Impacts of climate change on past human societies over the past 5000 years offer lessons for current global warming preparation

In another age of global warming, we currently face intense impacts of climate change over numerous parts of the world – but how did humans fare in past civilisations?

A comprehensive new study traces the impact of rapid climate change events on humans over the past 5,000 years and offers lessons for today’s policymakers.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of approximately a decade’s worth of bioarchaeology data, finding societal collapse is not always inevitable in the face of rapid climate change.

“In recent years, bioarchaeologists – who examine human remains to understand past populations – have begun focusing on the impact of climate change events on past societies.” Dr. Robbins Schug says.

“We have found evidence that – despite popular misconceptions – environmental migration, competition, violence, and societal collapse are not inevitable in the face of rapid climate change.”

“Increased reliance on agriculture can be a problem”

Researchers assessed human skeleton data and findings from 37 bioarchaeology studies of populations living from 5,000 to 400 years ago.

The societies represented spanned the globe, hailing from present-day America, Argentina, Chile, China, Ecuador, England, India, Japan, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Turkana women at water source
© Aprescindere

Those most affected by the impacts of climate change were urban societies – finding the most destructive impacts occurred for hierarchical, urban societies when they lacked the flexibility to respond to environmental challenges.

Schug said: “Increased reliance on agriculture can be a problem. Small, interconnected rural communities with high utilization of local resources and diverse dietary sources from herding, small-scale farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering were more resilient.”

Urban societies with economic inequality were more at risk

From research, they realised when pressured by climate change events, urban societies with high levels of economic inequality were at the highest risk for infectious disease and violence.

The scientists hope, as the world warms, their current and future findings can help policymakers set priorities that reduce pandemic diseases, poverty, hunger, and violence.

Findings can help policymakers set priorities that reduce pandemic diseases, poverty, hunger, and violence

Schug added: “Diseases and violence spread. If you want to protect a society, large segments of a population cannot be left vulnerable. It’s a zero-sum game.

“Successful strategies will support rural livelihoods, encourage diverse practices for obtaining food and other resources, foster equitable distribution, retain our capacity to mobilize when circumstances require and encourage mutually beneficial relationships among groups and species.”


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