Over the last 12,000 y, humans have faced a variety of challenges from climatic variability, either leading to a wide range of technological, economic and cultural responses, or societal collapse. In southeastern Arabia, ancient droughts appear to have corresponded with the decline of inland occupations and population movements to resource-rich areas on the coast, with transformative societal effects. Data from northern Arabia suggest that Holocene populations responded to environmental challenges through high mobility, managing water sources, and transforming their economies. Though more interdisciplinary archaeological data remain to be gathered from Arabia, these examples illustrate diverse strategies to resilience and provide important lessons for a world in which climate predictions forecast dramatic changes in temperature and precipitation.
Recent interdisciplinary archaeological and paleoenvironmental research in the Arabian peninsula is transforming our understanding of ancient human societies in their ecological contexts. Hypotheses about the cultural and demographic impacts of a series of droughts have primarily been developed from the environmental and archaeological records of southeastern Arabia. Here we examine these human–environment interactions by integrating ongoing research from northern Arabia. While droughts and extreme environmental variability in the Holocene had significant impacts on human societies, responses varied across space and time and included mobility at various scales, as well as diverse social, economic and cultural adaptations, such as the management of water resources, the introduction of pastoral lifeways, and the construction of diverse types of stone structures. The long-term story of human societies in Arabia is one of resilience in the face of climate change, yet future challenges include rising temperatures and flash flooding. The history of human responses to climatic and ecosystem changes in Arabia can provide important lessons for a planet facing catastrophic global warming and environmental change.