Plus ça change… Climate Change in the Paleolithic

Neolithic village, Lake of Constance, Germany


In a paper published last fall “Demographic dynamics between 5500 and 3500 years ago (3550–1550 BCE) in selected study regions of Central Europe and the role of regional climate influences” authored by Ralph Grossmann, Mara Weinelt, and Johannes Müller, the authors teased out some answers from the archeological record to the question of how human societies dealt with climate changes. On a local scale, they found that population trends respond to climate change. 

The waxing and waning of late Neolithic populations correlate with the ups and downs of temperatures.  During warmer and more humid periods, populations increased as foodstuffs became more abundant, whereas colder periods were accompanied by a dearth of edibles leading to population shrinkage.  These colder periods were times of ecological stress when the decline in the total population brought an increase in social inequality.”  he paper observes that “in the European Early Bronze Age, … archaeologists have shown that inequality is visible through differential access to burial structures and grave goods, and is also associated with unequal access to certain diets during lifetime.”

It is worth noting that this area of central Europe today has been experiencing above average increases in temperature for many years.  The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record, measuring 2.3 degrees Celsius, or more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit above the period 1961 – 1980.

The experience of these Neolithic people may foreshadow what will happen when we need to survive ever hotter summers. There may be a warning in this study for what may be in store for us as global warming causes a reduction in food production and an increase in diseases.

Ed Maurer

Großmann R, Weinelt M, Müller J (2023) Demographic dynamics between 5500 and 3500 calBP (3550–1550 BCE) in selected study regions of Central Europe and the role of regional climate influences. PLoS ONE 18(10): e0291956.