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The Younger Dryas period

As we prepare to enter the next phase of the fight against climate change -- the phase in which we actually start to do something, on the federal and international levels, with real money and real emissions reductions -- it's worth thinking about what happened the last time humanity went through a period of rapid climate change, which was the Younger Dryas period.

We still don't fully understand all of the details, but the Younger Dryas was clearly a rough period of time. Many species of large mammals went extinct, which was presumably a major problem for the human populations that survived by hunting them. This was one of the greatest periods of danger our species went through since the advent of behavioral modernity. Different groups tried different things, and some of the things they tried worked.

At one point in the video, it mentions the Natufian people of the Levant. The Natufians were hunter gatherers who experimented with a new form of social organization, in which they stayed in the same area and increasingly managed the landscape around them. The Natufians invented such timeless classics as bread and beer, which they made out of wild grains. The Younger Dryas may have forced them to take an even more active role in managing their environment. Their descendants continued to develop these techniques, ultimately inventing agriculture.

The other day, I was reading a discussion about whether the Natufians might have been the origin of the Afro-Asiatic language family. According to this theory, after their descendants invented agriculture, they spread out throughout the Sahara, which was verdant grasslands at the time, and became many tribes. Some tribes settled around Lake Chad, and became the ancestors of the Hausa. Others stayed in the northern part of the Sahara, even after it became a desert, and became the Berbers. Still others settled along the Nile, and became the ancient Egyptians. And another group ended up in the Middle East and became the Semites, who later diversified into the Babylonians, the Hebrews, and the Arabs. In a way, the sudden climate change associated with the Younger Dryas was the impetus that ultimately gave rise to modern civilization.

The opportunity before us today is probably not quite that big, but it is still an opportunity. We're faced with major challenges, and in responding to them, we will shape the world our descendants come to inhabit.

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