Climate Change Clues From The Ice Age

Studying artifacts from 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, scientists now understand more than before about how climate change affected human behavior.

Artist's impression of a Magdalenian woman
Artist's impression of a Magdalenian woman
Katrin Collmar and Christoph Behrens

MUNICH — "We are the first generation to feel the results of climate change," President Barack Obama said recently. He's correct insofar as man-made climate change is concerned, but the statement is a joke if applied to human history.

Humans experienced at least one rapid warming of the planet at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. The landscape in Europe then was completely different than what it is now, with large herds of reindeer, horses and bison roaming through Germany and large parts of Western Europe. Magdalenian steppe hunters followed the roaming animals. Accustomed to hard, cold winters, the hunters lived in large communities and followed strict rules. They used every bit of the animals they hunted, even crushing reindeer bones and boiling them to yield bone fat. Discipline ensured survival.

"Society was strongly interconnected, and there were basic rules of behavior," says Sonja Grimm, an archeologist at the Research Institute of Archeology at the Romano-Germanic Central Museum in Neuwied. "Everything was designed for safety in raw, cold surroundings. It would have been fatal if, for example, humans missed the reindeer migrations."

When the glaciers began to melt, people had to come to terms relatively suddenly with dramatic environmental change. Climate change then lasted for some 10,000 years, but it didn't get warmer all at once. The average temperature rose twice within a few decades by more than 10 °C (50 °F), as scientists measuring ancient ice cores in Greenland have shown. It was a markedly more extreme jump than that caused by man-made climate change in the 20th and 21st centuries.

"It was a time of much movement climatically," says archeologist Stephan Heidenreich of the Baden-Württemberg State Office for the Preservation of Monuments. In between, temperatures also fell by several degrees, and then ice once again covered large parts of Europe.

"The settling of Europe took place in this time frame," Heidenreich says. The days of the Magdalenian hunters were over. The signs of their culture, such as spear tips or harpoons made of reindeer antlers, disappeared. Now hunters honed spear tips from stone. Archeologists call the people of this subsequent culture "Federmesser (feather knife) groups" based on the typical form of the weapons. To find out what role climate change played in the cultural transition, archeologist Sonja Grimm compared finds from 25 sites with chemical evidence such as pollen deposits, which contain important information about the environment. Grimm analyzed a time frame of 3,000 years starting in 14,000 BC.

How warmer temps change behavior

Milder winters meant a loosening of the strict behavioral rules observed by Magdalenian culture. "Finds show that people no longer crushed and boiled the bones of dead animals," Grimm says. "They used less of their prey."

Grimm was particularly struck by the change in art. Ice Age hunters created sculptures and engravings: Their cave paintings and slate slabs show true-to-life renditions of people and animals. The Federmesse groups, on the other hand, produced abstract art. Instead of showing rounded women like their predecessors, for example, "They limited themselves to a line for the upper body and a triangle for the backside," Grimm says.

Magdalenian carving of a horse head — Photo: musée des antiquités nationales

"Magdalenian art was splendid," Stephan Heidenreich confirms. Artistic representation regressed with the Federmesser groups "and all that remains is worked slate and scree."

Grimm believes that this loss of complexity ties in with climate change. Higher temperatures meant that the reindeer headed north, and forests grew in central Europe. Now, elk and red deer were on the menu. These animals live in small groups and thus did not offer enough food for the long-term. So people had to resettle more frequently, and they may have been more stressed. "The archeological sites are smaller," Grimm says. "You don't find big tent installations." People traveled in smaller groups, and were more mobile than they had previously been. There was less time for art.

But another interpretation is also possible: that the Federmesse groups painted their finest art on wood, of which they had plenty. These works would not have survived because the wood would have decomposed. "We don't know what wonderful art forms, like song or story-telling, existed outside the archeological finds," says Brian Wygal of Adelphi University in New York.

But the big question is how these people dealt with climate change, particularly the sudden jumps in temperature. Because 14,000 years ago it got really cold again in Europe. Deer and elk disappeared, and suddenly the reindeer were back. Some sites indicate that there was marked malnutrition. Wygal is convinced that "it was a tumultuous age, with rapid change between hot and cold. While some cultures adjusted well and flourished, others may have failed." In Europe there are only a few sites from these climatically turbulent times, so their interpretation will keep researchers busy for a long time.

Heidenreich suspects, however, that the hunters and gatherers "were in a good position to deal with climate change." Many researchers believe that the Federmesser groups hunted with bows and arrows — marked progress from what had come before. When an archeological culture disappears, as the Magdalenian one did after the Ice Age, it doesn't mean that the people disappeared, Heidenreich notes. "You have to see it as a kind of flowing transition, a coming and going."

In the end, the settling of Europe is the best proof that the climate change cultures braved environmental change by completely readapting their technology, art and lifestyle.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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