• Responding to sudden climate change in the Arctic

    They ate salmon. And that is important!

    Don’t think we’re the first people who had to deal with sudden climate change. Hunter-gatherers in the Arctic region experienced it quite often. And responded. For example by starting to use pottery.

    Keep the spirits satisfied

    Peter Jordan is specialized in the way hunter-gatherers of the Arctic region adapted to the hostile environment that is their home.
    ‘In Northwestern Siberia the Arctic Nenets seem to have independently domesticated the wild reindeer they used to hunt. They travel huge distances following the herds’, he says. ‘Traveling the landscape also has symbolic implications – different parts of the land are inhabited by ancestor spirits and gods. Basic survival demands mainting good relationships with these deities and with the land. They frequently sacrifice their reindeer and leave gifts, for example skins, or reindeer skulls on sacred places and cemetaries, often small hills that stand out from the flat landscape. This way their movement through the landscape is almost like a pilgrimage.’
    The Khanty hunter-gatheres of Western Siberia, that Jordan also studied, have a different set of beliefs. They live further south and hunt in a more or less fixed territories of forests, rivers and lakes. ‘For them it is very important to give gifts to the forest and the rivers.’
    To the Khanty the Bear Festival is of the utmost importance. ‘During that festival they kill a bear and bring it into their camp. The bear is seen as the son of the high god and is treated as an honoured guest. At the end of the festival they respectfully remove the bones and skull and take those back to the forest. They never break them, because they believe the bear will regenerate and invite other animals to give themselves up to the hunters. It’s in fact a gesture of world renewal that involves the hunter acknowledging the gifts given by forest and spirit masters.’

    Did you think the invention of the wheel changed the face of the Earth? The steam engine? The internet? All true. But don’t forget that the first use of pottery, now almost 15.000 years ago. ‘A huge technological innovation’, according to ethnoarcheologist and the new director of the Arctic Centre Peter Jordan.

    Just imagine what it meant, when people were able to use pots to cook their food in, or store oil. It changed their diet – the cooking in containers made it possible to keep the nutritious fats that would otherwise have dripped into the fire. People became healthier, population increased. And it influenced the way they lived.

    For a long time archaeologists believed pottery wasn’t invented until farmers took the place of hunter-gatherers, because it is not only heavy, but also breakable. You’d need to stay in one place to make it and use it properly.

    Cook fish

    On the other hand, there were those ancient pieces of pottery found across Japan. The shards were far too old to have belonged to farmers. What they were used for exactly however, remained unclear. Untill last week. ‘When you cook anything in a pot like that, the fats – lipids – get burned onto and into the pot. Our international team analyzed the food residues and discovered that the pots were probably used to cook fish or other aquatic animals.’ It could have been salmon that came up the river in huge numbers to spawn, says Jordan. These findings found their way to the website of prestigious research journal Nature.

    So what? you might say. So what if those ancient Japanese liked to eat loads of salmon? Well, says Jordan, it means a lot. Those pots were a response of a people that were facing something that sounds quite familiar nowadays: major climate change.

    We’re talking about the end of last Ice Age here, when the Pleistocene was ending and the warmer Holocene was just beginning. The north was still extremely cold, but in the south of Japan forests were replacing the cold tundra. New plants and new animals were moving in.

    Not so smooth

    It wasn’t a smooth transition, though. ‘There were sudden flips between colder or warmer conditions’, says Jordan. That means lots of uncertainty for the hunters-gatherers.

    And then there were these warmer conditions, that may seem preferable to hunting and gathering on the cold tundra. But that’s not necessarily true, says Jordan. ‘Those regions may seem to have harsh living conditions, but in fact you can have a very good life. But you need to know when and where the migrating animals will be at different times of the year. You need to develop the traditions and knowledge to do this.’

    But when the climate changes and with it, the plants and the animals, all knowledge your parents and elders gave you suddenly becomes worthless. ‘Those hunter-gatherers in Japan were used to moving about quickly and hunting the large game of the open tundra. And those were diseappearing quickly.’

    The old ways didn’t work anymore and people had to respond, just like the hunters-gatherers in modern times. Pottery is one example of innovation and adjustment.

    Prehistoric whaling

    Jordan is fascinated by developments like these. And it’s this curiosity that he’ll bring to the research of the Arctic Institute where he became director only two months ago. The Arctic region has seen sudden climate change more often and more severe than the more temperate regions of the world. Jordan wants to know how people dealt with it in the past and how indigenous peoples deal with it right now.

    ‘Until now the Arctic Centre has focused much of it’s research on Spitsbergen, the history of whaling there and the impact it had on the ecosystem’, Jordan agrees. ‘I would like to expand that that right across the arctic and the subarctic, for example Siberia and Alaska. And also study prehistoric whaling.’

    Cooking technology and pottery were important in this era too. It’s use in Alaska spread up into the region about 3000 years ago along with new hunting equipment: harpoons that may catch a whale.

    ‘The pottery seems to have been used for rendering mammal oils, used for food and lighting during dark winters’, Jordan says. It appears around the same time as relatively permanent coastal settlements arose and the climate became warmer.

    Again – survival depends on skills, technology and cultural knowledge. ‘There’s no point in bringing a large whale carcass ashore unless you can quickly process and store the resources. It will rot quickly.’