Ancient Adaptations for Climate Change a Lesson for Today

The Jubbah Oasis today with modern farming on the desert floor. In the past, this area would have been a wetland and lake region. (Photo courtesy Palaeodeserts Project)

(CN) — Adapting to climate change is a survival strategy people have used for millennia and a study released Monday on adaptations made by humans on the Arabian Peninsula serves as a lesson for responding to climate change today.

In a study by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, researchers found ancient peoples across the arid Western Asian region covering the present-day countries of Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took a region-specific approach to adapting to climate change.

The study is the first detailed comparison of human-environment interactions across the Arabian Peninsula, a region scientists are zeroing in on in their research due to the significant risk it faces from climate change-triggered water stress today.

The study comes as the world grapples with strategies for dealing with present-day climate change and its future impacts, many of which are unpopular solutions due to possible negative economic consequences.

The California Coastal Commission, for example, has asked cities in its jurisdiction to plan for sea level rise mitigation strategies which can include measures such as beach sand replenishment or the most extreme option, managed retreat, which would be a last-resort option of relocating or abandoning coastal properties which become inundated by rising tides.

Some California cities, including the north San Diego County city of Del Mar, have refused to acknowledge they may need to employ managed retreat at some point in the future, despite scientific evidence it may be unavoidable as earth’s temperature continues to rise and melt polar ice caps causing rising sea levels.    

Scientists are looking to ancient civilizations to inform climate change adaptation strategies today.

The study found when the Arabian Peninsula saw a significant increase in rainfall 10,000 years ago, the expansion of lakes and vegetation supported human settlements in various regions across the peninsula. But extreme droughts the following millennia led to major ecosystem changes.

Large shallow aquifers and seasonal playas used in northern Arabia supported survival through changing climatic conditions, including several centuries-long droughts.

Desert oases supported human life, including one in what is now the city of Jubbah in Saudi Arabia. The presence of humans in the surrounding Nefud Desert was indicated at multiple times during the 9,000-year period, including in the discovery of the Jebel Oraf rock shelter on the fringes of the oasis.

A lakeside site with more than 170 hearths and remains from cattle also showed long-term habitation of the region.

Excavation of an ancient hearth at Jebel Oraf. Neolithic groups camped here alongside an ancient lakeshore, in some cases surviving through drought periods. (Photo courtesy Palaeodeserts Project)

The Jubbah oasis also supported human life during the “Dark Millennium,” an arid period lasting from 5,900 to 5,300 years ago during which much of the Arabian Peninsula was believed to be uninhabitable.

In an email, lead author Michael Petraglia said researchers were surprised archaeological sites in northern Arabia indicated people were able to live through the long drought.

He posited it was “probably because the region had a different rainfall regime in comparison to southeastern Arabia, and people were able to congregate in desirable areas which had playas and shallow lakes.”

He said technological innovations “were sometimes successful in the face of climatic changes.”

“It is also clear that at times, populations were under severe stress, and their health worsened, as evident in their skeletons,” Petraglia added.

In other regions of the north, people constructed walls around oases, built landscape features to capture water runoff and excavated wells.

“These finds indicate that the presence of extensive shallow aquifers, in combination with high population mobility, water management strategies and economic transformation, provided opportunities for the long-term survival of north Arabian populations,” researcher Huw Groucutt said in a statement.

In the southeastern region of the Arabian Peninsula, which had fewer groundwater sources, droughts directly correlated with dramatic social change, according to the study.

A climatic downturn following the Holocene Humid Phase, lasting from 8,200 to 8,000 years ago, is believed to have caused a shift from a hunting and gathering society to domesticated animal herding.

Subsequent droughts from 7,500 to 7,200 years ago and 6,500 to 6,300 years ago correspond with declines in human occupation of the interior desert as well as the development of herder and fisher communities on the coast.

A maritime trade network between Arabian pastoralists and agricultural communities in Mesopotamia was also established during periods of drought.

Even though people migrated away from the desert interior to the gulf coast, coastal populations still felt the effects of strained resources during the droughts, and experienced poor overall health.

Arranged bones from the dugong, a marine mammal, excavated on the island of Akab in the United Arab Emirates, suggest consumption of food may have been ritualized in response to food scarcity, according to the study.

Petraglia warned that while previous civilizations could relocate to more temperate climates during extreme weather events such as droughts, people today have less mobility to respond to climate change.

“For millennia, moving away from hard-hit regions was the main human response to severe climate downturns,” Petraglia said.

“But with growing population sizes and an increasing investment in place, options for human mobility have decreased over time. In the same way, the rapid depletion of aquifers in recent years highlights the need for sustainable solutions to meet environmental challenges.”

Policymakers must develop technological solutions to mitigate against future crises involving increased temperatures and flash flooding, Petraglia added.

The team published its findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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