How early humans adapted to climate change

U. BUFFALO (US)—Siberia’s remote Kamchatka peninsula, a rough and extremely volcanic wilderness region the size of California, is the current site of an international effort to understand how humans living 4,000 to 6,000 years ago reacted to climate changes.

Since 2004, University at Buffalo anthropologist Ezra Zubrow has worked intensively with teams of scientists in the Arctic regions of St. James Bay, Quebec, northern Finland, and Kamchatka. Their findings will tell governments, scientists, and NGOs how relationships between human beings and their environments may change in decades to come as a result of global warming.

“The circumpolar north is widely seen as an observatory for changing relations between human societies and their environment,” Zubrow explains, “and analysis of data gathered from all phases of the study eventually will enable more effective collaboration between today’s social, natural, and medical sciences as they begin to devise adequate responses to the global warming the world faces today.”

The study, which will collect a vast array of archeological and paleoenvironmental data, began with the Social Change and the Environment in Nordic Prehistory Project (SCENOP), a major international research study by scientists from the U.S., Canada, and Europe of prehistoric sites in Northern Quebec and Finland.

“With forecasts of sea-level rises and changing weather patterns, people today have been forewarned about some likely ramifications of climate change,” Zubrow says, “but those living thousands of years ago, during the Holocene climatic optimum, could not have known what lay ahead of them and how their land—and lives—would be changing.

“This was a slower change,” he says, “about one-third the rate we face today. In the Holocene period, it took a thousand years for the earth to warm as much as it has over the past 300 years—roughly the time spanned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Phases I and II of the effort were headed by André Costopoulos and Gail Chmura of McGill University, Jari Okkonen of Finland’s Oulu University, and Zubrow, who also holds academic positions at the University of Toronto and Cambridge University. Phase III of the project is under way now in Kamchatka.

“As in other phases of the study,” Zubrow says, “our goal in Kamchatka is to clarify ancient regional chronologies and understand the ways prehistoric humans adapted to significant environmental changes, including warming, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and the seismic uplift of marine terraces that impacted the environment during the period in question.”

He points out that, despite our more sophisticated prediction technology, and technologies overall, many of the world’s people have residences and lifestyles that are just as vulnerable to climatic shift as those of our prehistoric ancestors. They, too, live along estuaries and coastlines subject to marked alteration as oceans rise.

Ultimately, information gathered over the next year by the geologists, archaeologists, geochemists, volcanologists, and paleoecologists on Zubrow’s team will be compared with data from the two other ICAP sites.

The project is being funded by the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Social Sciences Program of the Office of Polar Programs, which is supported by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

University at Buffalo news: www.buffalo.edu/news/

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