The relationship between human population, food production, and climate change is a pressing concern in need of high-resolution, long-term perspectives. Archaeological radiocarbon dates have increasingly been used to reconstruct past population dynamics, and Britain and Ireland provide both radiocarbon sampling densities and species-level sample identifications that are globally unrivalled. We use this evidence to demonstrate multiple instances of human population downturn over the Holocene that coincide with periodic episodes of reduced solar activity and climate reorganization as well as societal responses in terms of altered food-procurement strategies.
We consider the long-term relationship between human demography, food production, and Holocene climate via an archaeological radiocarbon date series of unprecedented sampling density and detail. There is striking consistency in the inferred human population dynamics across different regions of Britain and Ireland during the middle and later Holocene. Major cross-regional population downturns in population coincide with episodes of more abrupt change in North Atlantic climate and witness societal responses in food procurement as visible in directly dated plants and animals, often with moves toward hardier cereals, increased pastoralism, and/or gathered resources. For the Neolithic, this evidence questions existing models of wholly endogenous demographic boom–bust. For the wider Holocene, it demonstrates that climate-related disruptions have been quasi-periodic drivers of societal and subsistence change.