Opinion: perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from early societies is that communities whose members co-operate are more resilient

By Peter Griffith and Benjamin Gearey, UCC

The publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in August served up a stark reminder that human-made climate change is arguably the greatest risk facing the global community. Current record-breaking global temperatures place us in uncharted territory, but it is not the first time that humans have been put under pressure by climate change.

Our ancestors survived many large natural shifts in climate and also dispersed and eventually adapted to most terrestrial habitats on Earth. Part of our 'success', at least in evolutionary terms, is marked by the fact that other human species that lived at the same time as our ancestors, such as the Neanderthals, went extinct while we survived and thrived.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, Humans and Neanderthals had children together over 30,000 years ago, so some of us have Neanderthal DNA

Although we must be careful of drawing parallels between 'then' and ‘now’, we can shed light on the adaptations that helped our ancestors to overcome the challenges posed by climate instability by studying our prehistory. By doing so, we may also gain unique perspectives on how best to approach our very own climate emergency.

Fossil and genetic evidence tells us that our species, Homo sapiens, or 'anatomically modern humans', emerged roughly 300-200,000 years ago across Africa, where we lived in small-scale hunter-gatherer societies. Our ancestors survived at least two of the harshest, cold phases of previous ice ages when low-lying areas of Africa were drought-prone and extremely inhospitable. In Eastern Africa, for example, huge lakes, such as Lake Victoria, dried up completely.

While these harsh desert environments were clearly an obstacle to human ways of life, the archaeological record indicates that groups exploited a remarkable array of environments and plant and animal resources. This ability to ‘generalise’ would have been important in allowing our ancestors to maximise their returns from hunting and foraging, especially when resources became unpredictable as climate conditions shifted.

Modern humans used what archaeologists call 'Middle Stone Age' stone tool technology that first appeared around 320,000 years ago

However, being good ‘generalists’ was not the only string to our ancestor’s bow. Groups also developed highly specialised strategies and precisely crafted stone tools for exploiting important resources that required considerable organisation and planning. About 160,000 years ago, groups on the coast of South Africa systematically visited hazardous rocky shorelines to collect shellfish which are an important source of omega-3 fatty acids. Later, around 50,000 years ago, archaeological sites from the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia have shown that humans lived at high altitudes in a very resource-poor glaciated landscape by hunting giant-mole rats.

This ability to 'specialise' appears to have been important in allowing our ancestors to adapt quickly to new unfamiliar environments they encountered during migrations and when living in unforgiving habitats. Our efficiency in exploiting a range of resources and specialising as our circumstances changed may have given modern humans a slight evolutionary edge over closely related species, like the European Neanderthals and other contemporary members of the human lineage. The irony is our ability to extract resources from the environment has been left unchecked, creating the current climate predicament we find ourselves in.

Another important trait displayed by our ancestors which may have been crucial in our ancestors' survival and success is cooperation between far flung groups of hunter-gatherers. Recent archaeological work in Southern Africa has found that groups from the lowland interior some 60,000 years ago gave ostrich eggshells beads to groups up to 1,000 km away in highland areas of Lesotho. Gifting beads would have marked and strengthened relationships between these distant groups.

The expansion of arid desert habitats and shrinking of lakes during extremely dry and cold phases of past ice ages meant that humans sought refuge in areas such as the highlands of Eastern and Southern Africa.

While such extended social networks could have served multiple purposes (like arranging marriages), they appeared precisely when climate records show that the lowland interior was drought-stressed. This suggests these early ‘social networks’ acted as a system of reciprocal support that alleviated risk and ecological hardship. When times were tough, lowland groups could rely on those living in highland safe havens, or ‘refugia’, where rainfall was more stable, to shelter them and share their resources.

This decade is the first on record where climate-related emergencies have displaced more people than conflicts or wars. Once again, humanity is entering a period when the geography of refugia is expected to play a decisive role in the survival of many plants and animals, including the fortunes of climate migrants, across the globe. It isn't too late to avert the most severe fallouts of climate change - perhaps we can draw on our ancestor's success in withstanding similar hazards in the past? Our ability for specialisation can help us find innovative technical means of mitigating climate change, but we must be willing to practice the same levels of behavioural flexibility our ancestors did when we make the sustainable choices necessary to endure our climate crisis.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from early societies is that communities whose members co-operate are more resilient. Strong social cohesion is now more important than ever in a world where no nation or people are immune to environmental instability, but where those living in poverty are the most vulnerable. As ideological and political polarisation threatens to undermine the fabric of our global society, we should take stock of the fact that all humans share a common origin and a shared interest in safeguarding the planet.

Dr Peter Griffith is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at UCC. Dr Ben Geary is a Lecturer in Environmental Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at UCC.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ