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Climate change and hunter gatherers in Ireland

In today’s blog on Climate and Society in Ireland Graeme Warren reviews evidence for the potential impact of climate change on the earliest human settlement of Ireland.

Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 1, Graeme Warren (University College Dublin) reviews evidence for the potential impact of climate change on the earliest human settlement of Ireland.

Chapter 1 explores the relationship between climate change and the timing, character and extent of the settlement of Ireland by hunter-gatherers. This includes material from two geological epochs: recently identified evidence for Upper Palaeolithic activity in the Late Glacial period of the Pleistocene, and the more substantial evidence for Mesolithic activity in the Holocene. At one level, the influence of climate change on this topic is profound: the archaeological period names are themselves products of our understanding of climate change, with the shift from the Pleistocene to Holocene at 11,700 cal BP often seen as the transition from the Upper Palaeolithic to Mesolithic. However, whilst a very broad relationship between climate change and the timing of human colonisation of Ireland by hunter-gatherers can be identified, understanding how this influenced hunter-gatherers once the island was settled is not clear. The lack of data with appropriate resolution to examine this relationship is a key problem.

Understanding the relationship between climate change and human social transformations is one of archaeology’s ‘grand challenges’, potentially allowing the discipline to make a contribution to our understanding of one of the major existential crises facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Claiming that an understanding of how climate change affected small-scale societies 10,000 years ago may help us identify strategies and possibilities for responding to the impacts of anthropogenically driven climate change on an industrialised world in the present may seem far-fetched, but understanding the varied human responses to climate change is of great significance in a world where many still deny anthropogenic climate change, or find difficulty in responding to it meaningfully due to the apparently overwhelming scale of the challenge.

It is also important to recognise that contemporary hunting and gathering communities are amongst the most vulnerable to the effects of anthropogenically driven climate change. This is not because hunting and gathering groups are less resilient in the face of change, or less able to adapt their routines. An enormous body of work has demonstrated that hunter-gatherer societies are not solely products of their environment, but are the outcome of dynamic histories of change in forms of belief and tradition as well as expressions of agency within particular environments, which in turn shape those environments. Rather, today’s hunter-gatherers are especially vulnerable because they often live in environments where the effects of climate change are more marked, such as the Arctic. For such groups, changing climates and environments are having profound effects not just on the distribution of resources, but also on the ability to sustain traditions, customs and world views. It is for this reason that climate change presents an existential challenge. Their identities are bound to the places they inhabit and formed through routines of movement and practice. Simply moving or changing their ways of life is not an easy response, as it may mean the end of their traditional cultures. On this basis, over a decade ago the Inuit Circumpolar Conference argued that because climate change was leading to a loss of identity it was an infringement of their human rights.

Understanding the impact of climate change on past hunter-gatherers therefore provides an important contribution to a key problem. Ireland should be well placed to contribute to such debates, not least because it is an island in an ecologically marginal position at the north-western extremity of Europe. Ireland’s north Atlantic position also means that it should be sensitive to changes in oceanic thermohaline circulation, often considered a key contributor to Holocene climate change. Ireland has been an island since c. 16,000 cal BP8 and this island status is associated with a limited diversity of plants and animals. This may have augmented the effects of climate change in Ireland because of the greater vulnerability of an ecosystem with fewer components. Interdisciplinary work to examine the question of the comparative ecological complexity and resilience of early Holocene Ireland is a compelling need. Thus Ireland should provide an important case study of the relationship between climate change and hunter-gatherers. Unfortunately, as will be demonstrated in this paper, notwithstanding this potential, problems of data resolution mean this cannot be realised at present.

To continue reading, purchase Climate and Society in Ireland.