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Rapid climate change 8200 years ago forced humans to cooperate and develop more complex social systems

Location of Lake Onega and the Mesolithic cemetery Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov

Location of Lake Onega and the Mesolithic cemetery Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov
Image Credit: Christian Leipe

Lake Onega on a calm September day

Lake Onega on a calm September day
Image Credit: Natalia Kostromina

News from Feb 01, 2022

New insight into how our early ancestors dealt with major shifts in climate is revealed in the Nature ecology & evolution paper by an international team of researchers from the UK (Oxford University’s School of Archaeology), Germany (Section of Palaeontology, FU Berlin), Russia (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences), Finland (Department of Cultures, University of Helsinki), USA (Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, University of Michigan) and Canada (Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta).

New radiocarbon dates show that the large Early Holocene cemetery of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov (YOO) at Lake Onega, in Northwest Russia (see map), previously thought to have been in use for many centuries, was in fact used for only one to two centuries. Moreover, this seems to be in response to a period of climate stress.

The team believes the creation of the cemetery reveals a social response to the stresses caused by regional resource depression. At a time of climate change, Lake Onega, as the second largest lake in Europe, had its own ecologically resilient microclimate. This would have attracted game, including elk, to its shores while the lake itself would have provided a productive fishery. Because of the fall in temperature, many of the region’s shallower lakes could have been susceptible to the well-known phenomenon of winter fish kills, caused by depleted oxygen levels under the ice.

The creation of the cemetery at the site would have helped define group membership for what would have been previously dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers - mitigating potential conflict over access to the lake’s resources.

The behavioural changes - to what could be seen as a more ‘complex’ social system, with abundant grave offerings – were situation-dependent. But they suggest the presence of important decision makers and, say the team, the findings also imply that early hunting and gathering communities were highly flexible and resilient.

The results have implications for understanding the context for the emergence and dissolution of socioeconomic inequality and territoriality under conditions of socio-ecological stress.

Radiocarbon dating of the human remains and associated animal remains at the site reveals that the main use of the cemetery spanned between 100-300 years, centring on ca. 8250 to 8000 BP. This coincides remarkably closely with the 8.2 ka dramatic cooling event, so this site could provide evidence for how these humans responded to a climate-driven environmental change.

 For more information see: Schulting, R.J., Mannermaa, K., Tarasov, P.E. et al. Radiocarbon dating from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov cemetery reveals complex human responses to socio-ecological stress during the 8.2 ka cooling event. Nature Ecology & Evolution. Published 27 January 2022.



Prof. Dr. Pavel E. Tarasov

Telefon: +49 30 838 70280

E-Mail: ptarasov@zedat.fu-berlin.de

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