Rise and fall of societies linked to climatic conditions

10/14/2015 - Societies seem to have been rising and falling with the stability of climatic conditions, a new study indicates. Published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A of London, scientists of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the Pennsylvania State University in the United States analyzed 2000 year old climate records of Mexican and Andean highlands and compared them to historic records. The results indicate that persistently volatile climatic conditions can contribute to the collapse of preindustrial agrarian states.
Rise and fall of societies linked to climatic conditions

“Our data analysis shows that the formation, consolidation and breakdown of preindustrial agrarian states correspond strongly with the climatic conditions throughout their history”, Norbert Marwan of the Potsdam Institute says. Depending on the predictability of weather, the formation of regional agricultural societies was favored in stable climatic regimes. “In contrast, the economic uncertainty associated with highly volatile climatic regimes makes it difficult for individuals or institutions to determine the costs and benefits of one agricultural strategy over another. Highly volatile climatic conditions therefore stimulated political decentralization, scarcity and conflict”, Marwan explains.

While there has been previous research on the response of societies to changes in climate with regard to drying trends and droughts, the researchers investigated for the first time how climatic volatility in general affected preindustrial agrarian societies. Using climate data gained from a stalagmite collected deep within Juxtlahuaca Cave in the Mexican highlands of Guerrero and the Quelccaya icecap located in the Cordillera Vilcanota in Peru, they found that the episodic state formation and decline in the Mexican and Andean highlands within the last 2000 years corresponded with the stability or volatility of climatic conditions.

Their researcher’s results are published in a special edition with the title “Responding and Adapting to Climate Change: Uncertainty as Knowledge”. “Climate change may be only one of many factors causing changes in the state of whole civilizations, nonetheless our results show that instabilities and extremes provoked by global warming have the potential to affect society at large”, Marwan says.


Article: Kennett, D.J., Marwan, N.(2015): Climate volatility, agricultural uncertainty, and the formation, consolidation and breakdown of preindustrial agrarian states. Philosophical Transactions A. [DOI:10.1098/rsta.2014.0458]

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Link to the Special Issue "Responding and Adapting to Climate change: Uncertainty as Knowledge":