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Climate and People in the Prehistoric Arctic

Robert McGhee


Did past changes in climates have major effects on human history? The question has been argued for a century or more, with numerous specific cases used as examples: the end of the Harappan civilization in northern India about 2200 BC, the fall of Mycenaean Greece about 1200 BC, and the rise of the great highland empires of the Andes. At a more distant time, it was proposed that the "bracing" semi-arctic climates of Ice Age Europe produced human populations that were world leaders in both biological and cultural development.

The apparent European lead in development turned out to be merely a product of the large amount of archaeology carried out in Europe as compared with other areas. It is now apparent that the Ice Age inhabitants of most of the Old World were developing in much the same way at the same time. In each of the other cases examined, the evidence of a climatic effect on human history is not conclusive. Since the last Ice Age, climatic change has been relatively small changes of a few degrees in mean annual temperature, or of a few centimetres in mean annual precipitation. At the same time, human populations have developed complex methods of dealing with and adapting to changes in their environment: altenng agricultural habits, trading with neighbouring peoples to obtain necessary resources, and invading neighbouring lands for the same reason. In most cases, archaeology is simply not capable of detecting whether or not a specific instance of social or technological change in the past was a response to changes in the climate or the environment.

It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies.

–William O. Douglas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1952

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