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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences







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National Academy of Sciences

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Washington, DC


Climate change is an indisputable threat to human health, especially for societies already confronted with rising social inequality, political and economic uncertainty, and a cascade of concurrent environmental challenges. Archaeological data about past climate and environment provide an important source of evidence about the potential challenges humans face and the long-term outcomes of alternative short-term adaptive strategies. Evidence from well-dated archaeological human skeletons and mummified remains speaks directly to patterns of human health over time through changing circumstances. Here, we describe variation in human epidemiological patterns in the context of past rapid climate change (RCC) events and other periods of past environmental change. Case studies confirm that human communities responded to environmental changes in diverse ways depending on historical, sociocultural, and biological contingencies. Certain factors, such as social inequality and disproportionate access to resources in large, complex societies may influence the probability of major sociopolitical disruptions and reorganizations—commonly known as “collapse.” This survey of Holocene human–environmental relations demonstrates how flexibility, variation, and maintenance of Indigenous knowledge can be mitigating factors in the face of environmental challenges. Although contemporary climate change is more rapid and of greater magnitude than the RCC events and other environmental changes we discuss here, these lessons from the past provide clarity about potential priorities for equitable, sustainable development and the constraints of modernity we must address.


Author Posting © The Authors, 2023. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of the National Academy of Sciences for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 120, Issue 4, January 2023.

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