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date: 04 December 2020

Climatic Changes and Cultural Responses During the African Humid Period Recorded in Multi-Proxy Datalocked

  • David McGeeDavid McGeeEarth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  •  and Peter B. deMenocalPeter B. deMenocalDepartment of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University; Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Summary

The expansion and intensification of summer monsoon precipitation in North and East Africa during the African Humid Period (AHP; c. 15,000–5,000 years before present) is recorded by a wide range of natural archives, including lake and marine sediments, animal and plant remains, and human archaeological remnants. Collectively this diverse proxy evidence provides a detailed portrait of environmental changes during the AHP, illuminating the mechanisms, temporal and spatial evolution, and cultural impacts of this remarkable period of monsoon expansion across the vast expanse of North and East Africa.

The AHP corresponds to a period of high local summer insolation due to orbital precession that peaked at ~11–10 ka, and it is the most recent of many such precessionally paced pluvial periods over the last several million years. Low-latitude sites in the North African tropics and Sahel record an intensification of summer monsoon precipitation at ~15 ka, associated with both rising summer insolation and an abrupt warming of the high northern latitudes at this time. Following a weakening of monsoon strength during the Younger Dryas cold period (12.9–11.7 ka), proxy data point to peak intensification of the West African monsoon between 10–8 ka. These data document lake and wetland expansions throughout almost all of North Africa, expansion of grasslands, shrubs and even some tropical trees throughout much of the Sahara, increases in Nile and Niger River runoff, and proliferation of human settlements across the modern Sahara. The AHP was also marked by a pronounced reduction in windblown mineral dust emissions from the Sahara.

Proxy data suggest a time-transgressive end of the AHP, as sites in the northern and eastern Sahara become arid after 8–7 ka, while sites closer to the equator became arid later, between 5–3 ka. Locally abrupt drops in precipitation or monsoon strength appear to have been superimposed on this gradual, insolation-paced decline, with several sites to the north and east of the modern arid/semi-arid boundary showing evidence of century-scale shifts to drier conditions around 5 ka. This abrupt drying appears synchronous with rapid depopulation of the North African interior and an increase in settlement along the Nile River, suggesting a relationship between the end of the AHP and the establishment of proto-pharaonic culture.

Proxy data from the AHP provide an important testing ground for model simulations of mid-Holocene climate. Comparisons with proxy-based precipitation estimates have long indicated that mid-Holocene simulations by general circulation models substantially underestimate the documented expansion of the West African monsoon during the AHP. Proxy data point to potential feedbacks that may have played key roles in amplifying monsoon expansion during the AHP, including changes in vegetation cover, lake surface area, and mineral dust loading.

This article also highlights key areas for future research. Among these are the role of land surface and mineral aerosol changes in amplifying West African monsoon variability; the nature and drivers of monsoon variability during the AHP; the response of human populations to the end of the AHP; and understanding locally abrupt drying at the end of the AHP.

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