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Climate Change and the Health of NationsFamines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations$
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Anthony McMichael

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190262952

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190262952.001.0001

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Romans, Mayans, and Anasazi The Classical Optimum to Droughts in the Americas

Romans, Mayans, and Anasazi The Classical Optimum to Droughts in the Americas

7 (p.141) Romans, Mayans, and Anasazi The Classical Optimum to Droughts in the Americas
Climate Change and the Health of Nations

Anthony McMichael

Oxford University Press

The Stories of the Roman Empire and the Mayans are well known and have fascinated generations of scholars, artists, storytellers, and history enthusiasts. Less familiar are the ways in which the changing climate contributed to the rise and fall of these civilizations, and of the Anasazi, among others in North America. This chapter examines the fates of different societies in three climatic periods: the warm Classical Optimum (300 B.C.E. to 350 C.E.), cooler conditions in the Dark Ages (500 C.E. to 800 C.E.), and drought in the Americas (950 C.E. to 1250 C.E.). Recent gains in the reach and resolution of paleoclimatology have enabled more detailed reconstruction of climate and health relationships. Beginning around 300 B.C.E., Europe and the Mediterranean experienced a prolonged period of warm and stable climate—often termed the Roman Warm. Historian John L. Brooke has labeled the ensuing “remarkable” 600 to 800 years of benevolent climate conditions the Classical Optimum, and he suggests that the effects were global. A positive North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) pushed warm winds west towards Scandinavia, glaciers retreated, and the Mediterranean settled into its characteristic pattern of dry summers and winter rainfall. In the wake of the spread of farming and rising fertility rates, the estimated global population was approaching 200 million. Cities were becoming larger and grander, trade routes were extending, and armies and their iron weaponry were ranging further afield. So too were various infectious agents, many of them beneficiaries of the new and intensifying transcontinental contacts among China, Rome, South Asia, the Middle East, and North and East Africa. During this period, the Mediterranean sustained “the deepest landscape transformation in antiquity.” Scattered populations increased and coalesced into forts and cities, supported by thousands of new farms. By around 300 C.E., however, the Classical Optimum began to wane. Ice-melt events cooled northern Europe, and by 500 C.E. the strong NAO reversed, bringing a deep cold. The shifting climatic conditions placed enormous pressure on the civilizations that had transformed their socio-ecological systems during conditions more favourable to agricultural productivity and human health.

Keywords:   Antonine Plague, Central America, Eurasian Steppe, Galen, Iceland high, Maya, Procopius, Roman Warm Period

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