Archaeology of Climate Change

Climate change is a major contemporary issue that we are trying our best to mitigate for future generations. However, we tend to forget that it is not a new phenomenon. For example, 2.5 million years ago volcanic eruptions caused a dramatic rise in carbon dioxide levels, which triggered the Ice Age. During that time, humans found solutions and adapted to it through migration and other methods. However, modern day humans place extreme value in property rights which makes it difficult to convince people to migrate in the face of natural disasters. 

Although the rising trend in atmospheric carbon dioxide seen today is much greater than the levels of carbon dioxide in the past, archaeological evidence of climate change is still a good source of information that has largely been overlooked. It provides a “solid foundation for assessing the implications of climate change across cultures and helps design sustainable development strategies” (Burke 2021). In retrospect, the archaeological evidence provides us with methods that humans have used in the past to adapt to climate change. It is important to realize that humans and culture evolved simultaneously. In the past, humans usually did not lead a sedentary lifestyle and were hunter-gatherers. Thus migration as a response to harmful climate activity was a viable solution. However, modern humans are unable to migrate due to their sedentary lifestyle and attachment to their homes.  

An example of human migration in response to climate change occurred in 1450 AD with the downfall of Cahokia. Climate change caused flooding, deforestation, and depletion of natural resources. When people first settled in the city of Cahokia, they adopted a lifestyle that over-exhausted their natural resources. Once the situation became untenable, Cahokians abandoned their city and moved to other parts of North America. This demonstrates a cultural difference between the Cahokians and modern people where the Cahokians were willing to migrate out of necessity, whereas modern individuals are unwilling to leave.

Image 1. Migration of humans during the Ice Age in North America.

An example of this cultural difference can be seen in coastal Miami. Despite the flooding of these areas, American corporations and individuals continue to invest money and live in these areas. One could argue that it is America’s capitalistic values that encourage people to stay in affected areas. This demonstrates the cultural difference between modern and ancient humans. The Cahokians and present day humans, despite having different cultural responses to the same issue, had very similar cultural values that lead climate change to destroy their societies. We are fortunate to live in a time that allows for communication between many populations. If we employ our cross-cultural knowledge correctly we can stave off the impossible decision populations have to make between migrating and staying.

Image 2. A flowchart depicting archaeology of climate change, its sources of information, and further developments.

Further Readings 



Burke, Ariane, Matthew C Peros, Colin D Wren, Francesco S. R. Pausata, Julien Riel-Salvatore, Olivier Moine, Anne de Vernal, Masa Kageyama , and Solène Boisard. “The Archaeology of Climate Change: The Case for Cultural Diversity.” Photograph. PNAS, July 22, 2021.

Dibble , Harold L, Aylar Abodolahzadeh, Vera Aldeias, Paul Goldberg, Shannon P McPherron, and Dennis M Sandgathe. How did hominins adapt to ice age Europe without fire? Accessed November 6, 2022. Editors. “Ice Age.” A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2015.

Renwick , James. “Climate Explained: What Caused Major Climate Change in the Past?” The Conversation, August 4, 2022. 

Romey, Kristin. “Surprise Discoveries in Mexico Cave May Double Time of Peopling of the Americas.” Photograph. History. National Geographic, May 3, 2021.

2 thoughts on “Archaeology of Climate Change

  1. Climate crisis displacement is already a major source of migration in the world. How can we better mitigate this using knowledge from archaeological sources?

  2. There isn’t one answer to solve this problem since each part of the world is somehow affected by climate change. What could help is our understanding of different regions and its cultures to come up with solutions that help our planet and other species, aka decentering our approaches.

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