Findings from a Middle Stone Age site named Star Carr in North Yorkshire, England, show that our ancestors survived a century-long drop in temperature, according to a new study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. In an article for CNN, Ashley Strickland discusses these findings. Paleoclimatologists (who study climates of the past) studied an event 8,200 years ago that show a sudden cold shift lasting over a century.
This climate shift is recorded in Greenland ice cores and within the fossil record across Europe. Lake deposits, fossilized plants and animals, radiocarbon dating, ash from volcanic eruptions, and other archaeological data have allowed researchers to match the climate record alongside human activity at the site. The shift occurred when the North American ice sheet decayed after the last ice age and released meltwater into the North Atlantic Ocean. This triggered large-scale population crashes in northern Britain and large cultural changes in southern Europe.
At the Star Carr site, researchers learned that this climatic shift resulted in temperature decreases of 10 and 4 degrees Celsius. It would have cooled both summer and winter temperatures, affected the landscape causing it to be more unstable, and paused the development of the woodland environment the hunter-gatherers depended on. Despite these dramatic shifts, Star Carr was home to many hunger-gatherers, and they did not change their way of life or abandon the site.
According to researchers, one mechanism to their survival was reliance on red deer—which provided the people with skins, meat and other products. “The population at Star Carr, some of the earliest people to recolonize Britain after the last ice age, must have been highly resilient to climate instability, capable of persevering and maintaining a stable society in spite of these environment stresses,” said Ian Candy, study author and professor of geography at the Royal Halloway University of London’s Centre for Quaternary Research.
Although this study, highlighting our resilient ancestors who could survive climate change events and cope with extremes, sounds promising, scientists remain cautious. Climate change would impact many more things that affect our daily life, said Sam White, history associate professor at the Ohio State University.
“For our modern society, there are so many more people at risk and more vulnerabilities to consider: modern infrastructure and cities at risk of rising sea levels, agriculture unsuited for warmer seasons and more drought, moving disease vectors, lost biodiversity and ecosystem services, and so on,” he wrote in an email. “It’s good to hear stories of adaptation and resilience, and not just crisis and collapse. But we need to be cautious with either.”