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To what extent did climate change steer the trajectories of early societies?

In today’s blog on Climate and Society in Ireland, Lisa Coyle McClung and Gill Plunkett review cultural change and the climate record in final prehistoric and early medieval 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 6, Lisa Coyle McClung and Gill Plunkett (both from Queen’s University Belfast) evaluate whether climate change may have played a role in altering the socio-economic or political framework in final prehistoric and early medieval Ireland.

There is a frequent, if often implicit, tendency to assume that cultural transitions of past societies were environmentally-driven and that climatic deteriorations, through their detrimental effects on the environment and subsistence economy, were the main agents of cultural decline. This environmentally-deterministic theory is often considered over and above other more intrinsic factors such as socio-political or economic turmoil. Climate does assert an important influence on the success and productivity levels of farming economies, but the relationship between climate and culture is not straightforward. Various complex influences—including social structure, technology and resources—will determine whether a community is sufficiently resilient to adapt and flourish at times of climate change or if it will collapse into crisis. Even when the occurrence of past climate changes can be substantiated, establishing a temporal correlation— much less a causal link—between climate and cultural change is fraught with difficulties, given the chronological uncertainties that frequently beset both the archaeological and palaeoclimate records.

Typically, environmentally deterministic models of past cultural change have focused on the impact climate change exerted on the subsistence base. Such a premise lends itself to testing through an examination of the palynological record. Landscape manipulation has long been associated with the subsistence economies of past populations and the pollen record can highlight key transitions in agricultural management. Simply put, the pollen record provides insight into the nature and intensity of farming in the past, though interpretation of the data can be complex. Ideally, pollen and palaeoclimate reconstructions from the same sedimentary sequence enable the relative timing of past climate and landuse changes to be identified unequivocally. Few such studies have yet been undertaken, however, perhaps partly due to a lack of interdisciplinary engagement.

The end of the prehistoric era (the Developed to Late Iron Age) and the dawn of the historic (early medieval) period in Ireland feature several culturally distinct developments within the archaeological record, including ‘periods of much building’, changes in settlement types and patterns, and changes in economic practices. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes have been attributed by some to climate fluctuations that at times benefitted, and at times undermined, social development. This chapter explores the likelihood of environmentally- driven cultural change in Ireland during the Developed to Late Iron Age and early medieval period by (i) reviewing archaeological evidence for cultural developments during these times that have been attributed to climate variability; (ii) evaluating palaeoclimate records from Ireland to identify potential climate events and transitions; and (iii) examining pollen records to identify if cultural or palaeoclimate changes coincided with variations in subsistence economy.

To continue reading, purchase Climate and Society in Ireland.