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Human Responses to Middle Holocene (Altithermal) Climates on the North American Great Plains

  • David J. Meltzer (a1)

Abstract

The climate of the Great Plains during the middle Holocene varied considerably, but overall it was marked by a north–south gradient of increasingly warmer and drier conditions, with a reduction in effective moisture, surface water, and resource abundance, and an increase in resource patchiness, sediment weathering, erosion, and aeolian activity. Pronounced drought conditions were most evident on the Southern High Plains. Understanding the human responses to middle Holocene climates is complicated by a lack of archaeological data, which is partly a result of geomorphic processes that removed or deeply buried sites of this age, and by the varying adaptive responses of hunter-gatherers during this period. On the Southern High Plains, where drought was most severe, surface and groundwater sources dried and bison populations were diminished, prompting substantial adaptive changes, including local abandonment, well-digging to tap underground water, and a widening of the diet breadth to incorporate higher-cost, lower-return seed and plant resources. Sites of this age on the Central and Northern Plains also show a possible increase in diet breadth (with the incorporation of plant foods in the diet), and perhaps changes in settlement mobility (including possible shift into higher elevation areas, or mapping-on to extant rivers and springs). But linking those changes to middle Holocene drought is less straightforward.

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