March 4, 2008
What a difference a degree makes. From the tenth to the fifteenth century the earth experienced a rise in average temperature that changed climate worldwide – a preview of today’s global warming. As acclaimed archaeologist Brian Fagan shows in these pages, subtle shifts in the environment had far-reaching effects on human life.
In western Europe, longer summers brought bountiful harvests and population growth that lead to cultural flowering: we may have the Great Warming to think for the great cathedrals. In the Arctic, Inuit and Norse sailors made cultural connections across thousands of miles, trading precious iron goods. In the Pacific, Polynesian sailors, riding new wind patterns, were able to settle the remotest lands on earth. But in many parts of the globe, the warm centuries brought drought, famine, and misery. In North and Central America, elaborate societies collapsed, and the vast building complexes of Chaco Canyon in the Mayan Yucatán were left desolate.
As he did in his bestselling The Little Ice Age, Fagan unfolds both a scientific detective story, showing how centuries-old weather patterns can be reconstructed from scattered clues, and a vivid and timely historical narrative. The study of the first Great Warming suggests we may yet be underestimating the power of climate change to disrupt our lives today. And our vulnerability to drought, writes Fagan, is the “silent elephant in the room.”
Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Born in England, he did fieldwork in Africa and has written about early man, forensic archaeology, and many other topics. His books on the interaction of climate and human society have established him as a leading authority on the subject, and he lectures frequently around the world. He is the editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology and the author of Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World; The Long Summer; and The Little Ice Age, among others.