Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: thoughts from a dentist's waiting room

One of the few collateral benefits of extensive tooth repairs is leafing through National Geographic magazines in waiting rooms.

The June issue, pictured here, leads with a fascinating article about an archeological site at Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey. Apparently a temple or temples, the carefully carved pillars here were built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the pyramids in Egypt. Lacking a water source or evidence of human settlement, this was apparently a place of pilgrimage where crowds gathered periodically but did not live permanently; the lead investigator speculates that, in addition to whatever spiritual awe the edifice inspired, it is also appropriate to think of it as "the Neolithic version of Disneyland."

All this suggests a new story about how we humans stopped wandering and took up agriculture. Students of human history used to believe that an episode of climate change, a Little Ice Age, pushed our ancestors to learn how to cultivate and harvest plant foods, enabling large settlements and the development of complex cultures.

Newly excavated sites suggest our evolution proceeded in a different sequence; planting, cultivating and harvesting may have followed on the needs of people at human gathering places -- spiritual and social -- rather than in response to external necessities. Less Ice Age push, more social and spiritual pull ...

"Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces," [archeologist Klaus] Schmidt says. "I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."

What's this got to do with contemporary climate change? A great deal, I think.

Scientists today are trying to get across to us that we're living in the Anthropocene era, that humans are remaking the planet in accordance with the byproducts of our imagination, our intelligence, our civilization. Moreover, our impacts have become so great that we can no longer get away with doing this unconsciously. We're at a turning point, as were those ancient humans whose creativity carried the species into the Neolithic Age.

The idea that their process was driven by social and spiritual needs as well as (or indistinguishable from) material necessity should tell us something about how the species might interact with and respond to contemporary climate change. Respond we will; for a glimpse, chekc out Bradford Plummer for a measured description of geoengineering schemes.

I find the emerging picture of how our ancestors became us suggests something about how we'll weather what we've wrought on the planet, for good and ill.

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