Adapt, move or die: How humans have survived enormous environmental and climatic change
Having an emergency survival kit at the ready is always a good idea. But packing a bug-out bag and leaving it by the door? That's not what will prepare our species for the future.
In True Survivors, a documentary from The Nature of Things, Sarika Cullis-Suzuki goes on a personal and scientific journey to get to the root of what makes human beings such great survivors.
Our species is the product of environmental change
Today's humans are just the most recent in a long line of survivors.
Our ancestors survived enormous environmental and climatic changes in the ancient past, and they did it with far fewer tools than we have at our disposal today. Learning to walk upright and freeing our hands to use tools was just the beginning. We've been using our hands, feet and minds to survive ever since.
"There's really only three things animals can do when there's large-scale changes that's really impacting what they're using from the environment," says Denise Su, a research associate at Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins. "They adapt, they move or they die — that's it. The fact that we are here today meant that our ancestors adapted."
We have been learning from climate change for a very long time
We aren't just the product of evolution — we're also the product of climate change.
In the New Mexico desert, recently uncovered footprints in an ancient lakebed show that humans walked alongside giant ground sloths more than 20,000 years ago. Small footprints, probably belonging to children and teenagers, show that the young humans were likely either playing or fetching and carrying.
The tracks discovered at White Sands National Park show that humans inhabited North America thousands of years before the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, when much of the continent was locked in ice and the climate was less stable than during the current period.
"That's what makes the story exciting," says archaeologist David Bustos, who was part of the team that found the footprints. "They were here before the last glacial maximum."
The Haida have been inhabiting Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of B.C., for at least 12,000 years. Over that time, the landscape has changed dramatically from a treeless tundra to the rich coastal rainforest we see today.
Haida elder GwaaGanad (Diane Brown) tells oral histories about how her people learned and adapted as the vegetation changed. "A long, long, long time ago, there were no trees on Haida Gwaii — not one," she says in the documentary.
"When we first came out of the ocean, we had nothing — no clothes, no idea how to gather food. We were cold. We were scared. We were hungry. Finally, the cedar tree came."
The cedar is everything to the Haida. "The bark was called our sister because we made diapers out of that. We made clothing out of that. We made houses, totem poles, canoes — everything."
It's another example of how humans have adapted to a changing climate and environment over time.
"Everything changed," says Rolf Mathewes, a paleoecologist at Simon Fraser University who has been researching vegetation and climate on Haida Gwaii for 30 years. "Like the soil, the climate, the landscape, the sea level, the vegetation, the animals. And the people had to change along with them to be here."
Action brings hope
The community of Kanaka Bar sits about 15 kilometres south of Lytton, B.C. It's home to approximately 70 people, and the population doubles in the summer as people return to hunt, fish, visit and connect with the land. Here, the T'eqt''aqtn'mux are working together to ensure they will be self-sufficient and resilient no matter what the future brings.
They are doing something many wealthy cities are struggling to do: creating a more stable community through climate mitigation and adaptation. They measure precipitation and wind speed to inform the building of infrastructure that will withstand future weather. They've grown gardens, installed solar panels, and invested in infrastructure that allows them to generate their own power.
"Optimism is one thing. Optimism is talking. Hope is based on action," says Chief Patrick Michell. "It's what you do today that determine[s] your children's future."