Introduction

In 2004, three major hurricanes crossed Polk County, Florida. Local people's lives were changed in dramatic and memorable ways. The events were also felt on a national scale, affecting a number of large institutions such as the federal government and the insurance industry. From the perspective of residents of Polk County, 2004 was a remarkable climatic year. But from the temporal perspective of centuries, or the spatial perspective of the entire planet, this series of events is an insignificant footnote.

For most of human history, individuals and societies have experienced climate on local space scales and timescales of a few generations at most. These scales of human perception of climate are very different from those inherent to the climate system itself. The climate system is globally interconnected and varies on all timescales, with the most energetic variations on timescales of 100,000 years and longer. In part as a result of this disparity of scales, understanding the influence of climate on the evolution of Homo sapiens and the development of human societies is not an easy task. However, it is unquestionable that enormous climatic changes occurred on the timescales of human evolution and societal development and, at times, played a role in these processes.

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This chapter focuses primarily on past climatic variability during the Quaternary including both reconstructions of past climate variability and some hypotheses seeking to explain the dynamics of this variability. In light of the likely interests of readers of this paleoanthropological handbook, a few examples of interactions between past climate variability and human societies are highlighted. The chapter begins with a brief discussion of the climate of the Plio-Pleistocene, followed by discussion of Quaternary ice ages, millennial scale variability, abrupt climate change, and the Holocene. It concludes with some speculative comments on lessons for modern day concerns that can perhaps be drawn from investigations of past climatic variability and its influence on humans.

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