Today the government and the media bombard us with assertions that due to our production of carbon dioxide, the world will soon end. We are led to believe that our puny efforts can significantly alter the climate of our entire planet. In reality, we are completely at the mercy of vast forces over which we have no control. Ice ages come and go due to a complex interaction of purely natural forces and events, including Earth’s axial wobble and changes in its orbit, as well as changes in solar activity.
In between ice ages, there are warm, wet periods and cold, dry periods. (When the earth is warmer, there is more evaporation of seawater, and, hence, more clouds and more precipitation overall.) There are sudden, planet-wide catastrophes like mega volcanoes, asteroid and comet impacts, and mega tsunamis caused by massive, undersea landslides. The mega volcanoes can change the weather. It is suspected that the super eruption of the Indonesian volcano Toba in 73,500 BP may have triggered the last full-fledged ice age, although other factors almost certainly played a role. Another Indonesian volcano, Tambora, erupted in 1815 leading to “the year without a summer” at a time when the climate was already cooler than usual. Climatic changes can also cause sudden catastrophes like mega tsunamis caused as ice ages end and lakes of glacial meltwater break through ice dams and rush downstream into the sea.
Within historical times, and long before industrialization and rising human populations created any significant amount of carbon dioxide, there have been pronounced climatic changes. A prolonged drought may have ended Egypt’s Old Kingdom around 4,134 BP An immense eruption of Krakatoa in AD 416 caused a period of cold and drought that may have finished off the Roman Empire (already seriously weakened by other factors), stimulated mass migrations, and contributed to the spread of plague. This was followed some time later by the Medieval Warm Period from about AD 1000-1200, when Europe climbed out of the Dark Ages and culture and learning advanced, as did the general level of prosperity. Then the climate gradually cooled, and the Earth entered the Little Ice Age in the fourteenth century (some of the exact dates of all these changes are in question, and there is no general agreement about how low or high the average temperatures must become before such labels as “warm period” or “Little Ice Age” apply). This period lasted until well into the nineteenth century, and it was characterized not only by generally colder and drier weather but also by extreme and sudden changes from cold to colder or from drought to floods. Weather was particularly cold around AD 1600, 1700, and 1800, as well as the aforementioned 1815. The Little Ice Age probably contributed to the spread of plague again (the notorious Black Death) and to the decline of feudalism, the French Revolution, and the Irish potato famine.
All of this has happened since the dawn of modern, recorded history, but what about in prehistoric times? There is some evidence that human beings may have been around for millions of years and that civilizations may have risen and fallen over and over. Much of the evidence for this would have been destroyed by cataclysmic earth changes like ice ages and the accompanying rise and fall of sea levels. In fact, geologists are not sure how many ice ages there have been, largely because each succeeding ice age tends to destroy much of the evidence for its predecessors. There is considerable evidence for civilizations, mainly out on the continental shelves during the last ice age, which were largely destroyed by (often sudden) rises in sea level as the ice melted and by mega tsunamis. A period of rapid melting and of sea level rise about 11,600 BP coincides eerily with Plato’s date for the sinking of Atlantis. But between that time and the rise of historical cultures around 5,500 BP, there is a gulf of 6,000 years, almost as mysterious as the age which preceded it. This is the time of Robert Howard’s fictional Conan the Conqueror, and the reality may have been almost as strange as fiction.
From about 9,000 to about 5,000 BP the earth enjoyed what has been called the “Holocene Optimum.” During that period the earth was warmer than at any time since, and most areas enjoyed significantly more precipitation. Of course, there are always exceptions to such a general rule, and a few areas, like parts of the American Midwest and possibly the Amazon, appear to have been drier than they are today. Areas that today are deserts, like the Sahara, the Gobi Desert, and the Arabian Peninsula, were mostly grasslands, with montane and riverine forests. In fact, some researchers believe that Earth’s axial wobble causes the Sahara to shift back and forth from arid to relatively wet every 20,000 years. Places like the Tibetan Plateau and the Andean altiplano were, at the very least, warmer than today, as were many extremely high or low latitude regions. Mysterious ancient ruins have been found in some of these places, particularly in the Andes.
Agriculture was first developed during the last ice age, or possibly even earlier, but most of the first known farming communities have been found in arid or semi-arid regions that, during the long summer of the Holocene Optimum, were fertile and well watered. Some of the earliest known civilizations in the Americas, like the Norte Chico culture in Peru’s coastal Sechura Desert (about 5,000 BP) and the later Chavin and Cupisnique cultures are in such regions; although there is also some evidence now of some very early cultures in the Amazon basin. The Norte Chico people were farmers who had textiles but no known fired ceramics, and they built adobe pyramids, as did later cultures in the region. Some researchers believe that they may have begun as fishermen.
Egypt, Sumer, and the Indus Valley cities, like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, all began in river valleys flowing through deserts.
There is proof of settled farming communities during the long summer, like Jericho near the Jordan Valley, and well down in the Dead Sea rift zone (most of the earliest known historical civilizations began on or near tectonic plate boundaries and earthquake faults). Jericho was a walled town with stone buildings as far back as 10,000 BP Most of the early farmers in the Old World grew rye, lentils, figs, barley, oats, and early varieties of wheat like einkorn and emmer. Catalhoyuk in southern Turkey dates back to about 8,000 to 10,000 BP The inhabitants grew grain, almonds, pistachios, and fruit; and, although they depended in part on hunting, they also herded sheep and possibly cattle. They lived in towns with mud brick houses jammed together with no streets and no conventional doors, entering and leaving through openings on the roofs.
So we can think of the last ice age as one historical age for mankind; we might as well call it the Atlantean Age. With its largely coastal and seafaring cultures mostly destroyed by climatic change, tsunamis, and sea level rises, the survivors and people living inland began to rebuild civilization during the next age: the long summer. Presumably much of whatever knowledge and technology the Atlanteans had developed would have been lost, but not all of it. The cultures of the long (and rainy) summer, or at least those based in areas that are today very cold and/or dry, would have been greatly weakened when the climate cooled and became drier; and the survivors would have headed for the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates area, and the Indus River, building Egypt, Sumer, etc.
So our civilization developed from the summer people, and their culture developed from what can be argued was the Atlantean. At the time of transition, when the ice age ended, there is at least one ancient ruin that gives us important clues to the nature of the Atlantean economy.
In southeast Turkey are the ruins of Gobekli Tepe, dating to at least 11,000 BP, consisting of cut stones up to sixteen feet high and weighing up to seven to ten tons. On the stones are carvings of lions, scorpions, foxes, and vultures. There is no evidence of fired ceramics (but ruins in Czechoslovakia show that people made fired ceramics and woven fabrics some 28,000 BP). Stone tools were found in the ruins but not metal. Even stranger, evidence from nearby shows that the builders were hunter-gatherers and did no farming. Butchered bones of gazelle, boar, wild sheep, ducks, and geese were found. This contradicts everything archaeologists thought they knew about early civilizations; ceramics, metals, and, above all, farming were supposed to come before buildings of cut stone. But studies in more recent times have shown that the Kung Bushmen of South Africa, although living in an arid environment, were able to support themselves as hunter-gatherers with only a few hours of effort each day. In a richer environment, a larger population could be supported without farming, and the people would have abundant leisure time to devote to building temples. This may be the solution to a mystery. We know that after Columbus rediscovered the New World and established regular contact between the Americas and the Old World, there was an exchange of food crops and diseases. The Indians gave to the Europeans corn, potatoes, tobacco, vanilla, chocolate, and, possibly, syphilis. The Europeans repaid them with wheat, barley, rice, sheep, goats, cattle, and horses—and smallpox and other diseases that may have wiped out most of the population. If some of the peoples of the Atlantean age were accomplished seafarers and the Americas and other regions were settled by seafarers, and some of these coastal cultures had advanced cultures (and there is abundant evidence for all of the above), why did this exchange of crops, animals, and diseases not take place during the last ice age?
If the people of Gobekli Tepe could support temple building with a hunter-gatherer economy, why could not the Atlanteans do likewise? Being seafarers, they could harvest the vast resources of the sea, needing little or no farming. Even today, most fishing is, in essence, a hunter-gatherer activity; in prehistoric times the fisheries may have been much richer, as, indeed, they were up until the last century.
Most modern pandemic diseases seem to have originated when herdsmen lived in close proximity to domestic livestock; presumably the diseases “jumped” from species to species. For unknown reasons, even malaria does not seem (based on genetic studies) to have existed during the ice age. So the Americas could have been settled and civilizations built by fishermen with no exchange of crops, animals, or diseases. Understand that, as was the case up until modern historical times, only some people would have lived in cities and had an advanced culture, a culture that, based on later artifacts like the pyramids (which appear to be stone machines of unknown purpose), may have used a technology utterly different from our own, a technology we might label as magic. After the catastrophic sea level rise, the surviving seafarers and the inland peoples may have turned their backs on the sea; and, during the long summer, there would have been only a few crossings of the oceans. This pattern seems to have continued in historical times up until 1492; people certainly crossed the Atlantic and Pacific, but regular contact between the continents did not exist.
The early summer people not only provide us with a hint of how the ice age economies functioned; they are also worthy of study in their own right. Using such modern technologies as ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists could concentrate their search for the ruins of this period in Arabia, the Sahara, Tibet, and the Gobi Desert. Ancient river courses would be ideal areas for the search. There will certainly be much to discover and much that we can learn.