Prehistoric Humans Survived Extreme Climate Change, Excavation Reveals

These Mesolithic humans thrived in a 100-year cold snap.

While Earth is currently experiencing unprecedented manmade climate change, the planet has gone through extreme changes in climate throughout history. By studying how early human societies responded to these intense periods, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how humanity at large responds to environmental instability. According to a newly released paper, we now know how Mesolithic humans dealt with erratic climate at the end of the last ice age: pretty damn well.

Star Carr is a Middle Stone Age archeological site at which people lived around 9,000 B.C. It’s located in what’s now North Yorkshire, England and over the past 15 years, different teams of archeologists have discovered heaps of artifacts that belonged to the ancient people who lived there. In a paper published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution a team of researchers announced that further excavation of this site and samples taken from the surrounding environment have revealed that 11,000 years ago this area experienced abrupt climate change. However, contrary to what was expected, the humans who were living there continued to thrive despite the fact they were living during a 100-year long cold snap.

One of the headdress found in the recent excavations.

POSTGLACIAL Project/University of York

“This result was quite astounding as we knew there were climate shifts of several degrees of annual cooling, big enough to change the local environment but they had no influence on the Star Carr residents,” study co-author and University of York professor Nicky Milner, Ph.D., explained in an accompanying blog. “These early Holocene pioneering populations were building house and lake structures, depositing headdresses that are an iconic feature of the site, and continuing their lifeways before, during, and after our climate shift.”

“For us, this went directly against a growing narrative of climate as a driver of change in many archeological records, including ones individual team members have worked on, and shows an amazing level of resilience and adaptation to the site and environment in these populations.”

Map of the palaeo-lake with sites marked around it: Star Carr is site 1. 

POSTGLACIAL project/University of York

Beginning in 2012, Milner and her team began a combined archeological and palaeoenvironmental project at the site. The goal was to both excavate for signs of human life and take environmental samples, steps that would hopefully reveal how climate affected Mesolithic humans. They drilled cores from the neighboring lake beds and trapped within these sediment cores was pollen, macrofossils, and isotopes — analysis of which revealed that the area had undergone fluctuating patterns of climatic and environmental change, including two episodes of extreme cooling.

These events matched an already established timeline: The first, occurring essentially when humans returned to the area after the last ice age, and the second when the humans were more established in the area.

Meanwhile, others on the team found undeniable signs of human activity: Evidence of houses, large wooden platforms built on the edge of the lake, huge quantities of bones, and heaps of artifacts, including elaborate antler headdresses, all buried in the wetland. After these were radiocarbon dated, they compared the age of the artifacts to the timeline of the cooling periods and discovered an overlap — the first cooling period may have slightly slowed down the progress of the humans, but the second period had “very little impact” on their society.

Sediment core taken from the lake.

Simon Blockley

This contradicts previous theories that extreme climatic events caused a crash in Mesolithic populations in northern England. The people in Star Carr, at least, were able to cope.

“Perhaps the later, more established community at Star Carr were buffered from the effects of the second extreme cooling event — which is likely to have caused exceptionally harsh winter conditions — by their continued access to a range of resources at the site, including red deer,” Milner explained in a statement released Monday.

“Putting this archeological data into the context of the climate and environment is very exciting and shows that we need to keep an open mind when thinking about the effects of extreme climate on early populations.”

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