Learning from our ancestors – how early humans worked together to survive a changing climate &

If Yellowstone was to erupt tomorrow, America might not make it through the night. Yellowstone is a super volcano that erupts roughly every 650,000 years; the last eruption was 640,000 years ago. So while it is not “overdue” for an eruption as some conspiracy theorists may think, there is one on the way. This could spell disaster for the continent. Last time, 1000 cubic km of rock, dust and volcanic ash was blown into the sky, blocking the light from plants, catastrophically polluting the air and massively changing the climate. This spelt disaster for the animals living there at the time and could again if it were to erupt.

But would this mean the end for human kind? Not if we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Around 40,000 years ago, Southern Italy had its own super eruption in the volcanic Phlegraean fields and archaeologists have been studying a site in Liguria to see how we were affected by this. Humans had only been in this area for about 1000 years before this event occurred. It would have changed their climate and possibly other aspects such as the food available and air and water quality.

Researchers believe that this change in climate is what drove the Neanderthals out of this area. Current theories suggest that they were not especially capable of adapting and would not have survived well in a suddenly new environment.

But regardless of how well Neanderthals coped, it seems some humans survived and even flourished in these conditions. It appears that their tactic was to maintain links between groups. The evidence for this is on the Italian site. Tools, ornaments and human remains from an ancient rock shelter were analysed and it was found that some of the flint they were using came from hundreds of kilometres away. Having this network would mean that knowledge of how to cope in different situations and habitats would be shared between the groups. When the climate did change, due to a super-eruption or other conditions, the information on how to survive in an unfamiliar environment would already be available.

We can apply this theory to our communities in modern day. By learning from each other we can share the knowledge of how to cope with changes in our climate. Globalisation has increased our capacity for this, so instead of hundreds of kilometres, we can gain knowledge from our networks across the world. We can learn how to build houses on the water from the Pacific Islands, we can learn how to make the most of a limited water supply from Singapore. Why spend time creating novel solutions when the perfect one may already be in place somewhere else on the globe?

If a super eruption occurs and dramatically changes our climate, or even if we continue to change the climate ourselves, we will need to be able to adapt to make our lives sustainable and to be able to endure the changes. By networking, by sharing our knowledge, we can follow in the lives of our ancestors and survive whatever this world throws at us.

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