Bucking the trend: Population resilience in a marginal environment

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Evaluating the impact of environmental changes on past societies is frequently confounded by the difficulty of establishing cause-and-effect at relevant scales of analysis. Commonly, paleoenvironmental records lack the temporal and spatial resolution to link them with historic events, yet there remains a tendency to correlate climate change and cultural transformations on the basis of their seeming synchronicity. Here, we challenge perceptions of societal vulnerability to past environmental change using an integrated paleoenvironmental and land-use history of a remote upland site in the north of Ireland. We present a high-resolution, multi-proxy record that illustrates extended occupation of this marginal locality throughout the climate oscillations of the last millennium. Importantly, historically-dated volcanic ash markers enable us to pinpoint precisely in our record the timing of major national demographic crises such as the Black Death and the European, Irish and Great (Potato) Famines. We find no evidence that climate downturns or demographic collapses had an enduring impact on the use of the uplands: either the community escaped the effects of these events, or population levels recovered rapidly enough (within a generation) to leave no appreciable mark on the palaeoenvironmental record. Our findings serve to illustrate the spatial complexity of human activity that can enable communities to withstand or quickly bounce back from largescale calamities. In neglecting to consider such local-scale variability in social and economic organization, generalized models of societal collapse risk overplaying the vulnerability of populations to long- and short-term ecological stressors to the detriment of identifying the social constraints that influence a population’s response to change.
Original languageEnglish
Article number e0266680
Pages (from-to)e0266680
Number of pages17
Issue number4
Early online date27 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2022


  • Biology and life sciences
  • Earth sciences
  • Ecology and environmental sciences
  • People and places
  • Research Article
  • Social sciences


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