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Climate change stimulated agricultural innovation and exchange across Asia

Silhouette of grain plants in the shape of a mountain range
TitleClimate change stimulated agricultural innovation and exchange across Asia
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsGuedes Jd’Alpoim, R. Bocinsky K
JournalScience Advances
Date Published2018/10

Ancient farmers experienced climate change at the local level through variations in the yields of their staple crops. However, archaeologists have had difficulty in determining where, when, and how changes in climate affected ancient farmers. We model how several key transitions in temperature affected the productivity of six grain crops across Eurasia. Cooling events between 3750 and 3000 cal. BP lead humans in parts of the Tibetan Plateau and in Central Asia to diversify their crops. A second event at 2000 cal. BP leads farmers in central China to also diversify their cropping systems and to develop systems that allowed transport of grains from southern to northern China. In other areas where crop returns fared even worse, humans reduced their risk by increasing investment in nomadic pastoralism and developing long-distance networks of trade. By translating changes in climatic variables into factors that mattered to ancient farmers, we situate the adaptive strategies they developed to deal with variance in crop returns in the context of environmental and climatic changes.


Throughout time, our models demonstrate that humans across Asia increased their resilience to growing levels of crop failure throughout the late Holocene not only through crop diversification, increased storage, and redistribution but also through economic specialization and extensive strategies such as pastoralism. Trade and mechanisms, such as the development of the Grand Canal that moved crops from areas more suitable for production to areas where the probability of failure was high, also increased during this period of time. Our models demonstrate that changes in temperature throughout the Holocene did not affect all areas of Asia equally. Humans experienced changes in climate locally through variance in their staple crop returns and changes in the landscape surrounding them. Crop niche models allow us to move beyond hemispheric estimates of climatic impacts to scales that mattered to ancient farmers and can thus help archaeologists situate the culturally resilient strategies they developed in the climatic context in which they took place.

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