December 24, 2003
Humanity evolved in a climate very different from the present one – in an Ice Age in which glaciers covered much of the world. Starting about 15,000 years ago, temperatures began to climb, the glaciers began to recede, and sea levels began to rise. Civilization and all of recorded history occurred in this warm period, the era known as the Holocene. This is the long summer of the human species.
Until very recently, however, we had no detailed record of climate changes during the Holocene. Now we do, and Brian Fagan shows how climate functioned as what historian Paul Kennedy described as one of the “deeper transformations” of history – a more important factor than we have heretofore understood. The interaction of climate and history is not a matter of a single pivotal event, but an intricate dance of challenge and response involving changing ecosystems, technologies, and evolving political, cultural and social systems. For all the changes, the long-term pattern is consistent: the entire history of civilization has been a continual process of trading up – of accepting vulnerability to large climate stresses in exchange for resistance to smaller ones.
In The Long Summer, Fagan shows how a thousand-year chill caused by the sudden shutting off of the Gulf Stream led people in the Near East to abandon hunting and gathering to take up the cultivation of plant foods; how the catastrophic flood that created the Black Sea drove settlers deep into Europe; how a subsequent warming and drying of the Sahara forced its cattle-hurting peoples to take up a less hazardous life along the banks of the Nile; how the Roman Empire extended north in Gaul only as far – and for as long – as the climate allowed sustained cereal farming; and how a period of increased rainfall in East Africa in the six century spread rat populations and the bubonic plague throughout the Mediterranean, and how this in turn spurred massive migrations that helped shape modern Europe and the Middle East.
Containing the groundbreaking synthesis widely acclaimed in The Little Ice Age and Floods, Famines and Emperors, The Long Summer illuminates for the first time the centuries-long pattern of human adaptation to the demands and challenges of an ever-changing climate – demands and challenges that are still with us today.
Brian Fagan is one of the world’s leading archaeological writers. An Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he is the author of Floods, Famines and Emperors, The Little Ice Age, Before California and many other popular books on the past, and the editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.