The prehistoric weather forecast: partly cloudy

Climate Change in Prehistory
August 19, 2005

The debates over global warming have produced a cascade of books on ancient climate change. William Burroughs joins the fray with a cursory survey of human prehistory and climate over the past 100,000 years in what is clearly designed as a basic textbook.

An introductory chapter raises fundamental issues. Climate change affected ancient societies profoundly. What, then, were the advances in human creativity that helped people cope with an Ice Age climate? Burroughs cites late Ice Age cave art as an example and pits archaeological evidence of continuity against rapid fluctuations in global climate. He also argues that genetic mapping offers an independent picture of the spread of modern humans when combined with archaeology and other disciplines.

Chapter two explores the climate of the past 100,000 years, the much more chaotic climate of the Ice Age, in contrast to that of the Holocene. We learn about early climatic research, about the increasing effectiveness of such proxies as pollen counts, deep sea cores and ice cores. Burroughs rightly draws attention to the excellent record from the Cariaco Basin off Venezuela, which provides evidence of interannual climate over the past 15,000 years. Pollen records now date back at least 125,000 years, and beetles are another fruitful source of information. We learn about interstadials and interglacials, Heinrich and Dansgaard/Oeschger events. There is an excellent discussion of late Ice Age and Holocene climatic shifts as Burroughs crafts a "climatic template" for prehistory.

Chapter three surveys what is known of the spread of modern humans from tropical Africa, genetically and archaeologically. It offers nothing new, and Burroughs's use of the archaeological literature is selective at best. The next chapter discusses extremes of climatic change, one at about 70,000-80,000 years ago, when cooling may have been linked to the huge eruption of Mount Toba in Indonesia. This event altered global climate for a millennium or more. Burroughs assumes that populations rose and fell with the "bottlenecks" between late Ice Age stadials and interstadials. He also argues that about three quarters of Europeans descended from people who survived in Ice Age refugia south of the north European plain.

In the fifth chapter, Burroughs draws attention to the winter circulation of the North Atlantic oscillation to Holocene climatic events. He shows how climatic changes during the summers were more important in northern Europe, whereas temperatures in the western Mediterranean have risen by 2C since about 8,000 years ago. The Younger Dryas event of 11,000BC played a significant role in food production in the Euphrates Valley and elsewhere. However, Burroughs does not discuss the profound social and religious developments that were part of the changeover. Here and elsewhere, there is often an overly simplistic correlation between climate change and major developments in the past.

The author now embarks on a broad, often incompletely researched, discussion of developments such as the first settlement of the Americas, the first farmers in Europe, and disruptions in Akkadian and Egyptian civilisation. He attributes the demise of Classic Maya civilisation to drought when the political and economic situation was much more complex. There is nothing new here, and the reader will be confused by the range of the discussion, which suffers from too narrow a perspective on the past.

Elsewhere, Burroughs argues that the evolutionary imprint left on humans during the Ice Age can illuminate our current sociological thinking and covers debates over global warming, future climate variability and our vulnerability to sudden climatic changes, such as a shutdown of the North Atlantic circulation.

Climate Change in Prehistory is not an exciting book, nor does it break new intellectual ground. Burroughs gives a workmanlike summary of climatic change in the past, which he attempts to link with an incomplete (and selectively researched) archaeological record. At times, the author focuses on simple cause-and-effect relationships between climate and human society that cannot reflect a complex reality. This is not an authoritative or innovative synthesis, but will have some value for students seeking basic information.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, US.

Climate Change in Prehistory

Author - William J. Burroughs
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 356
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 82409 5

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