22 February 2021
Ancient echoes in a climate of change
Published online 7 April 2020
People in Arabia adapted to extreme climate changes over the past 12,000 years with a flexibility perhaps needed for our future.
The response of ancient societies in the Arabian Peninsula to climate and ecosystem changes could contain lessons for modern civilisation as we confront our own climate challenges. An international and interdisciplinary team of researchers reached this conclusion by studying evidence spanning 12,000 years.
“We were struck by the great degree of variability in how climatic events played out across the peninsula and how regional populations responded differently,” says archaeologist, Michael Petraglia, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
Petraglia and his colleagues investigated the response of different populations in the Arabian Peninsula to a series of historic droughts that brought extreme environmental variability. The researchers looked at evidence left in the structure of the landscape and remnants of ancient construction work, in addition to radiocarbon dating of archaeological finds, to plot shifts in human habitation. Radiocarbon dating can also offer evidence of lifestyle changes.
The study suggests these ancient societies responded with considerable mobility. In southeastern Arabia, inland populations moved to the coast, where resources were more plentiful. In northern Arabia, while significant mobility did occur, survival strategies included constructing walls around oases, digging wells and modifying the landscape to capture water more effectively. The largest basins of inland water seemed to have become hubs that population groups moved towards and relied upon, promoting reorganisation of social structures as different groups came together.
The response to climate changes has also been linked to shifts in economics and culture. Populations moving to the coast seem to have established maritime trading networks that created new links between different groups, such as nomadic foragers and more settled agricultural communities.
The mobility of entire population groups that was possible in ancient times is often no longer feasible nowadays, so the lessons from the responses in northern Arabia may be more relevant today. The researchers suggest populations in the Middle East and worldwide may need to learn from the past to modify their environment and social structures to cope with advancing climate change, rather than simply moving away from its effects.
“People had to change their lifestyles and economies, or potentially perish,” Petraglia says.
Petraglia, M. D. et al. Human responses to climate and ecosystem change in ancient Arabia, PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1920211117 (2020).