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Using Archeology to Better Understand Climate Change

Using Archeology to Better Understand Climate Change

Throughout history, people of different cultures and stages of evolution have found ways to adapt, with varying success, to the gradual warming of the environment they live in. But can the past inform the future, now that climate change is happening faster than ever before?

Yes, say an international team of anthropologists, geographers and earth scientists in Canada, the U.S. and France led by Université de Montréal anthropologist Ariane Burke.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Burke and her colleagues make a case for a new and evolving discipline called "the archeology of ."

It's an interdisciplinary science that uses data from archeological digs and the palaeoclimate record to study how humans interacted with their environment during past climate-change events such as the warming that followed the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago.

What the scientists hope to identify are the tipping points in climate history that prompted people to reorganize their societies to survive, showing how , a source of human resilience in the past, is just as important today as a bulwark against .

"The archaeology of climate change combines the study of environmental conditions and archaeological information," said Burke, who runs the Hominin Dispersals Research Group and the Ecomorphology and Paleoanthropology Laboratory.

"What this approach allows us to do identify the range of challenges faced by people in the past, the different strategies they used to face these challenges and ultimately, whether they succeeded or not."

For instance, studying the rapid warming that occurred between 14,700 and 12,700 years ago, and how humans coped with it as evidenced in the archeological record, can help climate specialists model possible outcomes of climate change in the future, Burke said.

Her paper is co-authored with UdeM anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore and colleagues from Bishop's University, Université du Québec à Montréal, the University of Colorado and the CNRS, in France.

Historically, people from different walks of life have found a variety of ways to adapt to the warming of their climate, and these can inform the present and help prepare for the future, the researchers say.

For example, traditional farming practices—many of which are still practiced today—are valid alternatives that can be used to redesign industrial farming, making it more sustainable in the future, they say.

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