Jan. 22, 1999 Regional climate changes may have helped to shape the evolution of ancient human societies, according to a paper in this week’s issue of Science by two University of Maine professors and a colleague from the U. S. National Park Service.
Authors Daniel Sandweiss and Kirk Maasch of the Institute for Quaternary Studies at UMaine and David Anderson of the National Park Service base their paper on their own research as well as scientific presentations at a 1998 conference at UMaine. At that meeting, scientists from around the world described evidence for climate changes and cultural developments in North and South America, Scandinavia, the Mideast, China and Japan.
The UMaine meeting was sponsored by the Foundation for Exploration and Research on Cultural Origins (FERCO) headquartered in the Canary Islands. Sandweiss is also president of the FERCO scientific committee.
The Science paper summarizes some of that information and notes that while climate appears to have affected culture at locations around the world, the relationship between the two is complex.
“The evidence . . . . confirms that the mid-Holocene (8000 to 3000 years before the present) was a time of increasing climate variability and cultural change in many parts of the world but that climatic and cultural events and trends were neither global nor synchronous,” the paper concludes. “In general, climate was warmer and less variable for several millennia before 5,800 years B. P. (before the present) than in the immediately following period. Cultural complexity generally increased where climate change was most apparent.”
The issue is relevant to the El Nino phenomenon in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Sandweiss and Maasch were co-authors of a 1996 paper in Science which described evidence that El Nino did not exist until about 5,800 years ago. That theory is based on an analysis of fish and shellfish remains contained in coastal Peruvian archeological sites.
In the latest Science paper, the authors note that prior to the onset of El Nino, ancient Peruvian communities depended on either marine or agricultural resources but not both. After El Nino began, these societies appear to have developed more sophisticated cultures. They began to construct temples and to use both fish and agricultural crops for food.
Exactly how climate might have influenced these trends is not clear, the paper states. “The connections between climate and culture remain largely unclear and require case-by-case study with high temporal resolution and precise dating,” the authors say.
Sandweiss and Maasch are also working on a full report from the UMaine conference. Chapters are being written by scientists who gave presentations. Their goal is to describe evidence for cultural developments which might have been influenced by changes in climate.
At UMaine, Sandweiss is also affiliated with the Department of Anthropology and Maasch with the Department of Geological Sciences.
Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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