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Maybe climate change isn't so bad after all? Study shows prehistoric humans benefitted technologically from climate change

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Climate change hasn't been all bad, according to a new study released in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers studying human development in South Africa have learned that climate change promoted human development.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A new study reveals that periods of primitive human development occurred in concert with periods of rapid climate change.

The study examined human development during the Middle Stone Age, from about 280,000 to 30,000 years ago. According to the research, there were bursts of development which coincided with sudden shifts in climate. 

Two distinct periods were noted, the first 71,500 years ago and the second between 64,000 and 59,000 years ago.

Innovations that occurred during these periods were the development of complex language, engraving, the manufacture, and use of modern-style, sophisticated tools, including bone tools, and the use of jewelry.

While these developments might seem primitive, as they are, they represent monumental shifts in human thinking and ways of doing things.

Climate change was one variable these periods of development had in common. Co-author of the study, Martin Ziegler of the Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, told AFP that "We show for the first time that the timing of... these periods of innovation coincided with abrupt climate change."

"We found that South Africa experienced wetter conditions during these periods of cultural advance. At the same time, large parts of sub-Saharan Africa experienced drier conditions, so that South Africa potentially acted as a refugium for early humans."

Zeigler's team reconstructed ancient regional climate records based on sediment cores drilled across the east coast of South Africa. The cores reveal changes in climate including variations in rainfall and river outflow.

The team found that changes which included abrupt cooling in the northern hemisphere, made the Sahara region into a desert but also made South Africa much wetter. As people migrated south to live in more hospitable climes, they mingled with native inhabitants and probably exchanged ideas. This promoted development.

However, development in some areas also stopped, and disappeared altogether, and those stops appear to be linked to changes in the climate. Those stops remain unexplained.

Zeigler said, "Additional genetic evidence suggests that the appearance of industries occurred when the total number of humans on the planet was actually very small. On one hand we had a restricted number of humans, and on the other we had a very small habitable area and maybe the combination of these factors made the development and spread of new techniques easier. That may have been an important factor, but we cannot say for sure yet how the climate change we observe actually caused the appearance of cultural innovations."

"It offers for the first time the possibility to compare the archaeological record with a record of climate change over the same period and thus helps us to understand the origins of modern humans," Ziegler said.

Scientists already understand that climate changes and it affects human development. This study could have implications for modern society as well. The study suggests that climate change drives human migration patterns as people seek out better places and climates in which to live. These migrations can spur development and innovations in some cases, but in more modern times with much larger populations, mass migrations are more likely to upset established orders.

Regardless of the consequences, climate is dynamic and changes and the best humans can do is adapt to it, for better or worse.

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