Two reports from archaeologists and climate scientists issued in the last few days call to mind how much indigenous peoples have determined our present day life and how much they will determine our future. Reuters reported last Thursday that archaeologists uncovered a pouch containing a “tool kit” at a site in the United Arab Emirates concluding that “humans became a global species” more than 125,000 years ago, or 65,000 years earlier than had been earlier thought. Traveling from northeastern Africa to the Arabian peninsula across shallow waters at the Bab al-Mandab strait peoples from Africa began the long history of peopling the world. From this beginning there were many thousands more beginnings as peoples occupied niches in the environment and adapted to climates across continents.
The human capacity to adapt is the hallmark of human success and affirms evidence of human persistence and resilience. The future of human kind was defined and determined by humans following the environmental changes and adjusting to the different places. When one thinks about how humans have succeeded, one is awestruck.
Yet, as human beings have succeeded in their ever changing capacity to adjust to natural environmental differences evidence has grown over the last 100 years of human history that industrial dependence on fossil fuels–releasing bound carbon in oil–has radically altered the natural environment to the detriment of life on the planet. Indigenous peoples in the circumpolar region surrounding the north pole see daily the rapid shrinkage of polar ice and their lives are dramatically affected. They are the proverbial “canary in the mine” as warming water currents melt the ice and cause the north pole to become a vast sea. One of the most immediate results reported by climatologists has been dramatically colder weather sweeping from the north pole region in the winter increasing blizzard conditions in the middle of North America and piles of snow with cutting winds in North America’s mid-Atlantic.
For Inuits in the circumpolar region the foods on which they have long depended are rapidly disappearing or moving away from their normal locations. Fish, caribou, and other foods have left areas leaving either no sources of food or totally different species as food sources (in one region moose have replaced caribou owing to changes in the plants growing in places where caribou used to graze). Inuits have been experiencing rapid climate changes over the last twenty-five years and more.
Reuters issued another report from climate scientists on 28 January revealing that currents in the Fram Strait in the North Atlantic (between Greenland and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard) “averaged 6 degrees Celsius (42.80F) in recent summers, warmer than at natural peaks during Roman and Medieval Times.” The average temperature of the strait in the 120 years between 1887 and 2007 was 5.2 degress Celsius (41.36F) and in the 1,900 years before that the temperature was 3.4 (38.12F). The currents in this region push up into the North Pole dramatically warming arctic waters and reducing the ice. Inuit people have seen the changes and now the metropolitan people living in North America have begun to experience the results when there is too little ice to restrain the flow of cold weather south into Canada and the United States.
Climate changes are well under way, and it is fairly clear that even if humans stopped all fossil fuel usage this afternoon, the climate change clock that has already been ticking for more than a century accelerates its pace.
Human adaptation will be tested now and in the near future in ways never before experienced. This is so due to the rapid changes in climate and in large measure due to human successes developing technologies that separate them from nature. If these fragile technological systems fail in the face of hurricanes, blizzard, droughts, and floods, massive human suffering will result.
Indigenous peoples who remain close to the earth will also experience major changes as many are already seeing. Their adaptation may be more possible for two reasons: they are less dependent on artificially established systems that depend on stable environments, and they are closer to the earth where they can recognize the changes earlier.
One hundred twenty-five thousand years ago humans made adaptation their hallmark and the presence of humans throughout the world is evidence of the great success. Changing the temperature of water currents in the North Atlantic by nearly .8 degrees Celsius bringing the average temperature to 6 degrees Celsius in less than 120 years challenges that capacity for adaptation. Indigenous peoples may succeed where the metropolitan peoples may not.