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Climate change survival tips from Neolithic seal hunters


Archaeologists excavate the remains of a 3,500-year-old house north of Oulu, Finland, to learn how Neolithic people adapted to a rapidly changing landscape. (Kierikki Stone Age Center)

It is early fall, but blue-gray ice already fringes the coast. Within weeks, most of the Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost arm of the Baltic Sea, will be frozen solid. My stop to admire the view lasts only a few minutes before the sub-zero temperatures make my fingers and toes tingle.

Seven thousand years ago, Scandinavia had thrown off the last of its glaciers. Despite being four degrees warmer than today, the Gulf of Bothnia still froze over every winter, attracting thousands of seals that came to give birth and nurse their pups on the ice. For people living here, this gathering of seals not only provided food and clothing, but also a rich variety of trade goods. The seal meat and skin were valuable, as was the fat that could be rendered into waterproofing wax or oil for lamps—goods important to the Neolithic economy. But despite this bounty, subtle changes in the environment often threatened to tip the balance from prosperity to poverty, triggering immense cultural changes in just a few decades.

I have traveled south from the Finnish city of Rovaniemi, where I have been attending a conference on the ways that ancient Arctic cultures adapted to changing environments and what the future holds for modern people in the region. At the conference, two talkative archaeologists, Andre Costopoulos, from McGill University in Montreal, and Ezra Zubrow, from the University at Buffalo, presented a new theory that connects the development of Neolithic societies to the rate of environmental change. In northern Finland and elsewhere in the Arctic, they found that social development sped up when people gathered in places where environmental change was slow. I've come to see the evidence with my own eyes.

Clusters of villages show this region, just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, was surprisingly well populated from 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. Amber and flint artifacts found in these villages show they were part of long-distance trade networks, with some goods coming from more than 600 miles away.

The rise of this industrious coastal culture, based on trading prized seal products, has been attributed to a 2,000-year-long warm climate phase, sometimes known as the "Great Stone Age Summer," and its fall, about 4,000 years ago, to the arrival of a cooler phase. "We show that it just ain't that simple," says Zubrow. Instead, he has shown that landscape stability played a vital role in cultural innovation. Furthermore, this theory appears to hold true in other regions of the world.

Kate Ravilious is a science writer based in York, England.