Scientists find a key to surviving climate change buried inside a 2,500-year-old Indian city

Scientists find a key to surviving climate change buried inside a 2,500-year-old Indian city

A farmer separates the chaff from the wheat.  (Manoj Chhabra/TOI, BCCL, Lucknow)

Representative image

(Manoj Chhabra/TOI, BCCL, Lucknow)

The Indian monsoon, often referred to as life-giving given how dependent our country's agricultural population is on these monsoon rains, is also known for its inconsistency. Boom and bust cycles consist of periods of heavy rainfall that can bring floods and devastation alternating with periods of drought caused by periods of no rainfall.

This inherent volatility has continually challenged civilizations throughout history, forcing them to adapt and innovate in order to survive. Today, with climate change making already volatile monsoons even more unpredictable, we may have to do a little time travel to learn how our ancestors dealt with temperamental rains.

It may be difficult to imagine a bustling city in the middle of a semi-arid region struggling with centuries of unpredictable monsoon rains. But this dystopian image was the reality of the ancient city of Vadnagar in Gujarat, India. A recent study has revealed the secrets of their resilience, providing valuable insights into adapting to climate change today.

A 2,500-year journey through monsoons and millets

For 2,500 years, the people of Vadnagar have experienced fickle weather patterns, from the Roman Warm Period to the Little Ice Age. How did they do it? Researchers from the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleontology carefully analyzed the archaeological, botanical and isotopic data and compiled a timeline of human occupation and crop production.

Their findings paint a vivid picture of Vadnagar navigating changing monsoons and family transitions. The city experienced periods of moderate and heavy rainfall, especially during the historical and medieval periods. But it was the post-Medieval era, which coincided with the Little Ice Age (1300-1900 AD), that truly tested their mettle.

The Little Ice Age weakened the summer monsoon for an extended period, posing a major threat to food security. Remarkably, the people of Vadnagar adapted by adopting the drought-resistant small grain millet as their main crop. Known for their ability to thrive in extreme conditions, these C4 plants became the cornerstone of its agricultural economy.

But the story does not end there. This study went beyond plants, incorporating a “multi-proxy” approach that examined everything from tiny seeds to charcoal remains. This has revealed a remarkable picture of diversification – not only in crops, but also in social and economic practices.

Learning from the past: climate, institutions and a sustainable future

The study emphasizes the critical role of understanding historical climate patterns and human responses to them. It highlights that past famines and societal collapses were not only caused by climate change, but were also influenced by factors such as governance and social structures.

The lessons from Vadnagar extend beyond enriching our understanding of the past. They provide us with valuable historical precedents to guide future strategies for sustainable living in the face of climate uncertainty. As we navigate our changing climate, the resilience and adaptability of ancient civilizations like Vadnagar provides a beacon of hope and inspiration.

By understanding how past societies dealt with environmental challenges, we can build more resilient societies and create a more sustainable future for all.

The results of this study were detailed in Quaternary Science Advances It can be accessed here.

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