19,000 years ago, the vast, miles-thick sheets of ice that had covered much of North America, northern Europe and Asia began slowly to retreat as the earth’s climate began to grow warmer.
In their wake they left huge lakes of fresh water in a barren landscape of scoured rock. Yet as global temperatures continued to rise, the new land was soon covered in trees and plants bearing all kinds of fruits, berries, seeds and nuts. This abundant food supply attracted animals ranging from the tiny water vole through squirrels, hares, wildcats, pine martens, red and roe deer, wild boar, lynxes and wolves to the aurochs, giant wild horned cattle standing six feet high: and as most of these animals were hunted by people, soon they too returned, many the descendants of those been driven from the land by the ice so many thousands of years before.
Then about 12,800 years ago, the earth’s climate suddenly changed again in what is today called the Younger Dryas Event, named for the wild flower Dryas octopetala which grows in cold, dry conditions. The cause of the Younger Dryas Event is not known: possibly there was a slight tilt in the earth’s axis, or perhaps one of the huge lakes left by the melting glaciers suddenly overflowed into the ocean, the sudden influx of billions of litres of cold fresh water so reducing its temperature that air currents worldwide were disrupted. Whatever the explanation, the Younger Dryas Event led to a very rapid cooling of the climate in certain regions, particularly southeast Europe and southwest Asia. The drier, windier and colder conditions meant that within only a few decades, the fertile forests and shrubland that had provided both animals and people with food in such abundance was gone, replaced by countless miles of desolate grassland.
People did not just survive this drastic change, they thrived. But since writing would not be invented for many thousands of years, the only clues as to how they did so can come from archaeology.