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date: 14 June 2024

Regional History of Settlement and Human Impacts in the Baltic Sea Region over the Last 2000 Yearslocked

Regional History of Settlement and Human Impacts in the Baltic Sea Region over the Last 2000 Yearslocked

  • Mika LaventoMika LaventoUniversity of Helsinki


The Baltic Sea catchment area extends from the upper course of the Elbe in the Czech Republic to northernmost Lapland where the Tornionjoki river (Sw. Torneälven = Lake Torne) marks the border between Finland and Sweden today. This article concentrates on the coastal regions of the sea and discusses a mutual dialogue between climate and man.

Oxygen isotope 18O and hydrogen isotope 2H in the layers of polar ice sheets indicate climate change in the time span of thousands, even tens of thousands, of years. In northern areas, much climatologic information is based on polar ice drilling data from Greenland.

The influence of climate changes on human subsistence is clearly visible in pollen data from the numerous ponds and swamps in the Baltic Sea coastal zone. Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating of carbon remains in archaeological materials (such as the crusts of ceramic pieces) are used to build detailed chronological sequences.

Human adaption to conditions dictated by nature is usually interpreted as innovation and progress in prehistory. But numerous raw materials, once used, cannot be replaced, while land exploitation is often followed by side effects such as erosion and eutrophication. For example, the Neolithic “revolution”—the beginning of crop cultivation and large-scale cattle breeding—is an example of such changes in southern Europe from ca. 6,000 bce.

Between ca. 200 bce and 100 ce, during the Early Iron Age, the climate was relatively warm here. Local iron production expanded in the Baltic Sea region and allowed effective slash-and-burn crop cultivation for the first time in prehistory. Since then, human activity has caused damage to forests all around the Baltic Sea.

A colder phase followed in 100–600 ce. Even today slight changes in annual temperature have great impact on subsistence in areas with harsh climate conditions, such as close to the Polar Circle. An abrupt and radical fall of temperature surely caused severe difficulties.

Hunter-gatherers had to find secondary food resources while societies which were strongly dependent on one single base for economy, like agriculture, had even greater difficulties. In the southern part of the Baltic Sea sphere, considerable areas of land were under cultivation at that time. Harvest failures led to famines.

A climate catastrophe, probably caused by volcanic eruption, adversely impacted urban, peasant, nomadic, and hunting populations all over the northern hemisphere in 535–536 ce. Recent archaeological studies and AMS samples have proven there was a demographic crisis in the northern part of the Baltic Sea.

Soon after 600 ce, the climate became milder again, and the following centuries were warmer than almost any period during Holocene: the warm phase from 800 to ca.1050 ce perfectly matches a historical and archaeological era: the Viking Period.

The Middle Ages and early post-medieval period were relatively mild and human-friendly times. But this was followed by the so-called Little Ice Age, dated approximately to 1275–1870. With the beginning of industrialization in mid-19th century, human impact on climate became obvious all over the globe, and the Baltic Sea region is no exception.


  • Climate of the Baltic Sea Region

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