Synchronous environmental and cultural change in the prehistory of the northeastern United States

Samuel E. Munoz, Konrad Gajewski, Matthew C. Peros

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Climatic changes during the late Quaternary have resulted in substantial, often abrupt, rearrangements of terrestrial ecosystems, but the relationship between these environmental changes and prehistoric human culture and population size remains unclear. Using a database of archaeological radiocarbon dates alongside a network of paleoecological records (sedimentary pollen and charcoal) and paleoclimatic reconstructions, we show that periods of cultural and demographic change in the northeastern United States occurred at the same times as the major environmental-climatic transitions of that region. At 11.6,8.2,5.4, and 3.0 kyr BP (103 calendar years before present), changes in forest composition altered the distribution, availability, and predictability of food resources which triggered technological adjustments manifested in the archaeological record. Human population level has varied in response to these external changes in ecosystems, but the adoption of maize agriculture during the late Holocene also resulted in a substantial population increase. This study demonstrates the long-term interconnectedness of prehistoric human cultures and the ecosystems they inhabited, and provides a consolidated environmental- cultural framework from which more interdisciplinary research and discussion can develop. Moreover, it emphasizes the complex nature of human responses to environmental change in a temperate region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)22008-22013
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number51
StatePublished - Dec 21 2010

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Climate change
  • Data synthesis
  • Paleoecology
  • Prehistoric cultures


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