New Paper by Crow Canyon’s Dr. Kyle Bocinsky Sheds Light on What Happened the Last Time the Climate Changed

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When Asia’s climate became cooler some 3-4,000 years ago, the ancient people who lived there were forced to respond. They moved. They started growing different crops. They created new trade networks and innovated their way to solutions in other ways too.

With our global climate again changing—for the warmer this time—this is a lesson that we all might need to remember in the coming decades. So suggests new research by Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., and co-author Jade d’Alpoim Guedes, Ph.D., published this month in the journal Science Advances.

Their paper describes a computer model they developed that shows when and where in Asia staple crops would have thrived or fared poorly during that last climate change between 5,000 and 1,000 years ago.

Bocinsky is the William D. Lipe Chair in Research and Director of the Research Institute at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, as well as a research associate with both the University of Montana and Washington State University, specializing in computational archaeology and human responses to environmental change.

D’Alpoim Guedes—the lead author on the paper—is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography who specializes in paleoethnobotany – analyzing ancient plant remains – to understand how human subsistence strategies changed over time.

According to their research—which was supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation—when the climate cooled, people moved away or turned to pastoralism, as herds can thrive in grassland where food grains can’t. And they also turned increasingly to trade.

D’Alpoim Guedes and Bocinsky argue that these strategies eventually coalesced into the development of the famed Silk Road.

Their computer model enabled D’Alpoim Guedes and Bocinsky to examine how climate change transformed ancient people’s ability to produce food in certain areas. This enabled them to get at the root causes of a cultural shift.

“There’s been a large body of literature in archaeology on past climates, but earlier studies were mostly only able to draw correlations between changes in climate and civilization,” said d’Alpoim Guedes in a statement. “What we’re showing in this work is exactly how changes in temperature and precipitation, over space and time, would have actually impacted people – by affecting what they could and couldn’t grow.”

According to the research, changing temperatures did not affect all places equally—with places at higher elevations and latitudes undergoing the biggest changes. This forced ancient farmers in the region to abandon previous crops like broomcorn and millet for more cold-tolerant crops like wheat and barley.

This transition was not painless, as historical records report of famines in the region, along with increased conflict as displaced persons moved to areas with more food and resources.

D’Alpoim Guedes and Bocinsky’s paper carries a positive title – “Climate change stimulated agricultural innovation and exchange across Asia” – but the co-authors also warn against a completely Pollyanna view.

“With global warming these long-lasting patterns of adaptation will begin to change in ways that are unpredictable,” said d’Alpoim Guedes, noting that humanity has had some 4,000 years to adjust to the cooler climate. “And there might not be the behavioral flexibility for this, given current politics around the world.”

“Crises are opportunities for culture change and innovation,” adds Bocinsky. “But the speed and scale of our current climate change predicament are different.”

This study—which uses the ancient past as a guide to the future—is the kind of cutting edge research that prompted the creation of The Research Institute at Crow Canyon. But it is only possible through the generous support of donors and program participants like you.

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