Holocene

It has sometimes been claimed that the stable climate of the Holocene helped the transition from hunter gather to agriculturally based and later development of modern societies to occur. This line of thinking arose, at least in part, due to the almost complete lack of variability in Greenland ice core isotope records during the last 10,000 years as compared to the dramatic variability during earlier times (O Figure 12.6). The paradigm can be criticized in two important ways. First, and most importantly, people do not live in central Greenland and second, there is now ample evidence from both Greenland and other parts of the world that the Holocene has not been climatically stable at all (Mackay et al. 2003; Battarbee et al. 2004). In addition, there are good reasons to believe that climatic variability, not stability, might be expected to lead to changing societal structures.

We know, from well-dated quantitative paleorecords, that regional hydrolog-ical change during the Holocene has been extremely large. The extent of glaciation in the Swiss Alps, for example, has been highly variable during this time, including periods when the glaciers were substantially more restricted than today. Lake levels in much of semiarid Africa have risen and fallen by 100 m on similar timescales. These large, and often rapid, climatic changes had substantial impacts on human societies, even playing a role in the demise of several civilizations including the Mayan, Akkadian, and Greenland Norse. Societies, develop, adapt, and change in response to variability, not when ensconced in a cocoon of stability. Indeed, precisely societal change and adaptation are the presept requirement, in the face of global anthropogenic change.

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