Detail of a man depicted on an Uruk vase, Pergamon Museum. The Uruk civilization arose as it expertly adapted to the new climate.

Rising to the Challenge: Innovative Civilizations Advanced Through Climate Change

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Beginning around 90,000 years ago, during an interglacial period, Anatomically Modern Humans were able to take advantage of the favorable climatic conditions and migrate throughout Africa and into Asia. Soon thereafter, identifiable culture can be found in the archaeological record. As far as can be told, it was Homo Sapiens living in Africa that would make the first symbolic paintings, but Neanderthals soon did this as well.

Modern Humans showed a particular ability to adapt, as they continued to thrive throughout the renewed period of glaciations, known as the Wisconsin or Wurm Glaciations, which occurred between 35,000 and 11,500 years ago. Neanderthal populations were either assimilated by the Modern Humans or became extinct during this time.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, is displayed next to a modern human skeleton at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, is displayed next to a modern human skeleton at the Museum of Natural History in New York. ( Museum of Natural History in New York )

At this time of climatic extremes, people expanded their social interactions - as evidenced by complex and mobile artwork, as well as increasingly sophisticated burial customs. These Mesolithic people also began to domesticate a variety of plants and animals, opening the path to the later agricultural revolution.

The Younger Dryas

Around 15,000 years ago, humanity was thriving as the glacial climate became milder. Archaeological evidence shows a population spike at this time as new technologies and warmer weather suddenly increased the amount of available food. However, far removed from most of the world’s population, in North America around 13,000 years ago several glacial lakes would burst forth, sending their fresh cold waters into the saline and warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The effects of these glacial lakes flowing into the ocean was apparently much more rapid than previously thought. Over the period of a few months the climate began to change.

It was possibly around 12,800 years ago when a glacial cold snap occurred. This is known as the Younger Dryas and it was named after a flower that was common during this time of rapid change. The return to extreme weather, which lasted for around 1,500 years, saw a population crash and a restructuring of the subsistence methods of early cultures. During this epoch, sea levels rose by up to 100 meters (328.08 ft.) likely causing massive displacements of coastal populations and perhaps providing a foundation for the globally ubiquitous occurrence of "Flood Mythology."

Post Glacial Sea level Rise (Image: theancientneareast)

While humanity scraped its way back from the disaster of the climatic changes, the plants and animals they had lived on were no longer as plentiful - and for many the hunter-gatherer way of life was no longer adequate. Relatively quickly a new way of life began to develop alongside new technologies and material culture. This change is shown in the archaeological record by improved stone tools - and thus dawns the New Stone Age or Neolithic Period at about 12,500 years ago. One particular culture that exemplified these changes were the Natufians of the Western Levant. Their presence coincides with the Younger Dryas, suggesting just how specialized they were.

Giant mortars from Natufian Culture.

Giant mortars from Natufian Culture. (Hanay/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

 Part of this cultural change can also be witnessed in the stone structures that begin to appear at this time. It was around 11,000 years ago that a stone temple was first built on the already sacred site of Göbekli Tepe in Southern Anatolia. At this same time, the first stone buildings were erected at Jericho over 600 kilometers (nearly 400 miles) to the south in the Levant. The work at Göbekli Tepe was most intense during its early phases, suggesting a transitional culture that arose quickly in response to the altered climate and hinting that wondrous things may have been lost beneath the rising seas.

Göbekli Tepe. The whole area was filled with stones and dirt.

Göbekli Tepe. The whole area was filled with stones and dirt. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

From 7,500 to 5,700 BC Jericho and another settlement, Çatalhöyük in Anatolia (400 miles west of Göbekli Tepe), enjoyed periods of large and stable populations. But they fall something short of specialized societies with communal institutions that we look to as the first cities. Also during this time, 7,500-7,000 BC, the Neolithic Subluvial climate phase begins in northern Africa and lasts until about 5,000 BC. During this epoch, the Sahara Desert was substantially wetter than today, comparable to a savannah. As the Neolithic Subluvial ended the desertification of the Sahara began. Many people, and animals, inhabiting the north African savannah made their way to the Nile Valley, which became one of the few places in northeast Africa where concentrated populations could find a dependable supply of fresh water.

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Human Origins

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