Introduction: A Global History of Interactions between Climates and Cultures

Contemporary climate change has various distinctive characteristics: it is of human origin, occuring through the increase in greenhouse gases, and the human population is quantitatively very large, leaving its mark on all environments. It is occurring during an interglacial period, which were previously thought to have a lesser degree of climate volatility*1. Humans have experienced a succession of climate changes whose formation was independent of human activity. Humanity and climate have a particularly long history when it comes to our anatomically modern human* predecessors. What we are experiencing is new, but it must be seen in a global history of interactions between climate and human cultures of all kinds (laypeople, academics or spiritual cultures).

The need for a global history methodology was formulated by Immanuel Kant to address the need for the definition and evaluation of public action. It is advisable to establish a very long time frame for this climate issue that is being introduced into the field of public action, one which is conceived in a time dimension that must combine the present moment and a broad perspective. Kant’s argument was initially developed for the prevention of armed conflict: the evaluation of public action cannot be measured only by military success or failure in a battle, but rather by considering a perspective of establishing sustainable peace [KAN 09].

The approach used here is particularly concerned with episodes of high climate volatility, which makes for a narrative “with long strides”, jumping from the first human cultures to the contemporary period, to the present concerns of climate change. The intermediate period corresponds to the Neolithic revolution and the development of the first cities in the context of greater climatic stability. This interlude of climatic bliss saw, however, regions suffering from dry weathering*, such as the disappearance of the green Sahara, which transformed into the largest existing desert as we know it today. Major cultural transformations, such as the establishment of polytheism in Mesoamerica, will be discussed not only in direct relation to natural climatic instability but also with regard to the more or less sustainable relevance of previous environmental organization.

This methodological introduction will be presented in three steps. The first step will introduce climate terminology, detail some chronological points of reference and then present theories of climate prior to the present period. The second step will be devoted to questions of the history of religions that are asked about cultural and climatic data, such as the history of climate theologies. The third step highlights a reference that has been omnipresent in the different parts of this research work on climate change, that of Michel Foucault, which will clarify the methodological orientation of this global history of climate change.

I.1. Human diversity and climate

Since the physics of Joseph Fourier* at the beginning of the 19th Century, it has been understood that the temperature of the Earth is higher than it should be because of the formation and functioning of the solar system. This difference is attributed to the greenhouse effect: the Earth’s temperature is highly dependent on the percentage of greenhouse gases contained in the atmosphere. The alternation of glacial and interglacial periods became more pronounced during the Quaternary Period. An explanation was provided by Milankovitch* based on small variations in astronomical variables such as the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit, the obliquity of the Earth’s axis of rotation and precession. The transition from an Ice Age to an interglacial period is accompanied by a rise in sea level and a reduction in the surface area of land.

The climatic characteristics of the Quaternary Period are those of a cooling system that provides large volumes of ice. Episodes of dry weathering* led to vast arid areas, hot or cold deserts, but these remain poorly known, as it is difficult to know the rainfall pattern over long periods. In Africa, the Sahelo-Saharan region underwent radical transformations over relatively short periods of time of a few thousand years, ranging from green landscapes with very large lakes, such as the climatic optimum of the Holocene, to desert regions. Cooling cycles of about 100,000 years only increased very strongly around 600 ka (ka = thousands of years, or 600,000 years before a reference date of 1950). Some human species, Neanderthals and Denisovans, adapted biologically to low-temperature conditions. However, they are relatively recent species, differentiating only in the last major glaciation episode.

In addition to the instability of monsoon regimes, other phenomena on a smaller time scale occurred: the Heinrich* and Dansgaard–Oeschger* events. The Heinrich event was a complex regional interaction that occurred in the North Atlantic, with a large iceberg emission, a change in thermohaline circulation and rainfall patterns. Heinrich events caused sudden cold climate weathering, with an increase in arid surfaces, deserts and steppes. For the last Ice Age, we will note from H12 for the oldest Heinrich event to H0, the most recent, also called “Recent Dryas”. Dansgaard–Oeschger* events were short climatic fluctuations, with a pattern demonstrating a temporary “peak” of warming, followed by a gradual return to the initial state. The temperature gradient was significant in areas near the poles. One explanation was the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, when permafrost areas on the periphery of the ice sheets thawed. In a Dansgaard–Oeschger event, warming was sudden, then the cold gradually set in again, in a period of time ranging from a few centuries to a few thousand years. These rapid climate fluctuations led to an adaptation of biomass, mainly plant-based. In Europe, for example, the cold period of this short cycle corresponded to the expansion of areas with low biomass (glaciers, tundra, steppes and deserts), while the warm phase was that of a humid temperate climate with a vegetation cover including open forests. The Dansgaard–Oeschger events were twice as numerous as Heinrich events during the last Ice Age. Over the past 120,000 years, the catalog of notable climate change events has amounted to 40 units. However, the greatest variations in greenhouse gas rates can be traced back to very old geological periods, before and after the first animals appeared. Anatomically modern humans therefore have only partial experience of climate change, and this very far back in time during the previous Ice Ages and the formation of vast arid areas. The anatomically modern human perspiration system is the result of adaptation to hot and dry environments, while adaptation to cold is more cultural-based.

I.1.1. A summary chronology

The evolutionary bush in which human species developed perennial crops is estimated to have occurred about 7,000 ka. The first Homininae remain poorly known, a little less so the Australopithecus who acquired a standing position. The first tools in the African continent subjected to a dry climate weathering then appeared. Then, around 2,500 ka, the climate cooled and an ice cap formed in the Northern Hemisphere, whereas it previously only existed in the Southern Hemisphere. A first diffusion of perennial and transmitted cultures was mainly attributed to H. ergaster. The latter spread from Africa to Eurasia, with archaeological evidence dated at 1,700 ka in Georgia.

The Quaternary climate can be characterized by an alternation of glacial and interglacial periods, the latter lasting about 20,000 years. Cold phases were longer than warmer interglacial phases. Environmental explanations for the emergence of humans with perennial cultures in the great ape group involve climate change as a regional dry and cold weathering phenomenon. The stockiest hominids, like paranthropus, probably disappeared in severe cold peaks. Dry weathering contributed to differentiating the environments, forest, steppe or savannah in nature, and the more open spaces were favorable to the development of bipedalism.


Figure I.1. Environment and emergence of perennial cultures. Note: the time scale is graduated in millions of years prior to 1,000 ka, and in 200 ka after

The reversals in the temperature curve are ordered in a classification based on the isotopic stages of oxygen, about 20 in the last 800 ka. These climatological considerations and dating techniques were recently introduced. For human cultures, terminology was introduced by prehistorians in the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. These cultures had cumulative properties with very long innovation cycles at first, shortening in the transition from the Middle to the Upper Paleolithic.

Heinrich cold events were a regional phenomenon, centered on the North Atlantic, unlike the hot Dansgaard–Oeschger events which affected the whole planet. Calendars may have differed slightly between the two hemispheres, depending on the size and location of the ice sheets*. Cold episodes often led to a decrease in the human population and its diversity. Higher snowfall was a negative factor: most large herbivores need to graze grasslands without snow cover. Hot and humid episodes led to an increase in biomass and promoted the growth of plant, animal and human populations. Aridity, cold or hot, introduced disparities in population densities and cultural homogeneity: arid areas were sparsely populated with a more homogeneous culture. In the elementary trophic model* based on a natural product* derived from plant biomass, the product increased in the hot and humid phase; this reduced the size of foraging areas and facilitated cultural fragmentation. Cold or dry weathering led to a reduction in the natural product, a reduction in human populations in size and diversity and an increase in the size of foraging areas.


Figure I.2. Paleolithic cultures and climate instability in Europe. Source: [PAI 18]

Figure I.2 on Paleolithic cultures in Europe maps climatic events and human cultures. Paleolithic Europe was subjected to Heinrich events. A few milestones allow us to familiarize ourselves with this chronology: 400 ka, fire control was well documented, an important asset for survival in climates with short summers and long winters [LUM 17]. This continuity of transmission of a technique would have been obtained in a hot phase (isotopic stage* 11) by H. Heidelbergensis. Around 300 ka, the tools of Mousterian culture were introduced and remained unchanged until about 42 ka.

The trend in the last glaciation (about 114–14 ka) was a maximum climatic weathering event for a period around H2 and before H1, a period referred to as the last glacial maximum*. The largest extent of the ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere was 18 ka. The great transition from the end of the Ice Age ended around 8 ka with a “peak” biomass production in a hot and humid climate, the Holocene climatic optimum*. The transition between the last glacial maximum and the climatic optimum of the Holocene separates, for human cultures, the hunter-gatherers very skilled in the cutting of Lascaux flints while the ice sheets were the most extensive from the first farmer-breeders of the Anatolian plateau who lived in agglomerations like Çatal Höyük*.

The period from 150 to 450 ka was marked by a succession of glaciations, with a greater amplitude than during the period from 450 to 800 ka. The glacial maximum came shortly before the start of the interglacial phase in all glaciations before 500 ka, which thus shared the same climate change profile. Thus, the last glaciation had a lot of similarity with the three previous ones. The succession of climatic shocks was quite similar. However, the adaptive response changed, as did the composition of culture and genetic modification in human adaptation to these shocks. The old division by prehistorians into the three Paleolithic ages can be further justified by a formula of different composition in all three cases. Climate volatility* accelerates natural selection. In the Lower Paleolithic, culture was very stable, more stable than the biological adaptive responses that modified body shapes. The Middle Paleolithic combined adaptive biological and cultural responses. The Upper Paleolithic was based primarily on adaptive cultural responses [COP 17, pp. 53–54].

I.1.2. Climate and cultural diversity

The Paleolithic saw no public institutions and therefore remained an age of simple, low-hierarchy organizations. The development of the first states took place long after the last major climatic event of prehistoric times, the Holocene climatic optimum. The progression of the diversity of human cultures was supralinear: first very low, a little diversity began to appear in the Upper Paleolithic, which then exploded in the Mesolithic and Neolithic. A maximum of linguistic diversity alone was estimated at about 16,000 languages after the introduction of agriculture. The diversity of technological cultures continued and accelerated in the most recent periods. The human population remained very small during the Paleolithic period; in the case of anatomically modern humans, it was in the order of a few hundred individuals, which also meant very little cultural diversity.

For example, a representation in a cave frequented from the Gravettian to the Mesolithic, the representation in a Sicilian cave of the ordeal of two birdmen, has received four different interpretations: an initiation ritual, a sacrifice, a spectacle or even a punishment. While the dating of the composition can be traced back to the beginning of the occupation of this cave, this reduces the polysemy of this representation, which on the contrary was maximum for the end of the human occupation of the cave. This distribution of human diversity legitimizes a research approach to the primary cultures of anatomically modern humans as introduced by linguist Michaël Witzel [WIT 12]. Going back in time, the possibilities of interpretation are limited, due to the relatively late expansion of cultural diversity.

Climate and its effects on cultural diversity have been relatively little studied, probably less than the consequences of cultural diversity on climate change. However, some results can serve as a starting point. There is a contrast between the unified nature of the cultures of central Australia, facing an increasingly arid climate and the great diversity prevailing in the well-watered northern regions. There were 27 linguistic families in this northern region, compared to only one in the central regions, the Pama-nyungan languages, which originated in northern Queensland but covered almost the entire Australian territory.


Figure I.3. Dynamics of cultural diversity

In European Paleolithic sites, another opposition existed between the northernmost specialized hunters (reindeer, seals) and populations attached to herds of large herbivores (mammoths, bison, horses). It was mainly the latter that adorned the caves.

The more or less rapid occupation of the different climatic stages of a mountain allows archaeologists to measure the potential of a prehistoric culture to fit into several climates. Human cultures, from the birth of the arts, have been able to break away from too much climatic specialization. However, the extremely harsh conditions of cold glacial environments or hot desert environments led to the reduction of cultural diversity for the populations of these arid areas. Dry and cold climatic conditions reduced human diversity. Cold weathering is more radical: Antarctica, a very cold continent, has no inhabitants, while even the driest deserts have seen the development of human cultures.


Figure I.4. Language families in Australia. Source: [COM 04]. For a color version of this figure, see

Table I.1. Linguistic diversity according to climate. Source: [COM 04]

Climate Region Number of linguistic families Number of languages spoken
Cold Arctic, Siberia, northernmost Canada, Aleutian Islands 4 12
Temperate Europe 4 47
Hot and humid Brazil 15 250

New technologies and the expansion of new religious beliefs provide the main non-climatic factors for the reduction or expansion of cultural diversity. In the Paleolithic, the climatic factors of the reduction of cultural diversity played a full role: the speed of technological renewal was low, and the population of anatomically modern humans was at its lowest levels. All these factors explain a low level of cultural diversity, even for very large territorial areas, such as Gravettian culture, whose most important centers were in the region of the great rivers of Eastern Europe, but which could be found both in Western Europe and far away in Central Siberia. On the other hand, since the Neolithic period, technological and religious factors in the reduction of human diversity have become increasingly significant. There is, however, a long intermediate period, the Mesolithic, where climatic factors were very favorable to greater cultural diversity, while technological and religious unification factors were probably not very effective.

Theories of diversity were first theories linked to climate, particularly in Aristotle and Montesquieu’s work. Lucien Febvre’s lifestyle theory [FEB 22] introduced a voluntary modification of living environments by humans, without taking into account industrial societies. There are numerous old climate theories, but they all share one same property: they do not have a dynamic dimension, i.e. they consider biomes with a stable climate over time.

I.1.3. Paleolithic climate and cultures


Figure I.5. Climate and Paleolithic cultures up to -130,000 years. Source: [CON 16]. In red, period with temperatures equal to or greater than the present. For a color version of this figure, see

Henri de Lumley [LUM 17] dates, from between 400 and 200 ka, the perpetuation of the transmission of expertise on fire. Before that, we were in the Lower Paleolithic. The very important contribution of fire led to the emergence of a cumulative culture, which made it possible to move from temporary local knowledge to a mode of transmission ensuring the sustainability of good adaptive practices. These practices undoubtedly allowed Homo heidelbergensis to survive for an extremely rigorous period (isotopic stage 12), without this expertise being lost but, on the contrary, sustained over a relatively mild period (isotopic stage 11).


Figure I.6. Climate and Paleolithic cultures between -130,000 and -478,000 years. Source: [CON 16]. In red, periods with temperatures equal to or greater than the present. For a color version of this figure, see


Figure I.7. Climate and paleolithic cultures between -478,000 and -790,000 years. Source: [CON 16]

For a region including Europe, the Near East and Central Asia, the Middle Paleolithic corresponds to the pre-Neanderthal and Neanderthal periods. The Middle Paleolithic was therefore marked by a regionalization that combined adaptive cultural and biological processes. There was some synchronism between cultural developments and biological adaptations of Neanderthals, with an expansion in isotopic stage 5 in Asia. A very small population and a lifestyle similar to that of Arctic hunter-gatherers moderated learning dynamics.

The cultural dimension took on a great importance in the Upper Paleolithic. The question then arises as to how to better identify the “adaptive and evolving dimensions of cultural phenomena” ([BAN 17], p. 74).

In a general antinomy between specialization and diversification, the Middle Paleolithic was mostly focused on specialization. Human populations were less anatomically diversified at this time, hunting techniques were used in a similar way for very long periods of time – as, for example, at the Biache-Saint-Vaast site (isotopic stage 7) – and Mousterian cultures remained unchanged during the period. These adaptive responses in terms of specialization were found in the evolution of animal species during this period of the great glaciations of the last 500,000 years.

For the study of the transition between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, following the work of the linguist Michaël Witzel [WIT 12], we will use the term “W1” for the cultural themes of anatomically modern humans whose appearance is assumed to date back to a period prior to the first exodus from Africa and the Middle East, i.e. about 120/100 ka; then “W2” for the cultural themes of the first trip out of Africa by taking a migratory route along the coasts of the Indian Ocean and crossing the Wallace boundary* to enter Australia; and finally “W3” for the group of cultures that circulated along the large ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere, about 50 to 25 ka. Around 135 ka, the W1 crop benefited from favorable climatic conditions that allowed it to expand in the Near and Middle East. The date of 65 ka is proposed for the crossing of the Wallace boundary by the W2 culture. The date of 12.5 ka is the date generally used for the closure of major land crossings between Eurasia and the Americas. The prehistorian Marcel Otte proposes to bring cultures based on technology and imagination closer to the Solutrean, based on a Mediterranean culture, which would have developed from 25 ka. It would be in a way the “W4” crop, the cultures of Lascaux, but which spread in a more marked context of cultural diversity.

It is tempting to compare this succession of exits from Africa with the cycle of yellow or green Saharas, i.e. that of monsoons in Africa. While monsoons move northwards, happening about every 20,000 years, the Sahara has a savannah landscape and large lakes, as was the case at the Holocene climatic optimum about 10,000 years ago. This was the green Sahara. Today, it is the largest desert on the planet, the yellow Sahara, with its maximum extension being about the time of Roman antiquity. The concordance with an episode of yellow Sahara works well with the W4 culture, a North African culture that initially developed in a context of dry weathering, but less well with the cultures of previous exits from Africa according to the present state of our knowledge. The easiest way out of Africa is with a green Sahara, and it seems that this was the case for the first cultures of anatomically modern humans. On the contrary, the W4 culture combines an accumulation of difficulties, a yellow Sahara and a glacial maximum. It is therefore not a simple cycle, but a joint crescendo of climatic weathering and cultural capacities. Cultures W1 and W2 were stopped in their spatial diffusion by cold, which is no longer the case from culture W3. However, the W2 culture crossed the strait that separated the Senda and Sahul continents, at least one arm of the sea about 100 kilometers wide. As for the W4 culture, it probably has to its credit the massive crossing of the Canadian ice sheet, an icy vastness.


Figure I.8. Rising sea level and the movement of human settlements in Provence and the Alps

The date of 11.7 ka is the definitively established date when the warming of the exit from the last Ice Age occurred. This warming occurred more rapidly and regularly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a period of slower warming only between 14 and 12 ka. It was more chaotic on the Northern Hemisphere side, with episodes of strong warming, such as that of Bölling-Alleröd between 14.7 and 12.8 ka, and cold returns, the Dryas. The beginning of the Bölling period was the maximum rate in rising sea level, with 16 m in 350 years (submersion noted as “Melwater Pulse-1A”; see Figure I.8). The rise in water levels continued until the Holocene climatic optimum period, around 8 ka, a hot and humid climatic thrust that provided a “peak” biomass production.

During the great transition from an Ice Age to an interglacial period, mountain valleys were accessible as the glaciers retreated. Thus, in the example of Provence and the Alps, in the period of the last glacial maximum, only coastal sites were found by prehistorians, such as the Cosquer cave. This one showed evidence of Gravettian* and Solutrean* elements. The Magdalenians migrated up the Rhône and created pioneering camps near the ice limits, following large open valleys with lakes collecting snow and ice melts. The human occupation of the Alpine massif followed closely the retreat of the glaciers. The Holocene climatic optimum* period saw camps at high altitudes, up to 2,600 m in Zermatt (see Figure I.7.).

I.1.4. Climate theories

The methodological question raised to assess the role of climate change in the formation of human cultures is that of a climate theory. The latter was very present before it was supplanted by sociological theories based on Comte’s positivism, which promotes mechanisms of pure social aggregation. A great overview like Lucien Febvre’s work in Terre et l’évolution humaine [FEB 22] has the intention of defending a geographical discipline against the claims of other approaches, such as biological or social sciences. While these old climate theories often express a political dimension, they rarely address the case of a changing climate. These approaches refer to a static framework, most often unsuitable for climate change.

A panegyric of the inhabited country can be found in many early climate theories, combining a lack of objectivity in spatial comparison with a culturally adaptive response. Thus Arapooish, Crow chief, described his country to Robert Campbell, agent of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, around 1835:

“The land of the Crows has snowy mountains and sunny plains, with all kinds of climates and good things in every season. When the summer heat burns the prairies, you can retreat to the shelter of the mountains, where the air is soft and fresh, the green grass, and the bright streams cascade from the snow. This is where you can hunt moose, deer and antelope. In fall, when our horses are fat and strong after grazing in the mountains, we can go down to the plains and hunt buffalo. And when winter comes, you can take shelter under the trees below, along the rivers. The land of the Crows is just where it needs to be. All the good things are found there.” ([KEY 04], p. 13)

The Crow were farmers who adopted this adaptive strategy, which consisted of moving between three types of camps. For trappers and other plains residents other than those of the Crow tribe, these territories were the Badlands, subject to drought and temperature extremes. This panegyric of the inhabited country is found in many ancient climate theories, combining a lack of objectivity in spatial comparison with a culturally adaptive response.


Figure I.9. Distribution of biomes according to precipitation and temperature. Source: [MEL 15]. For a color version of this figure, see

A seasonal route in several biomes*, as the Crows did, is a strategy based on spatial diversification. In the Politics by Aristotle, his panegyric of Greece is based on the global representativeness of the human diversity of the Greeks. For Aristotle, temperament patterns varied according to the climates of different parts of the world. Westerners living in cold countries were brave, but not very civilized and developed the arts very little. Orientals had opposing characteristics, better in art and reasoning, but “almost all of them are enslaved, always under the domination of some master” ([ARI 64], p. 131). “It is from intelligence and courage” that a civil society was born, the Greeks reconciling these two qualities, either individually or because their society was representative of both parts of the world. A political ambition can be drawn from these differences: uniting the common Greek denominator and instituting an expansionist policy on the side of the East, turning its back on the cold and its freedom, which is in itself incapable of spreading.

Aristotle’s framework was taken up again in L’Esprit des Lois by Montesquieu [MON 51]. Climates are differentiated by Montesquieu according to temperature, and he details experiments on the effects of cold and heat on sensations and muscle fibers ([MON 51], pp. 474–476). Latitude degrees are “degrees of sensitivity”, composure being on the cold side and northern latitudes.

“You will find in the northern climates people who have few vices, enough virtues, much sincerity and frankness. Approach the countries of the South, you will think you are moving away from morality itself: more vivid passions will multiply crimes (...). In temperate countries, you will see peoples who are inconsistent in their ways, even in their vices, and in their virtues; the climate is not of a quality determined enough to determine them themselves.” ([MON 51], p. 477)

Optimal regulation must compensate for the negative effects of climate, “the more the climate leads to fleeing the work” of the Earth, “the more religion and laws must excite people to it” ([MON 51], p. 480). “It is the different needs in different climates that have formed the different ways of living; and these different ways of living have formed the various kinds of laws” ([MON 51], pp. 483-484). There are “happy climates”, such as that of India, which give birth to “the innocence of morals” and produce “the sweetness of laws” ([MON 51], p. 489). Adaptive trial and error characterizes the spirit of the laws, with failures that can even occur in “happy climates”, such as the inequality of social conditions in India that does not provide incentives to cultivate the land.


Figure I.10. Lifestyles in 1910 according to Lucien Febvre. Source: [FEB 22], p. 271]. For a color version of this figure, see

The notion of “lifestyle” is explicitly taken from Montesquieu by Lucien Febvre ([FEB 22], p. 107). He noted that Montesquieu did not take into account the determination of climatic zones by precipitation. For Febvre, “climate generates botanical distribution” and forms “natural settings” ([FEB 22], p. 136). For Febvre, there is a public action that imposes “laws, customs, ways of acting that react powerfully on conduct (...) towards the powers and resources of nature” ([FEB 22], p. 185). “It is not nature that affects man’s needs, but man who, by choosing two or three of them from among several means of satisfying his needs and by stubbornly sticking to the one he has chosen, ultimately affects nature” ([FEB 22], p. 261). The lifestyles are varieties of agriculture and hunter-gatherer economy.

Febvre’s idea of “lifestyle” came from social conventions, and even natural settings shaped by human will. There was neither adaptation nor adaptive trial and error on the part of Febvre. The latter proposed an extended morphogenesis of the living environment resulting from forces such as natural powers and collective will. The book La Terre et l’évolution humaine [FEB 22] establishes a connection between the present and an Ice Age whose great traces have formed the landscape. Only farmers’ societies have the same power, in a succession over time of the forces of nature and human will.

I.2. Effects of climate change on cultural and spiritual transformations

Our problem is that of the modification of cultures during climate change and in particular the emergence of a perennial* and cumulative culture with adaptive properties. As early as 1871, Tylor introduced the term animism to describe the way beliefs were organized in early societies. Today, this terminology is used to designate a characteristic of an ontology, that of attributing a human interiority to a non-human being [DES 06]. There are many of these relationships between nature and culture, and it is sometimes possible to identify them from an archaeological item or from a local mythology. Human beliefs in periods marked by strong climatic fluctuations have focused on being immersed in living powers of the environment.

Methodologies for this topic initially focused on a type of natural phenomenon. Research would proceed, for example, by choosing a type of event such as a GLOF* (rupture of a natural dam holding a glacial lake, associated with melting ice, therefore on the side of warming) and collecting the myths associated with this phenomenon. This was the approach of the folklorists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. However, the most extreme phenomena, such as GLOFs, were not yet clearly identified at the time. The material collected was abundant and very disparate, but required tools to be truly interpretable, starting with the dating of the natural event. The genealogy of each myth makes it possible to place the catastrophic phenomenon in its cultural context.

Another approach is the phenomenology of religious experience. It consists of starting from the specific type of ritual or religious practice. Frazer inaugurated the process around sacrifice, Eliade around mysticism. Historical sequences, transformations, ranges and the link with climate volatility for major sacrificial practices, for example, can be determined. For human sacrifice due to a climatic event, large mythology databases immediately give us a result indicating a regional character (the Clovis Cultural Area*, the eponymous site of contemporary New Mexico) and a temporal period at an exit of the Ice Age: the result obtained is very interesting but obviously only a fragment of a more general history.

Structuralism succeeded phenomenology. In André Leroi-Gourhan’s book Les religions de la préhistoire [LER 64], it is precisely noted that direct archaeological evidence prevails over the uses of ethnographic and oral culture surveys. However, this rule now invalidates his proposal on “an art that begins in the abstract and tends towards an increasingly assertive realism” ([LER 64], p. 87), especially since the enrichment of the knowledge of rock and cave art of the Aurignacian and Gravetian period in the 1990s with the discovery of the decorated caves of Cussac, Cosquer and Chauvet Pont d'Arc.

Research on early human cultures has often been divided between so-called “comparative” approaches, in the tradition of the Tylor and Frazer, and those based on the search for archaeological and historical elements, such as Leroi-Gourhan’s. The approach used here is deliberately synthetic, comparing human cultures based on archaeological and historical evidence. A limitation of such an approach is highlighted by Witzel [WIT 12]: the proposed dates are predisposed to an evaluation favoring the most recent dates. For example, if there is archaeological evidence of sacrificial rituals related to Magdalenian* water, the possible error in dating the appearance of such sacrificial rituals comes from the fact that they may have existed earlier without leaving any material evidence detectable by an archaeological approach. This synthetic view is based on a list of major cultural transformations, introduced by Jaspers [JAS 54].

I.2.1. Climatic and axial periods

Karl Jaspers introduced a notion of axial periods (pivotal periods), during which major cultural transformations formed a new basis for a significant part of humanity [LAM 14]. This notion is expressed in the form of a list of major transformations of human cultures. The core of the list is the succession of major transformations from the Upper Paleolithic: the multiplication of the arts, followed by the formation of the productive economy, the formation of city-states and the birth of writing, the Zoroastrian transformation and finally printing and modern sciences [LAM 14].


Figure I.11. Classification of Jaspers-Lambert perennial cultures. Source: [VAL 16]. For a color version of this figure, see

Prehistorians also use two other axial periods, the Lower and Middle Paleolithic, which formed cultural groups without a large contemporary trace because they were represented by extinct human species. The list is often completed in the present, taking into account the Industrial Revolution and contemporary climate change. The complete list includes nine major cultural transformations: tools, fire, the arts, agriculture, writing, Zoroastrian reform, printing, the Industrial Revolution and the present times. The core of the list makes it possible to classify the different types of beliefs of the contemporary human population (see Figure I.11).

This list aims to remedy shortcomings in the work that are most often limited to a single dichotomy, for example, Lucien Febvre [FEB 22] retained as a major cultural transformation only the break in the transition to the productive economy, i.e. the beginnings of agriculture. The five axial periods at the heart of the list cover the main cultures and religions in a general classification. This is not an evolutionary reading: all these cultures are perennial, present today, since they come from human history, sometimes very ancient, and they are regional, in the sense that they do not succeed each other in the form of a universal replacement of the previous axial culture.

Axial transitions in the Paleolithic occurred during periods of high climate volatility. The very content of the technological contributions in these transitions was often directly related to climatic vicissitudes: fire, mobile shelter, the eye needle that led to well-sewn furs that did not let the cold pass, the need to move despite the heat. The beginnings of agriculture were able to take advantage of an improvement in climate, that of the Holocene climatic optimum, while weathering in climatic contexts only slowed its progress. The first civilizations were “hydraulic”, resulting from a distribution of water resources, but this occurred in various climatic contexts.

For the axial transition known as the Zoroastrian reform, the transition from polytheism to monotheism, there was no climate change during this period. Therefore, in the case of the earlier axial transition, changes in the climatic regime were archeologically documented, as was the case of the establishment of polytheism among the Mayans. When Constantine converted to Christianity around 313, climate volatility had become very low, and the exceptional rituals and procedures for deities with erratic behavior like Apollo had lost their lustre and purpose. A decrease in climatic events was apparent from the succession of axial periods in prehistoric and historical times.

The effects of an increasing human influence on their environment are felt, to take one example, in the formation of polytheism. The precise study of the Mayan religion indicates a main gap, between the Mayans of the classical period with a constellation of cities of medium importance with worship of a priest king and the use of a priestly script, and that of the post-classical period beginning with the great city of Chichen Itzá [BAU 02]. The religious buildings were joined by a colonnade where for the first time a representation of the goddess O* of the floods appeared. She would reside in dry wells, while the importance of a humid underground world had continued to grow among the Olmecs, then the Mayans. This goddess was depicted by an old woman, reversing the traditionally positive value of water. Among the classical Maya religion, the climate was represented as regulated by grand cycles. A high priest worked on the periodic renewal of these cycles in buildings dedicated to this theatrical depiction of nature. Ancillary rituals had the function, if necessary, of reintegrating natural events into this eternal cyclical return in the classical Maya religion. Among the post-classical Mayans, polytheism took over, accompanied by a greater dimension given to the practice of human sacrifice [BAU 02]. The transition to polytheism in Mesoamerica occurred at the time of a break in the monsoon regime [ZHA 08]. The recent discovery of the Balamku cave makes the link between dry weathering and the choice of the location of the city of Chichén Itzá through offerings to the Mesoamerican rain god Tlaloc.

I.2.2. Climate theologies

Methodological problems were the most difficult for the Paleolithic, which represented the greatest climate volatility. A few simple questions can be asked about the archaeological elements to try to clarify in which climate theology the site studied was located. Several questions can be asked to try to profile the climate powers in the belief system of the time concerned: was the belief system chthonic or uranian, i.e. centered on Earth or Heaven? Was this great power close or distant? Was the instability, the versatility of this power, represented by a girl or a young man? Mircea Eliade’s clear answers [ELI 64] to these questions are now all being questioned. For Eliade, belief systems centered on the Earth or the Woman were marginal, and a law, in the positivist tradition of cultural evolutionism, led to distant gods being excluded because of a priority given to new, closer gods. Focusing on a more precise context of polytheism formation, for example using the archaeological data of Mesoamerica, the transition is seen to be from a “pantheism to a pantheon” [BAU 02], which does not correspond to the hypothesis of a rapprochement defended by Eliade, but rather to a reinforced role of mediators, a college of priests for more distant gods.

These peremptory affirmations of religious phenomenology presented by Mircea Eliade must be seen in the context of the modernist crisis*, starting with the contribution of biblical exegesis at the beginning of the 20th Century. Several theological currents have been highlighted in the history of the composition of the biblical text: that associated with the conception of a powerful mountain god, the mountain being identified as Sinai, and that of a local hero complicit with men. The theses of Wilhelm Schmidt’s original monotheism and Mircea Eliade’s religious phenomenology aimed to recompose a unified figure of God or Man after the work of exegesis indicating several figures merging into that of the major divinity.

While the representation of great celestial gods wielding lightning is well associated in many climate belief systems for historical periods with limited climate volatility, studies of Paleolithic cultures lead to a careful consideration of chthonic belief systems. The occupation and development of the deep underground world is documented as early as 176 ka in the Bruniquel cave. Mountains and caves formed sanctuaries, which led to the hypothesis of a particular place in the bowels of the Earth in belief systems. Basque mythology is an example of chthonic mythology with a fire dragon, Sugaar, and nature, Mari and Earth and Amalur. The chthonic systems can include, as is the case of Basque mythology, a primordial element, a spirit of life or destruction, a cycle with an underground part (the Basque Amalur) and a goddess of nature (Mari) whose union with the dragon of fire Sugaar leads to storms.

The fire dragon belongs to Eurasian mythologies, in intermediate latitudes. A division according to the latitude of the chthonic belief systems can thus be proposed, based on the remark that the fire dragon indicated the existence of exceptional heat waves ([LEQ 17], p. 376). Cold environments are therefore not relevant, nor are biomes of usually warm climates. In mythological and folklore data, the division of chthonic cultural systems was as follows, ranging from the coldest to the warmest:

1. Very cold biome, i.e. the Arctic, with sealers and other marine animals. The Armless Woman* (ATU* 706) remains a major myth of the Canadian Arctic, which is also present in 73 oral traditions around the world (mainly Europe, the Near East, North Africa, then the Americas and Asia) [BER 11]. In this mythological framework, a young girl has her upper limbs gradually cut off, which gives birth to the different marine animals. An environmental disturbance results from the woman’s temporary irritation with tangled hair in her underground or underwater residence. This underwater residence was more often depicted in Chinese and Japanese myths, where climate dragon kings reside in an underwater palace.

2. Cold to temperate biome, with a mythological serpentine celestial dragon as its characteristic animal. Mythology transcribes the existence of an alternation of two highly contrasting seasons, with a dramatic framework concerning two goddesses, one associated with Nature, the other with the underground world. A delay or an absence of the second leads to the wandering of Nature, which causes famine. In ancient Greek mythology, the myths of the ages of the world move from a golden age with an eternal spring, i.e. without seasons, to a world with four seasons. The two seasons are only found in the myth of the two goddesses, Demeter and Persephone*. The climate disruption is represented as a delay in the seasonal return to the terrestrial domain of a chthonian power embodied by a young girl.

3. Temperate or semi-arid steppe biome, where a heat wave situation can be perceived as a climatic anomaly. The situation is conducive to mythologies with a firedragon. These have only a regional distribution, while the association of the dragon with water is universal, present in 200 oral traditions around the world according to Yuri Bereskin’s database [BER 11].

4. The warmer biomes are associated with the universal situation of a belief system where water is a spirit of life and where the dragon is also in its primary definition in relation to this vital element.

Several scenarios can be considered for the affirmation of a centering on the sky, which seems irrelevant in an Aurignacian* context [CAL 18]. The succession of types of consecrated places is, however, a reality, with chthonic inscriptions being pronounced in the Paleolithic – first caves, rock walls and mountains – while later worship in open-air sites turned to the sky, even before the Neolithic. However, these different scenarios all rejected a climate theology that would have resulted in the cult of a great thundering sovereign god, which is an anachronism for these periods of high climate volatility.

Since religious phenomenology has not sought to characterize the specificities of Paleolithic spiritualities, it refers to the hypothesis of an archetype or a first monotheism. It proposes for a history of religions only the succession of active divinities, starting from the withdrawal of the great first divinity, an idle god. However, taking into account Paleolithic spiritualities, the dynamics in which subsequent religions developed were rather those of a distance from supernatural powers, a verticalization and a masculinization.

A power over the near or distant climate? The recognition of nature’s powers seems to leave them mainly in a close relationship. There could be proximity to a powerful animal such as the bear, as evidenced by a common grave of a Neanderthal and a bear. The Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave was first a cave for cave bears, and human occupations clearly indicate the elements of a ritual for this animal. While the conception of a distant god was commonplace for the print era, the theme of a distant authorizing god was mainly present in Sahelian Africa. This affirmation of heaven was often associated in myths with the arrival of agriculture, a hunted god withdrawing with a nourishing sky, forcing men to work ([LEQ 17], p. 321). A spiritual attachment can be placed in a perspective of increasing resilience* [CYR 17], and archaeological evidence is on the side of supernatural powers in a situation of proximity to humans, whether for Neanderthals or early anatomically modern humans.

Table I.2. Myths of climatic power

Myths associated with climatic power Active Passive Gender
A wounded nature Exuberant sexual activity, or mutilation (female resilience) Two “goddesses” representing the female life cycle, and the presence of a misfortune Female
A capricious nature A misleading seduction, a joke from a Trickster that goes wrong Dragon slayer (male resilience) Male

Paleolithic art was above all an animal art, with some female and exceptionally male representations. In the European context, the latter only multiplied at the end of the Paleolithic, i.e. in the period of maximum climate volatility (“Meltwater Pulse 1A”). Archaeological indications suggest, for this period, joint dynamics of verticalization, masculinization and distance of supernatural powers. The multiplication of tectiform signs in the caves decorated with Franco-Cantabrian decoration is undoubtedly an indication of a better verticalization, and a better consideration of the environments outside the underground world. The representation of auroch surrounded by rays of Plougastel, contemporary with Meltwater Pulse 1A, indicates a distance from a supernatural power. The female representations were conjoined with those of an injured nature: thus, a wounded rhino was represented near the “Venus Chauvet” in the decorated Aurignacian cave of Chauvet-Pont d'Arc. Male representations are more likely to be those of a capricious nature, associated with strange phenomena proving very violent. Myths can be expressed around spirits or agents, either active or passive. Tricksters* are seducers, while dragon slayers* are seduced, in love, but engaged in dead-end love because they are not shared. Female characters are often victims, but are either active and able to escape and flourish, or passive and sad. Some myths have a structure of resilience pathway structure: for example, the mutilated woman without arms becomes a great Mother-of-Animals, or the clumsy young man in his love relationships triumphs over the dragon. The oldest myths are universally spread. Among this cultural collection (W1 and W2), there is the Sun, Moon, Water, Earth, Cosmic Hunting* and Trickster. For the culture centered on the myths of creation (W3), there is the Woman and Animal, Rainbow Snake and Promethean Hero [THU 18]. A pattern of resilience pathways appears in W3 around the woman, with myths around the woman’s life cycle and gestation. It was probably not until the Mesolithic* that this pattern of resilience was applied to men.

Table I.3. Religions in Mesoamerica. Source: [BAU 02]

Classification of perennial cultures by Jaspers-Lambert I. Hunter-gatherer shamanism II. Agrarian Ritual of fertility III. Polytheism
Climatic gradient*
Overexploitation of resources by agriculture
Climatic theology Adaptation in mediation with accessible supernatural power Cyclical time of eternal return, a kingpriest governs the climate through rites Large city, development of the cult of Ix Chel, a rainbow goddess of floods
Proposed dating Up to the maximum of climate volatility Succession of the Clovis, Olmec and Classical Maya cultures From about 950 onwards, the beginning of the post-classical Mayan period

The history of religions in Mesoamerica proposes a dating for the sequence of cultures I to III of the Jaspers-Lambert classification. The transition from I to II is probably effective a little before the recent Dryas according to archaeological surveys, while Baudez dates back to about 950 the appearance of polytheism among the Mayans, i.e. the transition from II to III [BAU 02]. A hunter-gatherer shamanism found itself in a culture of adaptation and ubiquity*, with the use of access to the high mountains for populations living along the rivers. A weakening of the climate corresponded with the affirmation of a religion of agrarian rituals, which Baudez describes as “pantheistic”. Time was conceived as cyclical, with a priest king who was part of a theatrical imitation of celestial movements. The climate was somehow governed and softened. The arrival of the great city was also that of polytheism, in which there was a system of two goddesses, a young one and a matriarch (goddesses I and O of the Schellhas nomenclature of the Mayan gods). The history of religions in Mesoamerica indicates a verticalization that remained limited. The Mayan priest king was represented as regurgitated by a dragon, just like the sun at the end of its underground night trajectory. The pantheon of post-classical Mayans was predominantly male, but the cult of the goddess Ix Chel remained very popular. On contemporary data, there is a strong correlation between belief in a divinity of moral behavior and two necessary ecological conditions of abundant resources and a stable climate [BOT 14]. These conditions are met during the transition III–IV of the Jaspers-Lambert nomenclature in Europe. Lactantius theorized the rationality of providential acts of divine justice, after the abandonment of polytheism [LAC 82]. These two conditions were not generally met in the Paleolithic periods.

I.3. Cultural and spiritual transformations: a methodology from Michel Foucault’s work

The research path has seen the development of thematic syntheses on cultures in climate change, three for prehistoric times and three for the present. Our study focuses on a transdisciplinary approach that considers the longest possible time series on climate change and human cultures. Parallel approaches to syntheses focus on issues as diverse as the relationship between human diversity and climate, spirituality* in the current context of climate change and the nature of history that stems from an understanding of the role of climate change in human history. On all these points, the major methodological reference is Michel Foucault.

I.3.1. Between human cultures and spiritual art, the case of the Lascaux cave

Lascaux provides an example of the recurring difficulties in reconciling the time series of climate and human cultures. The site of the Lascaux cave was discovered in 1940. The conditions of the discovery and the opening of the cave to the public have disrupted the possibilities of a good dating of the site. At most, it can be related to a period of maximum cold, the last glacial maximum, a maximum calculated over very long periods of time. The extension of the ice sheet that covered the British Isles and Scandinavia was then at its maximum and the lifestyle of the Lascaux painters was similar to that of the populations of the far north, drawing their resources from reindeer, which alone could feed on the lichens of the tundra. The H2 climatic event was very severe, and undoubtedly led to a renewal of human populations in Europe. Even in cold periods, Dansgaard–Oeschger events persisted, with an increase in game in the descending phase [SAN 16]. The cultivation of decorated caves was first interpreted as the result of warmer periods. However, there were still some ornate caves, and not the least spectacular, in very cold periods, as shown by the Lascaux cave. At most, there seemed to be an interruption in artistic production in H2, a gap between the populations of Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures and those of Lascaux.

The first interpretations of prehistoric cave art were useful: a “hunting magic” according to Abbé Breuil, the first to propose an analysis of Lascaux paintings. The work of Bataille on Lascaux, naissance de l’art, published in 1955 [BAT 55] marked the release of utilitarian explanations, while leaving open the question of the interpretation of this spiritual art of the great cold and the constitution of our own humanity. Georges Bataille’s theoretical effort was based in the two main areas that have been highlighted in the work on comparative religions in the first half of the 20th Century: mystics and eroticism on the side of religious phenomenology, murder and sacrifice on the other side, Frazer’s. Bataille preferred the expression “inner experience” to characterize his theory of religion rather than the “mystical” theory that Sartre used, equating it totally with religious phenomenology. The questions of the relationship with the environment, of the specificity of an extreme climatic situation, were not on the agenda in the 1950s, even if the representations of Lascaux all speak of “external experiences”, of a figurative art of multiple environments.

The theoretical instruments developed and put forward by comparative religious approaches at the time of the discovery of Lascaux were more appropriate for sites either older or more modern than Lascaux. Older sites provided female representations, and the questioning of the eroticism shaping religion seemed to be welcome. The more recent sites, after the maximum climate volatility (14 ka), testify to sacrificial practices and crises with social violence, so that the questions in line with those of Frazer became relevant.

Cultures of the last glacial maximum* remain among the most enigmatic. The scene of the Lascaux well or the trapezoidal signs of caves decorated in this period have not been interpreted by consensus. The paintings of Lascaux represent scenes of fauna in several biotopes belonging to a vast area, between the north of the Loire and Spain. The animals most represented in Lascaux belong to the “horse-bison-auroch” group, which is the case for most of the decorated European caves, but the archaeological remains indicate a way of life associated with reindeer and the use of coastal resources. This probably indicates a strategy of adaptation to the extreme cold through seasonal travel over long distances. The representations of birdmen probably associate death and sexuality, in the well scene, with a sort of test represented by links or projectiles for signs, such as at Placard [CLO 08]. The birds represented belong to the coastal bird species, great auks and oldsquaws.

The scrapping of utilitarian explanations required the introduction of a concept of spirituality, “defined as an awakening, that of a thought that goes beyond the contingencies of day-to-day life, of simple adaptation to the material needs required by the quest for food, reproduction and survival” ([COL 11], pp. 54–55). This recognition of the overcoming of survival strategies resulted from the archaeological analysis of the sites frequented by Lascaux men.

I.3.2. Spirituality, an element of Foucault’s work

Foucault’s tribute following Bataille’s death in 1962 had a programmatic value for his own work ([FOU 01a], pp. 291–278). Bataille’s theoretical undertaking was both taken up and modified. The research program on the history of sexuality that Foucault set out in this article on Bataille was completed with the four-volume History of Sexuality [FOU 18]. The elements about comparative religions present in Foucault’s work have been grouped into two main sets by Jeremy Carrette, that of spiritual corporalities and that of political spiritualities [CAR 02]. Foucault’s religious comparison was developed on the occasion of the history of sexuality project through the transition between Greco-Roman cultures and Christianity. Foucault proposed a definition that he presents as provisional of spirituality: “the research, practice, experience by which the subject operates the transformations necessary to have access to the truth” [FOU 01b, p. 16].

This definition opens up a broader horizon than the theories of religion centered on eroticism or sacrifice. For example, the interpretation difficulties for European cultures of the last glacial maximum related in particular to representations of two types of bird. The first was probably that of an oldsquaw: some of these species of small ducks can have very long penises and they are the only birds to have this anatomical feature. The second was that of a penguin, a bird that does not fly, unlike migratory ducks. This second type was associated in the Pech-Merle cave with a trapezoidal representation, the sign of the Placard cave. This sign was present in a region that runs, along a geographical axis that passes through the Vézère valley, from decorated caves on the Atlantic side to those of the Mediterranean and the Lascaux cave. Both types of bird belong to the same group, solutrean, which had the coldest climate. The subject began to change, but in two different ways. Was spirituality dualistic?

Foucault’s definition of spirituality brings together two forms of transformation of the subject:

“This conversion can be done in the form of a movement that tears the subject away from his current status and condition (...) let us call it the movement of érôs (love). And then another great form by which the subject can and must transform himself in order to have access to the truth: it is work. It is a work of self on oneself, an elaboration of self on oneself for which one is responsible in a long work which is that of asceticism (askêsis). Erôs and askêsis are, I believe, the two main forms by which, in Western spirituality, the modalities according to which the subject had to be transformed to finally become a subject capable of truth were conceived.” ([FOU 01b], p. 17)

These two forms of transformation of the subject, which are part of a definition of spirituality, are already present in Bataille’s work. Basically they are declined in a particular way, in a temporal succession, whereas they coexist in the representations of Lascaux. Bataille conceived of a humanity of labor preceding the Lascaux artists, and was merely repeating the stereotypes of prehistorians of the mid-20th Century about Neanderthals [BAT 55]. The studies of comparative religion and religious phenomenology of 1940 promoted mysticism as the key to interpreting the first spiritualities [ELI 64]. Neanderthals were presented in the texts of the time as idiotic in their daily work. They arrived in Europe, from Asia according to Abbé Breuil, from a leisure class, that of the artists of the Upper Paleolithic. After an age of work, the age of spirituality would have come, without ever introducing any practice of asceticism. Archaeological data today reflect non-utilitarian concerns for human populations well before Neanderthals. For example, the Terra Amata isotopic stage 11 site has yellow and red ocher pencils dating back 400,000 years ([LUM 17], p. 102).

The discussion on the voluntary self-harming of the phalanxes in the Upper Paleolithic allows us to introduce a partial link with a form of climate change, in this case a cold weathering* [MCC 18]. One of the European cultures of the Upper Paleolithic, the Gravettian of the caves of Gargas, Cosquer and Fuente del Salín, is characterized by representations of hands with cut phalanxes, obtained by a stencil process on a truly mutilated hand, or simply by folding a few fingers. These hands with cut phalanxes are different from the earlier Aurignacian representations of whole hands. The article by McCauley et al. [MCC 18] links these representations to self-harming phalanx practices in North America, the Arctic, Africa and Oceania. Gravettian is a culture of cold weathering between H3 and H2, a period of strong cooling that led to the last glacial maximum. It predates Lascaux culture. This self-harming may have been a simple act of survival in a very cold environment, but it took on a spiritual value as a link with supernatural powers, which is the case for these hands painted on the walls of the caves. The succession of complete hands then mutilated in the Upper European Paleolithic is an argument against a scenario of universalist diffusion of a unique cultural practice that came to spread to different parts of the globe: undoubtedly different climatic and environmental contexts led human populations to culturally value practices of self-harm, real or simulated. The context for Paleolithic Europe is that of a cold climate shock for the Cosquer and Gargas caves. The oldest ascetic practices are said to be related to cold.

The traveling painter Georges Catlin indicated in the 19th Century that the hellish places were conceived by the Native Americans of the North American plains as the domain of the cold [CAT 14] [CAT 89]. The theme of the tragic crossing of a vast expanse of ice existed in a cultural group centered on the Blackfeet. The return to heat was late: it was necessary to wait for historical times and the existence of large agglomerations that burned their waste in continuous fires, so that there formed a new imagination of the hellish places taking on the color of fire. The turnaround to heat also took place for the self-harming of the hand: in Roman mythology, Mucius Scaevola deliberately burned his hand in a brazier.

Foucault’s definition of spirituality introduces a double face, mystical and ascetic. This ambivalence was already apparent in Upper Paleolithic archaeology, as evidenced by the debate on hand self-harming. The methodological orientation extends previous monovalent conceptions, specialized on a religious phenomenon: mediation with a power over natural or sacrificial ritual. “In short, I believe that we can say this: for spirituality, an act of knowledge, in itself and by itself, could never succeed in giving access to the truth if it was not prepared, accompanied, doubled, completed by a certain transformation of the subject” ([FOU 01b], p. 18).

A few clarifications can be made on three areas of application of this redefinition of the approach to spirituality that present additional difficulties: first, concerning the Lower Paleolithic; then on shamanisms; and finally on the opposition between political religion* and spirituality in the contemporary era.

I.3.3. Body paintings

For the period most marked by high climate volatility, archaeologists have been confronted with more or less significant deposits of colored pigments. The oldest can be traced back 790 ka, which corresponds to the beginning of a marked alternation between glacial and interglacial periods, but in a rather warm climate, more favorable to body painting. The association of body paintings with technological ages of the Ancient Paleolithic, for example, during isotopic stage 11, is documented ([LUM 17], p. 102). Climatic conditions interfered: cold periods were conducive to the development of the use of skins and furs, dry weathering periods to body paintings. However, these were not suitable for a climate which was too humid or too cold. Thus, isotopic stage 4 marked an interruption in the wearing of jewelry and pigments: it was a cooling that saw the development and expansion of very skilled populations in the tanning of hides, the Neanderthals. Ethnographic data indicate a mixed use of body paintings, for example, a set for everyday use and a set for exceptional events [DEL 07].

Body paintings have been interpreted since Durkheim’s spiritual corporalities as an elementary form of religious life, a stepping stone for a religion resulting from a social federation of clans with diverse spiritual corporalities ([DUR 12], pp. 162-167). Purely social dynamics, by definition, did not play any role in the environmental and climate dimensions. However, forms of climate change were generally reducing cultural diversity, and high climate volatility was sufficient to strengthen cultures around resilient cultural centers. The production of clothing adapted to climatic conditions that offered new means of cultural expression is part of this core. Foucault did not take up the two-level schema that was expressed in different ways in the sociological tradition of the early 20th Century. Weber distinguished the sect from the Church, and Durkheim an enthusiastic elementary spirituality from a bureaucratized religion. These two-tiered schemes have promoted established religions over those of indigenous populations and do not take into account climatic and environmental contexts. The distinction introduced by Foucault concerns the processes of knowledge, either a spiritualized knowledge with its requirements of prior self-transformation and its induced effects on oneself, or, following Aristotle, a definition of philosophy conceived as a condition for reflection on the production of truth. The main opposition introduced by Foucault is between a process of academic production of knowledge (from Aristotle, for the West), and a spiritualized process, combining mystical and ascetic paths. This spiritualized process is initially limited to spiritual corporalities. The Holocene’s ages of climatic bliss bring the development of rituals that punctuate the entire calendar and the development of a political space.

I.3.4. The mystic, the ascetic and the climate

Despite explicit references to shamanic ceremonies and concordant clues from representations of decorated caves from the Upper Paleolithic onwards, the existence and precise determinations of shamanism in the early cultures of anatomically modern humans remain controversial. However, a consensus has long since been established on the existence of a spirituality in these cultures. In order to discuss this question better, it therefore seems advantageous to proceed with a renewed presentation of this problem of Paleolithic shamanism based on the notions introduced by Michel Foucault for the study of spiritualities. He proposed, with the methodological precautions of an approach based on a reductive scheme, to look at the different combinations that can be found between the mystical and ascetic dimensions in the study of spiritualities.

It is possible to verify that this spiritualized process is based on two currents, the mystical and the ascetic. Blacker’s study on contemporary shamanism in Japan indicates that shaman couples, with a medium wife and an ascetic husband, still exist [BLA 99]. Siberian shamanism is the reference in terms of mediation shamanism with supernatural forces, a less frequent form according to Blacker, highlighted however by Mircea Eliade’s study, which popularized the study of shamanism in the 1950s [ELI 74]. A Native American shaman as famous as Sitting Bull was an ascetic according to Blacker’s typology, but folklorist Arnold Van Gennep opposed the use of the term “shaman” when Sitting Bull lived ([NAR 02], pp. 63–64). The metaphor of the two-storey house is Van Gennep’s argument: shamanism does not, according to him, reach the higher status of a religion that it defines by a homogeneity of beliefs and rituals, a religion that passes through coordinated symbols. Shamanism studies indicate three major cultural areas where a “couple” of shamanic types exist: the Arctic and Northern Europe; Japan and the Pacific; and the Americas and the Caribbean [NAR 02]. In the mythology of the Ancient Scandinavians, the greatest god, Odinn, represents the functions of an ascetic shaman who ventures with his spear to produce runes, and Loki, that of a messenger and not very reliable intercessor with the higher powers. Blacker’s assessment of ascetic shamanism in relation to mediation shamanism is therefore not confined to Japan [BLA 99], as evidenced by the mythology of the Ancient Scandinavians, where Odinn has a higher status than Loki.

The study presented here focuses on the cultural transformations resulting from climate change. The introduction of a methodology based on Foucault’s definition of spirituality avoids the reported disadvantages of religious theories limited to the consideration of symbol manipulation, and allows for a finer analysis grid than the mere mention of the existence of a mediation shamanism in periods of high climate volatility, namely that of spiritual corporalities with detailed modalities.

I.3.5. Politics and spirituality

Foucault indicates Aristotle as being at the breaking point of a process of knowledge distinct from that of spiritual corporalities. Aristotle inaugurated a philosophy and a social science based on a comparative academic approach that moves between data collection, the writing of monographs on regions and a general synthesis. The fragments that remain of Aristotle’s work on political constitutions conclude that there is a need for modulation in the exercise of government in relation to climate and the behaviors it induces. Aristotle’s practical recommendations were “not to be harsh” and to accommodate the different political regimes existing in a unifying perspective ([ARI 64], p. 131).

The approach used here is particularly concerned with episodes of high climate volatility, which makes for a “bumpy ride” through history, jumping from early human cultures to the contemporary period to current concerns about climate change. The intermediate period corresponds to the Neolithic revolution and the development of the first cities in the context of greater climatic stability. However, this interlude of climatic bliss saw regions in dry weathering* such as the disappearance of a green Sahara, which transformed into the largest desert existing today. A major cultural transformation, such as the introduction of polytheism in Mesoamerica, is discussed not only in direct relation to natural climate instability but also through the more or less sustainable relevance of previous environmental developments.

During the Iranian revolution of 1978, Foucault [FOU 01a] spoke of the opening of a new era for political spiritualities, and spiritual corporalities remained a constant figure in his analyses. This focus on the association between politics and spirituality has since grown. Human responses during the Paleolithic period to the greatest climatic instability can be interpreted through a paradigm of spiritual corporalities. They developed not in cities or states that only appeared much later, but in organizations. The contemporary period is a period of political spirituality, so Jeremy Carrette’s work [CAR 02] on this paradigm must be extended and enriched by new contributions. The terminology of “political religion”* was introduced by the historian Emilio Gentile for the study of Italian fascist movements that used this formulation to legitimize violent and totalitarian practices [GEN 05]. This terminology is relevant to a study of radicalization, and the use of the formulation of “political religion” in this book explicitly refers to the conceptualization proposed by Emilio Gentile.

I.4. The major role of intermediary structures: organizations in large-scale climate changes

Our study focuses on the periods of great climatic changes, in other words, the period of the first humans and the contemporary period. These two periods, although the most remote societies that can be imagined, played, for a different reason, a major role for organizations. Economic studies and management sciences use the term “organization” to designate an intermediate level of decentralization in terms of the decision between individual and public agency.

For the first humans, there was an absence of any form of public organization, as well as the impossibility of surviving in isolation. This way of life was thus organizational, with small exogamic groups whose circles of exchanges tended to widen, in the very long period of the succession of different human species. Discussion among prehistorians on the possible role of different varieties of shamanism is an example of a concern for understanding the oldest organizational forms. The latter demonstrated remarkable resilience, and their study addresses current concerns about practices seeking to improve rebound capacity following a fatal risk.

In the contemporary period, several factors contribute to highlighting the level of intermediate decentralization, that concerning organizations. This level brings about an operational capacity, lacking in isolated individuals, as well as public agencies that have great difficulty in producing the necessary coordination between all actors. Some public actors can align themselves with pro-carbon organizations, which relocates the decision center towards an intermediate dimension, that of large companies or political parties. On the other hand, innovative good practices are also provided by the intermediate level of organizations that are pioneers in the fight against climate change. Thus, through competition involving good and bad reasons, the organization finds itself today playing the leading roles. It resorts to using a set of increasingly technical standards, such as ISO certifications, for example, to combine sustainable development with social concerns.

I.5. Overview of the book

This book focuses on the present and past traces of climate change in human cultures. It follows climate history practices but moves within an unprecedented time horizon. The paleontologist Yves Coppens [COP 17] concluded his course at the Collège de France on the existence of the link between hominization and climate instability by placing himself on a very large time scale of the order of a million years. Historians, following Le Roy-Ladurie [LER 09], have placed themselves in a limited time scale, most often limited to the last millennium. The replacement of a biological process by a cultural process due to high climate volatility, particularly in periods of expansion of anatomically modern humans, is only somewhat directly questioned by these time intervals, either very wide or very narrow. This work is based on an intermediate choice, starting from the Lower Paleolithic. The time step chosen is about a few thousand years, more than the time horizons of historians, but much less than those of paleontologists. Heinrich events (abrupt cold climate weatherings recorded from underwater sediment cores in the North Atlantic) can be used as an order of magnitude for this time step (average interval of 7,500 years).

The proposed summary is based on a comparison of contributions from several disciplines (prehistoric archaeology, linguistics, disaster studies, risk economics, diversity management): monographs of prehistoric sites relevant to climate change, recent work by linguist Michael Witzel [WIT 12] on the first cultures of Homo sapiens, and our own work on major risks and diversity.

This book consists of two parts, the first discussing the role of high climatic volatilities in the process of hominization and the development of perennial cultures, the second asking the same questions but in the context of current climate change. Each part is composed of three summary chapters, based on recent work that was the subject of conferences and contributions in 2018 symposiums.

The first chapter is devoted to the question of creativity in the context of climate change. Human bodies during the Paleolithic period changed in a variable mixture between perennial cultures* and simple biological adaptation. The Upper Paleolithic unified the biological by mixing, but a cultural diversity was then affirmed. In Europe, all the caves decorated with Franco-Cantabrian decoration (between 37 ka and 7 ka) indicate variations in the practices of spiritual corporalities in a context of cultural stability.

High climate volatility has contributed to the formation of the cultural basis of humanity. The dating of the transition to societies where sacrifice played a primary role is an old concern, fuelled by the discovery of the Lascaux cave. The archaeological data available today suggest a probable transformation at the time of maximum climate volatility (around 14 ka) [GRI 19]. Foucault, following Battaille, listed four possible extreme relationships [FOU 01a]. This paradigm of extreme cultures will be developed in the second chapter.

The first pictorial representations of anatomically modern humans are figurative [AND 12]. The representations of fauna are very careful following the appearance of graphic representations. Water is the guarantor of the world’s dynamic equilibrium. Water-related myths clarify the orientations of cultures towards the environment. The climatic dimension introduced makes it possible to clarify certain points on the succession of the first cultures of anatomically modern humans proposed by the linguist Michaël Witzel [WIT 12]. The first human cultures aspired for water to arrive, not to stop raging floods. Then, during a new wave of exodus from Africa, a collective eschatology appeared, probably based on the climatic characteristics of the new regions occupied by anatomically modern humans, such as those of monsoon phenomena. The third chapter thus retraces the universal history of the major transitions of climate cultures through that of water myths, those of the dragon and the flood.

The second part is limited to current issues: the place and role of diversity in organizations, the consequences of religious tendencies (modernism, traditionalism, fundamentalism) on trade policies, and the transformations induced on normativities* and organizations in the contemporary period of climate change. The three proposed syntheses deal with the themes of human diversity, possible relationships between climate and political violence and the development of protectionism.

The fourth chapter concerns the transformations in the production of standards due to climate change. It identifies the different analytical approaches that can be introduced to study the effects of religious and cultural diversity and climate migration.

The analytical framework introduced previously makes it possible to propose a synthesis in the fifth chapter on organizational transformations in climate change. The organizational dimension, the intermediary between public agencies and individuals, is the only one present in the Paleolithic. Contemporary theoretical debates indicate hesitations about the role to be given to these intermediate levels today.

The sixth chapter provides a general perspective on the theme of religion in interaction with protectionism and the climate environment. Protectionism emerged in the 19th Century in the United States and France as a practice of parliamentary compromise, while free trade was associated with a desired modernization of religious institutions. A certain permanence of the characteristics of the electorates was achieved with a doctrinal renewal that modified the economic policies pursued. The debate in the 21st Century is no longer so much a debate or conflict between tradition and modernity, as it is between interfaith dialogue versus fundamentalism.

  1. 1 Important terms indicated by an asterisk (*) are defined in the Glossary at the end of the book.
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