How climate changes created agriculture

The “Younger Dryas” is a period of global cooling, followed by a global warming, 12.000 years ago. As temperatures shifted, humans had to adapt, they invented agriculture.

We had left the Last Glacial Maximum around 19,000 BC and the average temperatures around the globe were mostly heading upwards, untill the “Younger Dryas” event kicked in. This glacial period lasted nearly 1,500 years, from 10,900 BC to 9,700 BC, and was caused, among others, by the melting of the Laurentian ice barrier. For a century, a frozen freshwater river, with a flow greater than that of the Amazon, flowed eastward, south of Greenland.

At this time, the “Natufians” territory would have encompassed Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. Like most Sapiens, they were a people of hunter-gatherers. As the climate got colder following the glaciers melting, their usual prey became scarce. During the cataclysmic 9,500 BC rewarming, Natufians would become farmers and create the most fantastic civilization of their time.

During the Younger Dryas glaciation, they lived in dense forests. Picking was abundant. The only rule was to protect, or even replant, sprouts of any valuable plant. They moved regularly from one bivouac to another, following their prey habits. But as the temperatures went up again, the climate in the Mediterranean area was changing at full speed. In two generations, it had gone from “cold and wet” to “hot and dry”. The dense forests dried out, as did rivers. When they were not dying of thirst, animals would migrate. Men used to hunt bears a lot, with a net, in dense forests. That was not an option anymore.

As the drought set in and the forest cleared up, the Natufian women had noticed that the wild grains were growing more and more. This brilliant observation saved their people from starvation. The Natufian women left with their baskets for long days to pick grains. Then they had the idea of sowing them close to their habitats. Those were the first fields. They invented the sickle, a balanced and efficient tool. They discovered that burning stubble enriched the earth, used fibers braiding to make baskets, and learned how to carve stone to make suitable mortars. They planted forests of pistachio trees in rows. In each natural hollow, they placed a fig tree. They even watered it as we have found only rotten leaves at their feet, proving that those were continuously wet places, which allowed record harvests. These two fruits’ choice owes nothing to chance: dried in the sun, they keep from one year to the next and are very nourishing.

Within a few generations, during a violent climate change, the Natufian people had devised a way to protect themselves from hunger. It is generally considered that the Natufians are the first civilization. They mark the passage of men in the Neolithic period. However, the same southward shift of the monsoon, at the end of the Younger Dryas, allowed the emergence of two other civilizations, on the other side of the world. They chose exactly the same solution to protect themselves from hunger: domesticate plants. The Natufians selected fruit trees, the Mexicans of Rio Balsas began to hybridize vegetables and shrubs, the Chinese of the Yangtze Valley grafted trees to obtain big nourishing fruits.

The same pattern has been found throughout history. Any dramatic change in temperature, or rainfall patterns, changes the way humans live. The solutions vary according to the environmental impact and the cultural filter. Each time, a new dominant civilization emerged.

Founding Disasters, book about the history of climate and humans.

Extracts from:

Founding Disasters, by Christophe Olivier

ePub/PDF – 8
Cover picture : “Cells” by Agata Orlowska, Cc by-nc 4.0

What’s happening to our climate ? How fast is it changing, what should we expect ? “When you don’t know where you’re going“, goes the Wolof proverb, “look where you’re coming from“. So let us look!

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