075–1200 AD, tell the story. Extreme climate fluctuation. In the resulting draught, water sources dried up for the forager-farmers and their crops, leading to the abandonment of large towns and ceremonial centers. Dispersed into the desert, people fought for the scarce resources in order to survive.

Midden evidence points to poorer diets and decreasing health. Graves indicate an infant mortality rate of nearly 70 percent. Disease likely increased and famine was probably rampant, says University of Maine Professor of Anthropology and Climate Change Kristin Sobolik, who has studied human adaptations in desert environments, primarily in the American Southwest, for more than two decades.

By the time the first Europeans came to the Puebloan Southwest, the remaining Native communities were small, the once thriving population a shadow of its prehistoric self.

"When you look at the collapse of civilizations around the world, environmental change and human environmental destruction are two of the linchpins leading to societal collapses," says Sobolik, associate director of UMaine's Climate Change Institute. "That's why we're upset about what we're seeing now with more human-induced global warming."

Changing climate is a fact of life on this planet and humans' ability to adapt to that change has shaped societies. Evidence of that adaptability — or lack thereof — is found in the archaeological record, according to anthropologists. So, too, are cues for modern societies facing an increasingly uncertain future with human-induced climate change.

"If you look at human evolution, climate was a really important factor in the ability of our ancestors to become us," says Dan Sandweiss, UMaine professor of anthropology and Quaternary and climate studies, who studies prehistoric coastal adaptations, primarily in Peru. "Much of the human story revealed through archaeology shows the increasing ability of humans to deal with difficult climate change.

 "When climate changes, people change in some way," he says. "We may not be able to predict what will happen, but if there's a major change in climate, there will be change in human systems."

One of the clearest examples of radical climate change leading to the upheaval of civilization occurred in Mesopotamia, says Sandweiss, where the extensive archaeological record has provided evidence of a 300-year drought that caused people in the north to abandon their societies and move south around 2200–1900 BC.

The Medieval Warm Period around 985 AD allowed Norse colonies to spring up in Greenland, where the climate at that time was much like their European homeland. The onset of the Little Ice Age around 1400 AD brought that colonization to a close.

In Peru about 6,000–9,000 years ago, humans began shifting from small nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to permanent, more complex settlements and social organization. But with the onset of more frequent El Niño events about 3,000 years ago, pyramids and temples were abandoned.

"People have to eat to survive. But when they move beyond small-scale food producers, they are more at the mercy of climate," Sandweiss says. "When the population gets too big to go back to the land, then it's truly at the mercy of climate change."

Like any other organisms, humans' ability to adapt determines our success as a species. That ability to adapt is stymied when humans start relying on domesticated plants and animals, Sobolik says.

"What we see in paleonutrition is that smaller groups living off the environment had a better diet, better nutrition and health," she says. "It was downhill once they became dependent on a single crop rather than using a wide variety of foods as hunters and gatherers. They became more sedentary around their crops, increasing population size and passing disease more easily from one person to another. Most important, they started living with their waste products and getting disease from domesticated animals and the vermin attracted to the stored crops."

The preferable climate and natural environment for humans are predictable from year to year, Sandweiss says. Humans can cope when the unpredictable happens every once in a while. But when changes in the natural world shift so dramatically that fish, birds and animals die, rains are torrential, and disease and insect events common, human civilization is at risk.

"When there's increased variability, people have to respond proactively or reactively," says Sandweiss. "In more complex societies with increased agricultural productivity and irrigation systems, there's less option to move around. Large populations are dependent on the fixed infrastructure for food needed to survive, so that when events become more severe, the consequences become more dire."

Today, people argue that such rudimentary struggles for survival are behind us, that a sophisticated society replete with technology will help us bypass such threats. But the fact remains that, despite human intelligence, we remain the only species capable of annihilating ourselves, says Sobolik. In light of current climate change, people need to be prepared to adapt, including changing consumption habits and societal infrastructure, resulting in cultural shifts.

"The most important thing is that the major underpinning of societal collapse is environmental degradation and we need to learn from that," she says. "The hope is that we can develop the technology and the smarts to think as a human around the globe, as one group that needs to change things."

by Margaret Nagle
September-October, 2008


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