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Professor Dominik Fleitmann – University of Reading

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  • Climate and human societies: a historic relationship

    Professor Dominik Fleitmann establishes firm links between climatic change and profound societal transformation

Professor Dominik Fleitmann

By documenting how past humans and societies responded to changes in their environment, archaeologists can provide a deeper understanding of how people managed – or failed to cope with – different climatic and environmental conditions. Understanding these climate-induced societal transformations in the recent and distant past holds important clues about how we can best respond to current and even future climatic changes.

Reading Archaeology Professor Dominik Fleitmann's research covers climate-human relationships spanning three million years, looking at the impact of climate and environmental change on human evolution, migration and major socio-economic transformations.

“Though the past is not a perfect analogue for the future, it can nevertheless reveal links between climate, migration, and the socio-economic impacts of migration. I think we could call our species Homo migrans since our long evolutionary and societal history is characterized by frequent movements of people. This ranges from the "Out of Africa" movement approximately 2 million years ago, to modern migration – and climate was often a crucial contributing factor.”

Professor Dominik Fleitmann

Dominik's research aims to develop high-quality palaeoenvironmental records from natural climate archives, such as stalagmites and lake sediments, from across the world. These reveal the pattern of abrupt and persistent climatic changes on timescales ranging from millennia to years. The recent analytical and technological advances allow researchers like Dominik to develop near-instrumental records of past climates, which are of great value when interpreting archaeological and historical evidences of societal change.

They also help establish firm, causal links between climatic changes and profound societal transformations.

For example:

  • The beginning of farming in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago coincided with a strong increase in precipitation.
  • The migration period during the 4th and 6th centuries AD, and struggles of the western Roman empire, were most likely triggered by colder and wetter climatic conditions in Europe.
  • The prosperous and rapidly growing European population during medieval times occurred at a time of generally warmer and more stable climatic conditions.

Now, environmental factors are much more likely to be considered alongside social factors when looking at cultural transformations; perhaps just as importantly, the interaction between the two factors also plays a significant role.

A MODERN APPROACH TO HISTORICAL DATA

However, this is still a relatively new area of research.

In order to establish firmer links between climate and societies, researchers needed high-quality climate reconstructions, rather than the standard records that they typically had access to.

These reconstructions require a number of pieces of information: when a climatic event happened, how abrupt the change was, the duration of the change, and the direction of change, such as a dryer or wetter climate, or colder or warmer temperatures.

“It's like high-resolution or low-resolution pictures – you can see much more detail when you zoom in on a high-resolution picture. This was the main prerequisite to comparing climate reconstructions with historical archaeological data.”

Professor Dominik Fleitmann

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM HISTORICAL MIGRATION

Firm causal links illustrate how environmental change can lead to migration or even destabilise countries. But they also illustrate societies' resilient adaptation strategies, such as irrigation systems and significant technological advances.

“A better understanding on how societies responded to changes in their environment improves our knowledge about future societal changes. Migration, for instance, is so common in our long history, and we do not live in isolation – we are still very closely connected to our environment, and we can't ignore it. Climatic catastrophes can happen 3,000 kilometres away and still affect us. A series of severe droughts in Syria, for instance, was a major contributing factor for the outbreak of the civil war in Syria; several hundred thousand people migrated to Syria's cities where social tensions began to rise until the conflict started.”

Professor Dominik Fleitmann

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