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Climate Change and Archaeology

What the Past Tells About Coping with Climate Change

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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.

Marine Isotope Stages (MIS)

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.

Recent Cosmic Impacts on Earth

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.

The Dust Veil of AD536

Ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull Volcano
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.

Toba Volcano

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.

The Ebro Frontier

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.

Megafaunal Extinctions

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.

Giant Ground Sloth Extinction

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.

The Eastern Settlement of Greenland

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.

Landnam

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.

Qijurittuq

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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