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11,000 years ago our ancestors survived major climate change

As humanity faces the reality of a changing climate, we may be able to look to our ancient ancestors for insights on how to adapt. 

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Some 11,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in what is now the United Kingdom found ways to survive a cold front that lasted a century. Researchers studying a Middle Stone Age site named Star Carr in North Yorkshire, England published their findings in Nature Ecology & Evolution  last month, revealing how these ancient humans adapted to the major environmental change.

"The population at Star Carr, some of the earliest people to recolonize Britain after the last ice age, must have been highly resilient to climate instability, capable of persevering and maintaining a stable society in spite of these environmental stresses," Ian Candy, study author and professor of geography at the Royal Holloway University of London's Centre for Quaternary Research, told CNN.

Our ancient ancestors were forced to survive a harsher and less stable climate than we generally experience today, according to paleoclimatologists who study climates of the past. Such dramatic changes often forced communities to either move or die.

During the cold spells discussed in this newly published research, average temperatures dropped by as much as 10 degrees. Despite this significant dip, the inhabitants of Star Carr were able to survive and continue to thrive.

"It has been argued that abrupt climatic events may have caused a crash in Mesolithic populations in Northern Britain, but our study reveals, that at least in the case of the pioneering colonizers at Star Carr, early communities were able to cope with extreme and persistent climate events," Simon Blockley, Professor of Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway said in a media release.

Within the U.K., Star Carr is one of the most important archaeological sites, according to Science Alert. It was first discovered in the 1940s and is home Britain's earliest house as well as some of the oldest carpentry ever discovered in Europe.

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When digging at the site, researchers expected to find evidence that the community had struggled significantly during cooling periods 9,300 and 11,100 years ago. However, what they discovered was precisely the opposite.

Although the community's activity appears to have decreased somewhat during the first cold front, it pulled through without major problems. During the second period, it appears the ancient humans were able to carry on with minimal impact on their habits.

Putting the conclusions into perspective, Candy said they "really change the way that we think about the interaction between prehistoric societies and climate change."

"These hunter-gatherers had a lot of skills and knowledge of how to use the natural resources. They could make shelters and houses and hunt, fish and collect plant materials. It must have been a lot colder and harsher conditions to live in but they had structures and used fires to keep warm." 

Some experts suggest that looking to our ancient ancestors adaptability can provide insights to us today, as we face other severe changes to the climate.

"Such analyses of past climate-society dynamics can illuminate where and why problems emerged or successes occurred in response to abrupt climatic changes, such as this case at Star Carr," Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the new research, told CNN.

"The depth of archaeological and climatic evidence presented in this study takes us in a positive step to show how societies adjust in the face of abrupt climatic change. It also sets up the next level of research to probe decision-making and cause-effect dynamics, allowing researchers to go beyond the correlation of events (climate change and societal change) and toward causal explanations for how and why societies persevere in the face of climate change."

At the same time, researchers caution that there are major differences between society then and now.

"Studies of this kind show correlation much better than they reveal causation, so it's difficult to know how exactly the people of Star Carr successfully endured even the most extreme climate changes," Dagomar Degroot, professor of environmental history at Georgetown University and co-founder of the Climate History Network, who was not involved in the study, said.

"Still, these dramatic results suggest that, in the wake of the great Ice Ages, past climate changes rarely determined the course of human history in a straightforward way. In my opinion, this article has great significance for our understanding of anthropogenic global warming."

Observing how our ancestors survived these ancient environmental shifts can also provide a bit of hope as the scientific community warns of the impending problems due to modern-day climate change.

A recent study by the World Bank predicted that more than 143 million people will be displaced by 2050 in just three developing regions of the world, forced to move within their countries to escape climate-related issues. In December, a major scientific study suggested that the worst-case predictions regarding the effects of global warming are the most likely to be true.

Similar dire predictions led more than 15,000 scientists from around the world to sign an open letter warning that quick and drastic actions should be undertaken by society to address the threat of climate change. The open letter, which was released last year, argued that "soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory." Scientists warned that "time is running out" for humanity to address the crisis.

Read the full study at Nature.com.

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