caveman crop lego

Climate change is a helluva thing to live through. But humanity’s ability to cope and survive during past periods of climatic upheaval might have been what inspired species-advancing leaps in culture and innovation.

New research published last week in the journal Nature Communications links some of our ancestors’ greatest cultural advances during the Middle Stone Age to periods of tremendous tumult in the climate. The findings suggest climate change helped get our African ancestors off their butts and thrust them off on quests to explore the greater world.

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The Middle Stone Age, which began roughly 280,000 years ago and ended perhaps 30,000 years ago, was a momentous time in our history. During this period, Homo sapiens developed modern bodies and brains, and began an epic march out of Africa to inaugurate a worldwide diaspora. This migration begat cave paintings, advanced stone tools, and a cultural revolution that would eventually deliver us to the globalized, Twitter-connected, Monsanto-dominated, mountaintop-removing, solar-panel-using, electric-car-driving world we recognize today.

A team of scientists led by researchers from Cardiff University compared studies of Earth’s prehistoric climate record with archaeological discoveries from territorial expansions in South Africa during the Middle Stone Age. Evidence of leaps in technology included caches of jewelry, tools made from bones and stones, and paintings of early symbols (which were the precursors to language).

The scientists reported finding a “striking correspondence” between these archaeological highlights and the known periods of abrupt climate change. That correspondence, the scientists wrote, “suggests that the well-known major progressions in the development of modern humans” can be linked with “intervals of abrupt climate change.” From the journal paper:

Abrupt Northern Hemisphere cooling events and the associated major shifts in tropical climate dynamics led to extended droughts in large parts of the African continent, which potentially repeatedly bottlenecked early human populations elsewhere. However, conversely, the same abrupt cooling also created favourable humid ‘refugial’ conditions in southern Africa, which along with the highly diverse vegetation and a rich coastal ecosystem, would have combined to provide ample resources for early human expansion. …

Such climate-driven pulses in southern Africa and more widely were probably fundamental to the origin of key elements of modern human behaviour in Africa, and to the subsequent dispersal of Homo sapiens from its ancestral homeland.

What does that discovery say about us today? It’s hardly apples-to-oranges: The climatic changes identified by the researchers were mostly friendly for the ancient, scattered communities that were studied. As favorable conditions receded, new technologies also faded. But here we are by comparison, 6 billion people and counting, staring down weather that seems more angry and destructive than anything we’ve faced yet. But we have advantages that our ancestors did not enjoy: We are beginning to understand the workings of climate, and we could work together to slow down the rate at which it changes.

One of the authors of the study, Ian Hall of Cardiff University, penned some of his own reflections on this in a post in The Conversation:

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt from this, given the situation in which we find ourselves now. Once more humans face rapid, potentially disastrous climate change. Our ancestors were probably reduced to a fairly small number, but dealt with the situation with communication, collaboration and invention.

It is these three qualities that would eventually make us the most successful species on the planet, and it is these three qualities that we must rely on to help us tackle our modern climate crisis.

During this period of anthropogenic global warming, we could collectively adapt once again. Instead of stone tools and distant migration, we’ll need to develop new urban design principles, renewable energy systems, and ways of feeding ourselves. In the process, we could end up propelling humanity to new levels of greatness. All of which sounds way better than the alternative. You’ll have to ask the dinosaurs about that one.