Of interest is an upscale in research that investigates climate change and environmental change in the distant past as a way of understanding and preparing for the climate change we are about to experience. This vast field of research also looks at the beginnings of agriculture and agriculture in novel (especially arid) climates and the shift away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The earth’s climate has changed drastically in the past, leading to extinctions and range shifts for many species as it got colder and drier during the ice ages, but also creating many opportunities for species to exploit new niches. Humans have experienced many of these changes, most notably the previous two ice ages (the first as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis and the second, as both H. neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens).
As well as ferocious cold, we hominids have also seen droughts before and extinctions of human cultures, for example, the drought-prone 400-year period between A.D. 900 and 1300, experienced in North America. Mega-droughts (droughts that last two decades or longer) have historically led to the migration of humans away from drought affected lands, resulting in a significant population collapse from pre-drought levels. These droughts are suspected of playing a primary role in the disappearance of several pre-industrial civilizations, including the Anasazi of the North American Southwest, the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, the Mayans of Mesoamerica, the Tiwanaku of Bolivia, and the Yuan dynasty of China. In Africa, the Sahel region has suffered multiple mega-droughts throughout history, with the most recent lasting from approximately 1400 AD to 1750 AD. North America experienced at least four mega-droughts during the Medieval Warm Period. It is hard to imagine what would happen to modern society if there was a widespread mega-drought now. Water would have to be extracted from every available source regardless of the environmental cost. Desalination would have to be up-scaled enormously at huge cost. Perhaps it would become a reality to tow icebergs from the Antarctic to the world’s coastal cities. Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult. They are already falling off Antarctica with great regularity, aren’t they?
Other related research investigates rural knowledge systems of today and yesterday (often by asking rural people what their grandparents told them) and recording this information in detail (we may need to know this again): research that seeks to evaluate ancient crops and land races of seeds. Still other work investigates rural community seed banks and looks at ways for generally findings ways to ‘keep rural people rural’. While all this vast flow of research seems dramatic, it can be seen that many scientists around the world, from archaeologists to ecologists, are investigating the past and linking climate and vegetation findings to data about human civilisations to find out how people coped back then. This research is not only very interesting and almost ‘personal’, it may have some application as we enter a new future of climate change.
Below is a quick harvest of articles from ScienceDirect, a few of the 1500 articles that my search words ‘palaeo-agriculture’ pulled up.
From myopia to clarity: sharpening the focus of ecosystem management through the lens of palaeoecology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 29, Issue 6, June 2014, Pages 317-325. Lindsey Gillson, Rob Marchant.
Human–environment interactions in an agricultural landscape: A 1400-yr sediment and pollen record from North Pare, NE Tanzania. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 406, 15 July 2014, Pages 49-61. Matthias Heckmann, Veronica Muiruri, Arnoud Boom, Rob Marchant
Diversity and ecology of tropical African fungal spores from a 25,000-year palaeoenvironmental record in southeastern Kenya. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, Volume 164, Issues 3–4, April 2011, Pages 174-190. Bas van Geel, Vanessa Gelorini, Anna Lyaruu, André Aptroot, Stephen Rucina, Rob Marchant, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Dirk Verschuren
A Holocene pollen record of vegetation change and human impact from Pantano de Vargas, an intra-Andean basin of Duitama, Colombia. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, Volume 145, Issues 1–2, June 2007, Pages 143-157. Andrea Gómez, Juan Carlos Berrío, Henry Hooghiemstra, Miguel Becerra, Rob Marchant
Late Quaternary vegetation and fire dynamics on Mount Kenya. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 283, Issues 1–2, 1 December 2009, Pages 1-14. Stephen M. Rucina, Veronica M. Muiruri, Rahab N. Kinyanjui, Katy McGuiness, Rob Marchant
Palaeo-ecological quality status based on foraminifera of Boulogne-sur-Mer harbour (Pas-de-Calais, Northeastern France) over the last 200 years. Marine Environmental Research, Volume 117, June 2016, Pages 32-43. F. Francescangeli, E. Armynot du Chatelet, G. Billon, A. Trentesaux, V.M.P. Bouchet
Assessing the fidelity of marine vertebrate microfossil δ18O signatures and their potential for palaeo-ecological and -climatic reconstructions. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 465, Part A, 1 January 2017, Pages 79-92. Brett Roelofs, Milo Barham, John Cliff, Michael Joachimski, Laure Martin, Kate Trinajstic
Palaeoecology of Late Glacial and Holocene profundal Ostracoda of pre-Alpine lake Mondsee (Austria) — A base for further (palaeo-)biological research. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 419, 1 February 2015, Pages 23-36. Tadeusz Namiotko, Dan L. Danielopol, Ulrich von Grafenstein, Stefan Lauterbach, Achim Brauer, Nils Andersen, Matthias Hüls, Krystyna Milecka, Angel Baltanás, Walter Geiger, DecLakes Participants
Using palaeo-environmental proxies to reconstruct natural and anthropogenic controls on sedimentation rates, Tell es-Safi/Gath, eastern Mediterranean. Anthropocene, Volume 8, December 2014, Pages 70-82. Oren Ackermann, Noam Greenbaum, Avner Ayalon, Miryam Bar-Matthews, Elisabetta Boaretto, Hendrik J. Bruins, Dan Cabanes, Liora Kolska Horwitz, Frank H. Neumann, Naomi Porat, Ehud Weiss, Aren M. Maeir
Palaeo-seasonality of the last two millennia reconstructed from the oxygen isotope composition of carbonates and diatom silica from Nar Gölü, central Turkey. Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 66, 15 April 2013, Pages 35-44. Jonathan R. Dean, Matthew D. Jones, Melanie J. Leng, Hilary J. Sloane, C. Neil Roberts, Jessie Woodbridge, George E.A. Swann, Sarah E. Metcalfe, Warren J. Eastwood, Hakan Yiğitbaşıoğlu
Environmental conditions in the SE Balkans since the Last Glacial Maximum and their influence on the spread of agriculture into Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 68, 15 May 2013, Pages 200-215. Simon E. Connor, Shawn A. Ross, Adela Sobotkova, Andy I.R. Herries, Scott D. Mooney, Catherine Longford, Ilia Iliev
Geochemical characteristics of soils in Fezzan, Sahara desert: Implications for environment and agriculture. Journal of Geochemical Exploration, Volume 158, November 2015, Pages 122-131. Emohamed Maryol, Chuxia Lin
Pre-Columbian agriculture in the Bolivian Lowlands: Construction history and management of raised fields in Bermeo. CATENA, Volume 132, September 2015, Pages 126-138. Leonor Rodrigues, Umberto Lombardo, Seraina Fehr, Frank Preusser, Heinz Veit
Rhizolith balls from the Lower Cretaceous of Patagonia: Just roots or the oldest evidence of insect agriculture?Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 287, Issues 1–4, 1 March 2010, Pages 128-142. Jorge F. Genise, Ana María Alonso-Zarza, J. Marcelo Krause, M. Victoria Sánchez, Laura Sarzetti, Juan L. Farina, Mirta G. González, Marcela Cosarinsky, Eduardo S. Bellosi
Wild and domesticated forms of rice (Oryza sp.) in early agriculture at Qingpu, lower Yangtze, China: evidence from phytoliths. Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 34, Issue 12, December 2007, Pages 2101-2108. Freea Itzstein-Davey, David Taylor, John Dodson, Pia Atahan, Hongbo Zheng
Microbotanical remains reveal Polynesian agriculture and mixed cropping in early New Zealand. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, Volume 131, Issues 3–4, September 2004, Pages 147-157. M Horrocks, P.A Shane, I.G Barber, D.M D'Costa, S.L Nichol
Geochronology and settlement disposition in the early Palaeo-Indian occupation of southern Ontario, Canada. Quaternary Research, Volume 19, Issue 3, May 1983, Pages 388-399. L.J. Jackson
Sequence stratigraphy and environmental background of the late Pleistocene and Holocene occupation in the Southeast Primor'ye (the Russian Far East). Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 142, 15 June 2016, Pages 120-142. Jiri Chlachula, Alexander A. Krupyanko
The palaeoenvironments of Kuk Swamp from the beginnings of agriculture in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Quaternary International, Volume 249, 6 February 2012, Pages 129-139. Simon G. Haberle, Carol Lentfer, Shawn O’Donnell, Tim Denham
Climate at the onset of western Mediterranean agriculture expansion: Evidence from stable isotopes of sub-fossil oak tree rings in Spain. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 299, Issues 3–4, 15 January 2011, Pages 541-551. M. Aguilera, J.P. Ferrio, J.L. Araus, J. Tarrús, J. Voltas
A revised chronology for the adoption of agriculture in the Southern Levant and the role of Lateglacial climatic change. Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 30, Issues 1–2, January 2011, Pages 98-108. S.P.E. Blockley, R. Pinhasi