Special Issue: Human-environment interactions and Ecosystems

Time-scale effects in human-nature interactions, regionally and globally

  • LI Yu ,
  • GAO Mingjun ,
  • ZHANG Zhansen ,
  • ZHANG Yuxin ,
  • PENG Simin
  • Key Laboratory of Western China’s Environmental Systems (Ministry of Education), College of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Center for Hydrologic Cycle and Water Resources in Arid Region, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou 730000, China

Li Yu (1981-), PhD and Professor, specialized in paleoclimatology. E-mail:

Received date: 2022-09-30

  Accepted date: 2023-03-24

  Online published: 2023-08-29

Supported by

Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences(XDA20100102)

National Natural Science Foundation of China(42077415)

The Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research Program (STEP)(2019QZKK0202)

The Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research Program (STEP)(The 111 Project)

The Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research Program (STEP)(BP0618001)


Spatial-temporal scales effects are general among human-nature interactions. However, the laws and mechanisms of the interaction between humans and the environment at different spatial-temporal scales remain to be identified. The Hexi Corridor in Northwest China is located in the eastern section of the Silk Road and is one of the world’s first long-distance cultural exchange centers. Here we present a comprehensive dataset of the Hexi Corridor, including changes in environments, population, wars, famines, settlements, and ancient oases from the Neolithic to the historic period. Results show that humans adapt to climate change on the millennium scale by choosing corresponding production methods. Environmental change, civilization evolution, and dynasty replacement interrelate on the decadal and centennial scales. Social crises are closely linked to extreme weather events on the interannual scale. On the basis of these results, we find similar time scale effects in the world’s major ancient civilizations. We do so by analyzing their processes of civilization evolution.

Cite this article

LI Yu , GAO Mingjun , ZHANG Zhansen , ZHANG Yuxin , PENG Simin . Time-scale effects in human-nature interactions, regionally and globally[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2023 , 33(8) : 1569 -1586 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-023-2143-5

1 Introduction

Global change is an issue that the international community cannot ignore, and the resulting environmental problems are one of the significant challenges facing human beings today (Ge et al., 2004). Over the past 2000 years, the impact of human activities on the climate system has gradually increased, while the sustainable development of human society is closely related to environmental changes, especially climate change (Weiss et al., 1993; Evans et al., 2018). A clear understanding of nature’s social and historical laws is vital in humanity’s response to future environmental changes. This requires elucidation of the laws and mechanisms of human-environment interaction at different spatial-temporal scales. Studying the interaction model between the evolution of human civilization and the history of climate change is a meaningful way to explore the above issues (Yancheva et al., 2007; Kathayat et al., 2017; Chen et al., 2019).
Scientists have persistently sought to confirm the interaction between the evolution of climate change and human civilization, including societal collapse and the rise and fall of empires and dynasties in China, Europe, Africa, and many other regions, albeit on different spatial-temporal scales (Binford et al., 1997; Carleton and Hsiang, 2016; Drake, 2017). It has been proposed that extreme cold-dry events are a crucial reason for the decline of ancient civilizations over a long time scale, and the continuous warm and humid climate is crucial to the prosperity of human society (Binford et al., 1997; Buckley et al., 2010; Chen et al., 2015b; Evans et al., 2018). Further studies concluded that natural disasters might be a vital factor in triggering the succession of feudal dynasties, and extreme climate events may exert devastating effects on human societies and ecosystems, so climate may have played a significant role in human history (Weiss, 2017; Bellprat et al., 2019; Sinha et al., 2019). Recent research indicated that the response of civilization evolution to climate change is complicated, and cold and dry climates may also prompt social or technological innovations to adapt to climate change (Bevan et al., 2017; Drake, 2017; Wu et al., 2018). Nevertheless, it can be seen that, due to the lack of studies of human-nature interactions at different time scales in the same region, and the lack of high-precision data, comprehending the social evolution mechanisms and the dynamics of ancient civilizations persists challenge. Efforts to explore the difference in interaction patterns between humans and nature on different time scales and their dynamic mechanisms are controlled by the paucity of high-resolution paleoclimate data and historical documents (Yin et al., 2016; Drake, 2017).
Field data, as well as archival and reliable paleo-climate records, provide a unique opportunity to investigate societies affected by climate change in different historical periods (Zhang et al., 2008; Feng et al., 2019). The Hexi Corridor is not only the main road for cultural exchanges between the East and the West in the historical periods but also an essential channel for cross-continental cultural exchanges from the Late Neolithic to the Early Iron Age (An et al., 2017). In recent years, the discovery of abundant documents and ancient ruins, coupled with the development of paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental research, have laid the foundation for us to determine the interaction model between people and the environment in the Hexi Corridor (An et al., 2003; Dong et al., 2016; Zhang et al., 2018; Yang et al., 2019a, 2019b; Dong et al., 2022). Here, to study the mechanism of the human-environment relationship, we present a comprehensive dataset of the Hexi Corridor, including changes in the environment, population, war, famine, settlements, and ancient oases at different scales, and summarize the case studies of environmental archaeology, as well as analyze the main influences of environment changes and technology level on the evolution of ancient societies. The interaction between humans and the environment at different time scales in the Hexi Corridor is discussed. We then propose a possible mechanism for the dynamic evolution of human survival and ancient civilizations and compare the main evolutionary processes of the world’s seven major civilizations to promote human-nature interactions on a global scale.

2 Study area

The Hexi Corridor (92.33°E-104.75°′E, 37.25°N-41.50°N) is located west of the Yellow River in Northwest China. It is between the Southern Mountains (including Qilian Mountain) and the Northern Mountains (including Longshou, Heli, and Mazong Mountain ranges). The water system of Hexi Corridor is an inland water system. The region has three major water systems, from west to east, the Shule River, the Heihe River, and the Shiyang River. The headwaters of these rivers originate from the Qilian Mountains, and their hydrological systems give the forms of oases in an otherwise arid area (Dong et al., 2018). Located in the eastern section of the Silk Road, the Hexi Corridor is a unique combination of politics, culture, and ethnic diversity. As a multiethnic region, the Hexi Corridor has been a hub of confrontation and integration of diverse nationalities (Pei and Zhang, 2014; Pei et al., 2015). The region is situated in the transition zone between the northwest inland arid zone and the eastern monsoon region, which is sensitive to climate and environmental changes (Wang et al., 2013; Chen et al., 2015c; Li et al., 2017). Therefore, this area is a natural laboratory for studying the interaction between humans and the environment at different spatial-temporal scales.

3 Materials and methods

High-resolution climate proxy indicators include tree rings, loess, ice core, lake deposits around the Hexi Corridor and major civilized areas worldwide, and historical documents that provide data on wars, disasters, population, and famines were collected.

3.1 Paleoclimate proxies data

High-resolution paleoclimatic reconstructions were constructed using multiple paleoclimate proxies, primarily obtained from ice cores, tree rings, lake sediments, and loess. All paleoclimate indicators are derived from published literature. Furthermore, the data collected by the digital image processing method is interpolated to uniform temporal resolution.

3.2 Oasis rebuild data and methods

The scope of agricultural production was determined by official history books such as Han books, and revised using modern archaeological reports (Feng, 1963; Feng, 1981; Jie et al., 2013). Famous Cultural Cities and Important Towns of Ancient Settlement in Hexi Corridor, Gansu, China (Ma, 1992) and some new archaeological investigations provided detailed descriptions of the ancient city sites of Hexi Corridor in different historical periods (Haobo et al., 2016; Na, 2018; Wang, 2018). Historical maps included Western Han Political Region Geography (Zhou, 2017) and Chinese Historical Atlas (Tan, 1982), mainly used to obtain the administrative system of historical periods. Modern maps were mainly used to locate ancient cities.

3.3 Variables data and correlation analysis

Because the relevant data on various factors that were analyzed was discontinuous, it was impossible to obtain complete data from 2 to 1998 CE. Instead, we summarized the available data to provide the mean values for 40 periods (every 50 years of length). Where no data were available for 50 years, we used interpolations between adjacent periods to estimate the missing data. The famines and disaster data, is recorded through the Hexi Corridor’s historical information. Mainly included droughts, floods, famines, plagues, earthquakes, etc. (Feng, 1982; Li, 1996; Yu et al., 2011; Shun, 2016). For wars data, they were extracted from the Chronology of Chinese Wars in Past Dynasties. Because of the transitive nature of war, we only counted the China War in the Northwest (west of Shaanxi) (Guo, 1986). Population data were extracted from Population Research in Hexi for the Past Dynasties (Jiang, 2008) and other researches (Zhang and Qi, 1998; Cheng, 2007). Since the data are not continuous and represents an irregular period, we used linear interpolation to fill the gap. Based upon population size data, population growth rate was calculated by the following formula: based on the population size data, the population growth rate was calculated by the following formula:
$\frac{{{P}_{t}}-{{P}_{t-1}}}{{{P}_{t}}}\times 100\%$
where P is the population size, and t represents time step.
The widely accepted simple correlation analysis (Pearson’s r) is used to detect significant relationships between pairs of the key variables.

4 Result

On the millennium scale, the high-resolution paleoclimate records in the Hexi Corridor (Figure 1) indicate that the mid-Holocene 6000-5000 cal a BP had a warm and humid climate. During this period, the Yangshao culture in the Yellow River Basin expanded westward to the Hexi Corridor (Li et al., 2010). In the middle and late Holocene, the climate of the Hexi Corridor is optimal, and the Majiayao culture enters a period of prosperity. However, starting from the later period of Majiayao culture, the climate in the Hexi Corridor tends to be arid, and the culture develops from a single Majiayao culture to Qijia and Siba cultures (Xie, 2002). A change in production method occurred at this time from agricultural production to a mixture of agriculture and animal husbandry. During 4000-2500 cal a BP, the emergence of highly mobile nomadic civilizations was represented by Dongjiatai and Shajing. At around 3200 cal a BP, the cultural faults appear in the Hexi Corridor (Yang et al., 2017).
Figure 1 Records of climate change and cultural succession. (a) 18O isotope content from DLH tree rings; (b) TOC content from the Juyan Lake section; (c) 13C isotope content from Sugan Lake cores; (d) Carbonate content from Keluke Lake; (e) TOC content from Qinghai Lake; (f) 18O isotope content from Hala Lake; (g) C/N from Zhuye Lake; (h) TOC content from Bian Dukou section; (i) Carbonate content from the Haxi section; (j) TOC content from Huangyang River; (k) 18O isotope content from Dunde Ice Core. (Supplementary Figure S1 and Table S1). C1-C8 represent the ancient civilization of the Hexi Corridor (Supplementary Table S2).
On the decadal and centennial scale, the oasis, as a unique geomorphic structure of the Hexi Corridor, is affected by natural conditions and human activities (Chen et al., 2019). The ruins of the ancient city are the most prominent landmarks of the ancient oasis. During the Han Dynasty, ancient cities were scattered around the Han Great Wall, and during the Tang Dynasty, they were reduced and mainly distributed in the east of the Hexi Corridor, but in the Qing Dynasty, the number of ancient cities proliferated and were distributed along the outer side of the Ming Great Wall (Figures 2a-2d). Before the Qing Dynasty, the ancient towns were distributed sequentially around the agricultural areas of the oasis (Figures 2b and 2c). However, the ancient cities of the Qing Dynasty could already be kept at a distance from the oasis (Figure 2d). Regarding the spatial distribution of oases, oases were scattered in the lower reaches of the Hei rivers and Shiyang rivers during the Han Dynasty, During the Tang Dynasty, the area of oases shrank, and large areas of the Shiyang River basin were abandoned (Figures 2b and 2c). The peak of the oasis area was reached in the Qing Dynasty, and the oases in this period were mainly concentrated in the plain area in the middle reaches of the river (Figure 2d).
Figure 2 Records of climate change around the Hexi Corridor and ancient oases (A) (a) 18O isotope content from Dunde Ice Core; (b) Wulan tree ring index (grey shaded), orange line is 30a moving average; (c) Duran tree ring index anomaly; (d) The reconstructed runoff of Black River (gray shaded), yellow line is 30a moving average; (e) Reconstruction of precipitation in Qaidam Basin; (f) Reconstructed precipitation over the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (grey shadow), orange line is 50a moving average; (g) Carbonate content from the Juyan Lake section; (h) 13C isotope content from Sugan Lake cores; (i) Redness from Qinghai Lake profile (Supplementary Figure S1 and Table S1). D1-D10 represents the dynasties (Supplementary Table S3). (B-D) The ancient city and oasis of Han, Tang and Qing dynasties (Supplementary Table S4).
The relationship between social crises and extreme weather are close on the interannual scale. Fluctuations in all wars, population growth, drought, and famine variables correspond very well and are in successive order. Famine increases significantly in response to increasing drought, the primary disaster type in the Hexi Corridor (Figure 3d). As famine increases, the number of wars increases almost simultaneously, and the population growth rate decreases with the increase in wars (Figure S2). To better understand this consistency, the correlation coefficients between the above factors were calculated, and all coefficients are above the 0.05 significance level (Figures 3a-3c). Famine and drought are a significantly positive correlation (r = 0.69). Population growth is significantly negatively correlated with wars (r = -0.71), and that population is significantly negatively correlated with famine (r = -0.50). This close coupling makes the impact of drought events more pronounced on the interannual scale than on the centennial scale.
Figure 3 Diagram showing environmental and socioeconomic variables. (a-c) The relationship among droughts, famines, wars, population; (d) disasters, droughts and famines every 50 years (Supplementary Tables S5 and 6)

5 Discussion

The Earth’s climate varies at different time scales, and our results indicate that there are general effects of spatial-temporal scales among human-nature interactions over different time scales. To better understand human-nature relations at different spatial and temporal scales and the cross-scale interactions of these relations, we review the history of human social development in the Hexi Corridor under different temporal scales of climate change and then propose an explanation of how such complex mechanisms and laws contribute to the understanding of observed human-nature interaction phenomena at different scales. Finally, we analyze global cases to explore the applicability of this spatial-temporal scale effect at the global scale.

5.1 Cross-scale interactions among human-nature in the Hexi Corridor

5.1.1 Human adaptation to climate change in prehistoric times

A high-resolution chronology of prehistoric cultures and prehistoric human subsistence is a prerequisite for understanding the history of human evolution in relation to environmental change, and helps us to explore the trajectory of cultural change in prehistoric times. During 5900-4000 cal a BP, full millet agriculture had been established in the Hexi Corridor and the crops planted by human of different cultures were only foxtail and common millets (Ren et al., 2021). The flotation results of the Majiayao culture at the Shannashuzha site showed that millets were usually cultivated crops, and common millet was favored by farmers than foxtail millet (Hu, 2015). The charred crop combination unearthed from the late Machang culture Xichengyi site in the Hexi Corridor and the Majiayao culture Benbakou site in the Hehuang V alley only consisted of foxtail millet and common millet (Chen et al., 2015a; Fan, 2017), which is same as the results of investigations of other Machang culture sites in this area (Dong et al., 2013; Ren et al., 2021). The ratio of farming tools to hunting tools and the ratio of weed seeds to crop seeds indicated the predominance of agricultural activities during this period (Dong et al., 2018; Ren et al., 2021). A study of the spatial-temporal pattern of archaeological sites showed that people began to settle in the Hexi Corridor in the Majiayao cultural period (Dong et al., 2018), and reached unprecedented levels of prosperity during the Machang cultural period, when the largest number of ancient sites were found. Sites of the Majiaoyao Culture and the Banshan Culture were scattered in the eastern part of the Hexi Corridor. The broadest spread of prehistoric sites occurred in the Machang Culture, when the majority of the sites spread westward along the Hexi Corridor, with some sites even extending as far as the Badain Jaran Desert (Wang et al., 2016).
Most of the Qijia sites were located near the Shiyang River and gullies, but some were on mountain ridges. Common and foxtail millet remained the main crop plants at the time, however, wheat began to appear as an important crop. The earliest wheat in China was found in the Huoshiliang and Gangangwa area of the Qijia culture site (Dodson et al., 2013). At Huoshiliang, wheat comprises 3% of the actual yield percentage, whereas at Ganggangwa it comprised 17% of the production ratio. Wheat cultivation appeared and began to make a significant contribution to the Hexi Corridor region. Subsequently, wheat and naked barley replaced traditional millet and became the major food crops in the area (Zhou et al., 2016). Furthermore, the unearthed animal remains suggest that the ages of domestic sheep/goats (4060 cal a BP) and cattle (3970 cal a BP) from Huoshiliang and Ganggangwa are the earliest within the Gansu region (Ren et al., 2020; Ren et al., 2022), before which pigs were the main meat resource (Chen et al., 2020).The abundant cattle and sheep/goats remains at these sites reflect that pastoralism had emerged and was a major part of the subsistence and economic systems (Brunson et al., 2020; Ma et al., 2021).
There were many branches of culture in the Bronze Age after the Qijiya culture, with significant differences in the survival strategies of different cultural groups. The sites of the Siba Culture were mainly distributed in the Heihe River basin and Shule River basin in the mid-west of the Hexi Corridor, and some of its sites reached the Badain Jaran Desert in the north. However, the number of archaeological sites in the Hexi Corridor decreased significantly during the Bronze Age. The area sizes of archeological sites in this period are much smaller than those of Majiayao, Qijia,and Xichengyi sites, and the distribution of sites is obviously sporadic (Shui, 2001). In the Hexi Corridor, the flotation results from Donghuishan and Xichengyi sites of the Siba culture (3700-3300 cal a BP) showed that millets still accounted for the vast majority, while the unearthed wheat increased significantly (Flad et al., 2010; Fan, 2017). Archeological investigations of many Siba culture sites also suggested that wheat and barley played an increasing role in the agricultural production of the Siba culture group (Dong et al., 2018). In the Hexi Corridor, the main crops used by the human of the Shajing culture (2700-2100 cal a BP) were barley, common millet, wheat, and foxtail millet, with barley being the dominant one (Dong et al., 2018). The crop remains from Shanma culture (2900-2100 cal a BP) sites showed that the cropping patterns in this area were mainly barley, supplemented by common millet, wheat, and foxtail millet (Yang, 2017; Dong et al., 2018). In addition, the stable carbon isotope evidence from human bones also showed that there was an apparent dietary shift from a C4 signal (probably millets and animals fed with C4 foods) to C3 and C4 mixed-signal (probably millets, wheat, barley, and animals fed with C3 and C4 foods) after 3600 cal a BP in northwest China (Zhou and Garvie-Lok, 2015; Ma et al., 2016).
In prehistoric times, humans adapted to long-scale climate change by choosing production methods accordingly. Periods of prehistoric cultural turnover correspond to major environmental changes. In general, warmth and humidity are conducive to cultural prosperity, whereas climate deterioration can lead to changes in the economic strategies and settlement patterns of cultures. The prosperity and development of agricultural production in the Machang Culture were fostered by the relatively high and stable temperature and precipitation levels. By the time of the Qijia culture, the unfavorable climate not only triggered a reduction in the number of human settlements but also led to a migration of settlements to higher altitudes. The constraints on agricultural production have led to the cultivation of more drought and cold-tolerant crops and the adoption of more sophisticated subsistence strategies such as livestock farming. Over the next millennium, the climate became colder and drier, leading to the shrinking of river systems and land degradation (Shen et al., 2005; Zhou et al., 2012). The agricultural culture was entirely replaced by a pastoral culture (Yang et al., 2019a).

5.1.2 The complex coupling of humans and the environment in historical times

As the factors influencing the human-nature relationship are more complex during the historical periods, many studies have analyzed the relationship between climate change and human migration, and dynastic change by combining historical data and paleoclimatic records. Yang et al. (2020a) suggested that in the historical period (121 BC-AD 1911), human settlement patterns were mainly determined by geopolitics related to the alternating rule of regimes and frequent wars, especially in the Sui-Tang dynasties. Tang and Feng (2021) found Climate change may have been the main factor inducing droughts and floods before 1580 AD, while human activities may have increased the frequency of droughts and floods after the 16th century. Li et al. (2019) pointed out that a climate-induced decline in agricultural production and the subsequent fluctuations in population could act as a trigger for social unrest. However, an appropriate administrative hierarchy could strengthen the social governance of regional government, and promote social stability and economic development at a regional level. Yang et al. (2020b) noted that climate variability was not the direct cause of these phenomena, but that climate reduced food production, which gradually led to migration and conflict.
The Hexi Corridor is the source of the Shiyang, Heihe, and Shule rivers, and many oases are formed along these rivers, which gradually became areas for the concentration of human society and economic activity. Climate-oasis-civilization is a unique perspective of the human-environment evolution mechanism of the Hexi Corridor (Chen et al., 2019). There is a recurring nature of oasis development, where extreme weather, herbivores, or human disturbance can affect the oasis evolution, mainly in the form of old and new oases alternating (Tang and Li, 2021). Since the Western Han Dynasty established the four counties of the Hexi Corridor (Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, Dunhuang), the Hexi Corridor has been formally incorporated into the political system of the Central Plains Dynasty. The oasis area of the Hexi Corridor expanded as a result of migration to build the frontier, the establishment of cantonments, and the development of water conservancy and other measures implemented by the government during the Han Dynasty (Ruan et al., 2016). The Tang Dynasty improved the cantonment management system, but due to the occupation of the Hexi Corridor by the Uighurs and other minority groups in the middle and late Tang Dynasty, the difference in production methods led to the agricultural development of the Hexi Corridor being abandoned and large areas of the oasis being deserted. The Ming and Qing dynasties were another peak of oasis development, and the improvement of water conservancy engineering technology made the artificial oasis continuously expand out to the river. The evolution of oases in the Hexi Corridor shows a natural oasis pattern dominated by natural forces being replaced by an artificial oasis with irrigated agriculture as the center and the development of livestock. The natural oasis pattern dominated by natural forces is replaced by an artificial oasis centred on irrigated agriculture at the center and livestock development (Tang and Li, 2021). Natural and human factors such as climate change, changes in water systems, changes in production methods, social stability, and the level of agricultural technology jointly drive the evolution of artificial oases in the historical period of the Hexi Corridor.
China has always been predominantly agricultural, and agricultural production is largely limited by the climate in the historical period. A large population adds to the burden on agriculture so that once climate instability is encountered and affects food production, it often leads to widespread famine, the occurrence of which causes social unrest that eventually manifests itself in more violent acts of war, a chain of climate change-war relationships that have been demonstrated in previous studies (Feng et al., 2019).

5.1.3 The accumulation effects and background effects of human-nature interactions

For explaining this complex social phenomenon, we propose a possible cross-scale mechanism behind this pattern: the Accumulation effects and Background effects. This mechanism is based on the premise that natural ecosystems and human social systems interact through changes in the climatic environment and changes in human activities. And there are three types of such human-nature interactions at different spatial and temporal scales: On the millennial scale, human adaptation to climate change. On the decadal and centennial scale, environmental change and human evolution are coupled. On the interannual scale, climate extremes trigger social crises (Figure 4). We argue that high-frequency climate anomalies can cause changes in social processes if they accumulate continuously. The climatic context, in turn, determines the type and frequency of climatic events. Human activities and environmental evolution are not reflected as a simple response to climate change, but rather the transformation of social patterns reflects a link between long and short time scales with climate change. Short-term climatic events, such as strong winds, and severe natural disasters, such as earthquakes, impede food supply; however, because they are single events, they do not affect the productive manner and do not have long-term effects on food security. Prolonged droughts, however, have no predictable end and can cause cumulative damage that can have serious implications for food security. Induced food crises can increase social vulnerability, provoke social unrest, lead to profound and drastic social changes, and have long-term effects: individuals, society, and even entire nations can feel less secure. People then tend to blame instability on the form of central government, mining communities, other religious groups, etc. Large-scale migration flows, wars, and wars are also a direct result of food insecurity. Although the climatic environment has played a very significant role in the evolution of human societies in prehistoric and historical periods, we still cannot deny the role of science and technology. Throughout the history of human evolution, many technological innovations have advanced civilizations, complicated societies, and increased the resilience of human societies to cope with environmental changes. We believe that scientific and technological progress is a long-scale process, so it is also convincing to consider the level of science and technology as a stable technological background over time to complement the background effect.
Figure 4 A conceptual map of the relationships between human and nature

5.2 Global evidence for spatial-temporalscale patterns in the Hexi Corridor

To explore the applicability of the human-environment interaction model of the Hexi Corridor, we first cited some typical examples of human-nature relations in China and elsewhere, and then analyzed the relationship between the rise and fall of major ancient global civilizations and climatic events in the time scale of climate change.
Early Bronze III civilizations of Palestine, Greece, and Crete; all reached their economic peaks around 4300 cal a BP. Then, owing to catastrophic droughts and cooling, they abruptly terminated before 4200 cal a BP (Fraedrich et al., 1997; Hassan et al., 1997; Cullen et al., 2000; Weiss and Bradley, 2001; Staubwasser et al., 2003). Furthermore, at around 4500 cal a BP, Paleoindians abandoned their camps due to the drying out of lakes in the arid interior of Chile (Nunez and et al., 2002), although their settlements remained in the humid regions of Peru (Aldenderfer et al., 1988). In North America, Paleoindians left the High Plains and moved to the foot slopes of mountains because of the hot and dry climate (Holliday et al., 1989); and in East Africa, people simultaneously migrated to cooler upland regions (Smith et al., 1992). A study of Europe shows that the cooling of 1560-1660 AD led to a chain reaction of agroecological, socio-economic, and demographic catastrophes that culminated in the general crisis of the seventeenth century. This globally widespread phenomenon has forced us to remeasure climate-induced social change at a different scale (Zhang et al., 2011).
In China, the collapse of the Dawenkou culture also provided an example where changes in paleotemperature biomarkers and cultural shifts at Yuchisi (Dawenkou culture site) occurred suddenly and simultaneously. Archaeological data from Yuhuicun Site in Bengbu indicate that the cold and dry climate has limited agricultural production, reduced food sources, eventually leading to the abandonment of the site (Zhang et al., 2010). Studies on the evolution of ancient settlements in the Chaohu Lake basin also indicate that climate change has had a strong influence on the distribution, expansion and development of ancient settlements (Wu et al., 2010). This is similar to the results of prehistoric human studies in Xinjiang and Poyang Lake (Xu et al., 2016; Zhang et al., 2017). Extreme climatic events could have great effects on the social structures and the relationship between the fall of the Ming Dynasty and climate change has been widely discussed. (Feng, 2011; Zheng et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2015c; Xiao et al., 2015; Cui et al., 2019; Fan et al., 2022). However, our curve results also show the importance of the roles of some other human endurance capacity in mitigating population decline caused by disasters and war. On the country and local scales, these forceful social mechanisms might have postponed or even eliminated population declines during short cooling. For instance, before the Qing Dynasty, peaks of social disturbance such as wars, famines, and population reduction follow every decline in temperature (Figure 2A, Supplementary Figures S2 and S3). The emperor of the Qing Dynasty used robust measures to unify the northwest of China. China’s war frequency benchmark begins to decline and the population increased despite being in the LIA (Ge, 2002; Tian, 2019; Li, 2020). Likewise, wet tropical countries with high land-carrying capacity or countries with trading economies did not suffer a considerable shrinkage in the food supply in the same period, and this difference in response to climate is particularly evident in the pre-industrial period (Zhang et al., 2008). And in the post-industrial period, due to a particular social tolerance in human societies, short and violent periods of extreme weather are likely to have no significant and rapid social response, and a sound social system will absorb some of the instability.
We apply the scale model to the evolution of major global civilizations to analyze the plausibility of this effect. On the millennium scale, prolonged droughts can lead to mass migration, and humans can cope with environmental adversity by innovating technologies that promote social development. In Mesoamerica, the Maya civilization migrates on a large scale after 800 AD due to the continuous drought (Medina-Elizalde and Rohling, 2012) (Figure 5a). In East Asia, a dry climate predominates around the beginning of 1000 BC, leading to the emergence of nomadic civilizations with high mobility (Di, 2002) (Figure 5e). In Sahara, the ancient Egyptians begin to migrate to the Nile River basin in 1500 BC due to continuous drying, the western desert becomes an uninhabitable place (Gatto and Zerboni, 2015) (Figure 5b). In South America, the drought in AD 562-594 forces the Tiwanaku people to translocate from Lack Titicaca to mountainous regions (Binford et al., 1997) (Figure 5g). At the centennial scale, global cooling events in the mid-late Holocene have a significant influence on the decline of ancient civilizations. The Maya is eventually replaced by Aztec civilization in the Little Ice Age (AD 1500) (Haug et al., 2003) (Figure 5a). The European Dark Ages (900-1200 BC) may be related to the cold climate (Moreno et al., 2012) (Figure 5d). The recession of Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley is closely associated with the drought during 2200-1900 BC (Madella and Fuller, 2006) (Figure 5c). The collapse of the Akkadian Empire (2300-2100 BC) is believed to be related to a drought around 2200 BC (Kerr, 1998) (Figure 5f). Scientists focused on the effects of cooling in Eurasia on agricultural production, war, and population decline at interannual to multidecadal scales, proposed a model of extreme climate change and large-scale human crisis (Zhang et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2011). Therefore, the human-environment interaction model in Hexi Corridor has particular applicability globally.
Figure 5 Records of climate change globally. (a) 18O isotope content from Belize Blue Hole; (b) Variations in amounts of Ca2+ from Faiyum Oasis; (c) 18O isotope content from Indus delta; (d) 13C isotope content from Alpi Apuane karst of central-western Italy; (e) Magnetic susceptibility from Qishan section; (f) Carbonate content from Gulf of Oman core M5-422; (g) 18O isotope content from Lago Umayo (Supplementary Figure S4 and Table S7).

6 Conclusion

This paper reviews several cases of human-nature interactions by examining regional and global climate proxies, historical documents, and archaeological sites. It derives the time-scale effects of human-nature interactions, regionally and globally. Our conclusions suggest that spatial-temporal scales affect human-nature interactions over different time scales. The accumulation and background effects are plausible explanations for the cross-scale communication of climate change and human activities. The combination of climatic and social backgrounds determines human production methods and social patterns. In contrast, the accumulation of human activity and environmental change can influence the social context and even climatic conditions through the succession of civilizations and dynastic change. The results illustrate the general effects in spatial-temporal scales among human-nature interactions. They may provide new insights into how human societies reacted to climate change on different time scales.

Data availability

The data on changes in environments, population, wars, famines, settlements, and ancient oases that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Supplementary figures

Figure S1 Map showing the sampling sites in the Hexi Corridor (Blue indicates the Ice core, Green indicates the Lake, Yellow indicates the Loess, Orange indicates the Tree ring.)
Figure S2 The change among war, famine, and population growth rate over time
Figure S3 Trends in the population in the Hexi Corridor (Zhang and Qi, 1998; Cheng, 2007; Jiang, 2008)
Figure S4 Map showing the locations of ancient civilizations globally, referred in this study

Supplementary Tables

Table S1 The locations, elevations, proxies used and proxy indication of sampling sites in the Hexi Corridor. H1-H11 indicate the proxy of the decadal and centennial scale, M1-M14 indicate the proxy of the millennium scale.
Number Material Site name Lat (°N) Long (°E) Elevation (m) Proxies used Proxy indication References
H1 Tree ring Delingha 37.5 97.1 3193-4175 Tree-ring width, 18O Temperature, Precipitation Shao et al., 2004; Shao et al., 2006; Yang et al., 2014
H2 Dulan 36.5 98.1 3617-4040 Tree-ring width, 18O Temperature, Precipitation Yang et al., 2000; Yang et al., 2014
H3 Haiyagou 38.5 99.9 2863-3517 Tree-ring width, 18O Precipitation Yang et al., 2000
H4 Zhamashi 38.2 99.1 3300-3574 Tree-ring width, 18O Precipitation Kang et al., 2002
H5 Wulan 37 98.6 3700 Tree-ring width, 18O Temperature, Precipitation Shao et al., 2004; Shao et al., 2006; Yang et al., 2014; Zhu et al., 2008
H6 Heihe 38.4 100 3325 Tree-ring width, 18O Runoff Kang et al., 2002
H7 Qilian 38.4 99.9 3400-3500 Tree-ring width, 18O Temperature Liu et al., 2004
H8 Lake Juyan Lake 42.1 102.1 894 Carbonate content Moisture Qu et al., 2000
H9 Sugan Lake 38.9 93.9 2800-3200 13C, 18O Temperature, Moisture Qiang et al., 2004
H10 Qinghai Lake 37.1 100.4 3196 Redness Moisture Ji et al., 2005
M1 36.5 99.6 3196 TOC Moisture Li and Liu, 2014
M2 Hala Lake 38.4 97.4 4078 18O Temperature, Moisture Yan and Wünnemann, 2014
M3 Zhuye Lake 39.05 103.7 1309 C/N Temperature, Moisture Li et al., 2014
M4 Gahai Lake 37.1 97.5 3428-3472 Carbonate content, 13C, 18O Temperature, Moisture Chen et al., 2010
M5 Huahai Lake 40 97.5 1200 Carbonate content,TOC Temperature, Moisture Wang, 2006
M7 Mingze Lake 40.3 96.3 1289 TOC, C/N, 13C Temperature, Moisture Wang, 2016
M8 YanchiLake 39.8 99.3 1200 TOC, pollen, grain-size Temperature, Moisture Li et al., 2013
M9 Hurleg Lake 37.3 96.9 2817 Carbonate content Moisture Zhao et al., 2007
M10 Juyan Lake 41.9 101.9 892 TOC Moisture Liu et al., 2012
M11 Sugan Lake 39.1 93.7 2795 13C Temperature, Moisture Qiang et al., 2002
M12 Loess Biandukou 38.2 102.9 2844 TOC Moisture Wu et al., 2000
M13 Haxi 37.5 102.4 2450 Carbonate content Moisture Wu et al., 1998
M14 Huangyang River 37.4 102.6 2447 TOC Moisture Li and Morrill, 2015
H11 Ice core Dunde 38.1 96.4 5325 18O Temperature Thompson et al., 2006
M15 Dunde 38.1 96.4 5325 18O Temperature Shi et al., 1992
Table S2 Prehistoric cultural sequence of the Hexi Corridor (Gao et al., 2019; Yang et al., 2019)
Number Cultural style Age (cal a BP) Subsistence Productivity level
C1 Yangshao 5600-4600 Agriculture Neolithic
C2 Majiayao 4800-4000 Agriculture Neolithic
C3 Qijia 4000-3600 Agriculture and Animal husbandry Bronze and stone
C4 Siba 3700-3300 Agriculture and Animal husbandry Bronze
C5 Dongjiatai 3200-3000 Animal husbandry Bronze
C6 Xindian 3000-2100 Animal husbandry Bronze
C7 Shanma 2900-2100 Animal husbandry Bronze
C8 Shajing 2700-2100 Animal husbandry Iron
Table S3 Dynasty sequence of the Hexi Corridor (Fan, 2020)
Number Dynasty Age (yr) Number Dynasty Age (yr)
D1 Han Dynasty -121-220 D6 Uighurs-Guiyijun 851-1036
D2 Wei and Jin dynasties 220-316 D7 Xixia 1036-1227
D3 Five liang and Northern Dynasty 316-581 D8 Yuan Dynasty 1227-1368
D4 Sui and Tang dynasties 581-755 D9 Ming Dynasty 1368-1644
D5 Tubo 755-851 D10 Qing Dynasty 1644-1911
Table S4 Ancient citys in the Hexi Corridor (Ma, 1992)
Number Dynasty Site name Lat (°N) Long (°E) Number Dynasty Site name Lat (°N) Long (°E)
1 Han Cangsong 102.83 37.38 42 Tang Liancheng 103.24 38.80
2 Zhangye 102.66 37.61 43 Zhagucheng 101.71 38.33
3 Luci 102.94 37.91 44 Gaigucheng 101.50 38.27
4 Xuanwei 102.96 38.59 45 Nangucheng 100.32 39.07
5 Gucheng 103.17 38.75 46 Luotuocheng 99.54 39.35
6 Wuwei 103.44 38.80 47 Minghaicheng 99.36 39.51
7 Sanjiaocheng 103.40 39.00 48 Xusanwangucehng 99.24 39.41
8 Luanniaocheng 101.46 38.12 49 Yangtigucheng 99.18 39.17
9 Lixuancheng 101.98 38.19 50 Shuangtacheng 96.15 40.64
10 Fanhecheng 101.74 38.32 51 Pochengzi 95.65 40.48
11 Rilegucheng 101.52 38.43 52 Chengwancheng 94.94 40.42
12 Xianticheng 101.18 38.78 53 Yangguan 93.72 40.06
13 Yonggucheng 100.94 38.41 54 Shibaocehng 95.83 39.95
14 Biegucheng 100.39 39.15 55 Dangcheng 94.51 39.62
15 Biaoshicheng 99.36 39.44 56 Shuangjingbao 98.88 39.85
16 Leguan 99.04 39.51 57 Qing Taerwan 97.92 39.84
17 Lufu 98.59 39.76 58 Hongquanbao 97.77 39.75
18 Huishui 99.13 39.92 59 Yingerbao 98.05 39.79
19 Dawancheng 99.78 40.35 60 Shiguanery 97.94 39.97
20 Jinguan 99.95 40.52 61 Shuangjingzi 97.86 39.92
21 Shanmacheng 98.61 39.76 62 Shiwozhuangzi 98.14 40.02
22 Yumen 97.84 39.95 63 Yemawan 98.26 40.02
23 Pochengzi 97.88 40.41 64 Duancheng 98.32 39.96
24 Qianqi 97.21 40.35 65 Jiuquancheng 98.35 39.84
25 Chitou 97.06 40.42 66 Liangshankoubao 98.47 39.90
26 Bangecheng 96.57 40.44 67 Xiagucehng 98.56 39.87
27 Mingan 96.73 40.26 68 Yancibao 99.23 39.81
28 Yuanquan 96.08 40.44 69 Zijincheng 98.81 39.65
29 Guangzhi 95.64 40.31 70 Hexibao 99.39 39.82
30 Tianshuijingcheng 95.25 40.30 71 Shuangjingzi 99.35 39.78
31 Liugongcheng 95.31 40.38 72 Hongsipobao 99.43 39.74
32 Xiaogu 95.20 40.43 73 Xiaqiaoerwan 99.30 39.71
33 Daijiaduncheng 94.70 40.33 74 Zhenyibao 99.47 39.83
34 Hechang 94.10 40.45 75 Luocheng 99.50 39.76
35 Yangguan 94.22 39.97 76 Yanzhibao 99.58 39.67
36 Shouchang 94.00 39.87 77 Zhenjiangbao 99.52 39.67
37 Yumenguan 94.03 40.32 78 Heiquanbao 99.54 39.63
38 Cangsong 102.83 37.38 79 Shiba 99.62 39.63
39 Tang Shenniao 102.36 37.92 80 Baba 99.63 39.59
40 Xiutu 102.69 38.15 81 Yongfengbao 99.54 39.57
41 Shacheng 102.63 38.25 82 Andingbao 99.66 39.54
83 Qing Lesanbao 99.72 39.47 96 Qing Xibaying 102.24 37.94
84 Shangqiaoerwan 99.78 39.83 97 Nanbaying 102.45 37.80
85 Xiamenchengbao 101.41 38.52 98 Daheyi 102.82 37.81
86 Fengchengbao 101.30 38.58 99 Gaogoubao 102.93 37.90
87 Xinhebao 101.21 38.65 100 Huoxingbao 102.83 38.32
88 Shandanwei 101.13 38.73 101 Yezhuwanbao 102.87 38.40
89 Majiabao 101.02 38.89 102 Changningbao 102.79 38.45
90 Yongchangcheng 101.98 38.29 103 Heishanbao 102.93 38.56
91 Hexibao 102.06 38.46 104 Hongyabao 102.90 38.50
92 Yonganbao 102.00 38.17 105 Liuba 103.34 38.65
94 Qingshanbao 102.27 38.13 106 Hongshabao 103.30 38.87
95 Huaianyi 102.53 37.92
Table S5 Years of historical wars in the Hexi Corridor (AD) (Guo, 1986)
7 25 30 31 32 34 34
35 36 56 57 76 77 80
87 87 89 93 96 97 101
102 108 108 111 113 114 114
115 115 116 116 117 120 124
126 133 138 141 143 144 159
160 161 163 168 185 187 211
212 215 218 220 221 228 229
231 247 249 254 255 256 262
263 271 274 279 296 301 305
320 320 322 323 329 330 334
346 347 349 353 367 367 371
373 376 385 386 386 386 387
389 389 391 392 395 396 397
397 397 397 398 400 400 401
401 401 402 406 407 407 408
408 409 409 410 410 411 411
411 411 411 412 413 414 415
416 416 417 420 421 421 423
424 425 426 428 428 429 430
430 430 431 431 439 439 440
442 443 444 446 447 458 460
471 472 477 497 506 506 530
581 583 583 617 617 618 622
626 635 678 696 700 706 720
727 756 768 775 779 819 845
851 909 911 915 925 993 1008
1009 1010 1011 1016 1016 1016 1026
1034 1036 1041 1042 1049 1050 1064
1066 1070 1072 1073 1074 1081 1083
1087 1087 1092 1103 1105 1114 1133
1140 1205 1205 1207 1213 1215 1220
1226 1227 1230 1235 1236 1296 1369
1371 1372 1379 1385 1395 1396 1410
1412 1438 1449 1457 1458 1461 1472
1473 1485 1486 1488 1495 1495 1496
1498 1511 1517 1525 1528 1531 1536
1558 1565 1567 1590 1598 1607 1635
1643 1649 1676 1680 1723 1724 1781
1784 1863 1869 1871 1872 1873 1895
Table S6 Years of Disasters in the Hexi Corridor (AD) (Feng, 1982; Li, 1996; Yu et al., 2011; Shun et al., 2016)
2 26 53 61 62 108 109
109 110 115 122 122 122 138
142 142 143 144 180 181 183
235 249 270 270 285 300 301
304 304 320 345 350 351 352
354 361 362 365 366 369 369
371 384 387 393 397 398 399
399 401 401 402 402 405 405
408 410 414 417 419 429 433
449 451 479 479 480 481 485
496 496 501 503 503 504 504
505 507 507 507 508 508 509
510 520 531 618 618 627 629
650 676 678 682 720 726 726
785 786 786 821 939 941 942
942 943 962 965 968 993 994
996 1006 1008 1009 1015 1017 1018
1025 1027 1041 1042 1074 1076 1110
1117 1143 1176 1176 1177 1223 1226
1226 1260 1260 1262 1262 1286 1288
1288 1289 1290 1290 1293 1293 1294
1295 1297 1298 1299 1300 1303 1308
1308 1311 1313 1313 1316 1319 1319
1319 1322 1323 1324 1325 1326 1328
1330 1330 1332 1332 1371 1406 1418
1425 1426 1427 1433 1436 1439 1441
1447 1448 1450 1452 1453 1453 1455
1457 1457 1458 1459 1459 1460 1468
1468 1468 1470 1477 1478 1479 1482
1483 1483 1484 1484 1485 1485 1486
1487 1489 1490 1494 1495 1495 1503
1504 1504 1505 1506 1506 1506 1507
1508 1509 1511 1514 1516 1517 1517
1517 1520 1521 1521 1527 1527 1528
1529 1531 1532 1534 1534 1535 1538
1539 1539 1544 1545 1546 1547 1548
1550 1551 1551 1553 1553 1554 1556
1557 1557 1557 1558 1559 1560 1561
1562 1563 1564 1564 1565 1566 1568
1587 1588 1588 1602 1604 1604 1608
1608 1609 1609 1616 1618 1634 1638
1640 1640 1641 1647 1649 1649 1649
1655 1665 1665 1666 1666 1667 1668
1671 1684 1684 1685 1686 1686 1686
1690 1692 1695 1697 1700 1702 1702
1708 1708 1708 1709 1712 1712 1713
1718 1722 1727 1728 1728 1728 1729
1730 1731 1732 1733 1734 1735 1735
1738 1738 1739 1739 1740 1740 1741
1742 1744 1744 1745 1745 1745 1746
1746 1749 1749 1749 1750 1750 1752
1752 1753 1753 1753 1753 1754 1756
1756 1757 1757 1757 1757 1757 1758
1758 1759 1759 1760 1762 1762 1762
1762 1763 1763 1764 1764 1764 1764
1764 1765 1765 1765 1765 1766 1766
1767 1767 1767 1768 1768 1768 1771
1771 1772 1772 1772 1773 1773 1774
1774 1774 1774 1774 1775 1775 1775
1776 1776 1776 1776 1777 1778 1778
1778 1779 1779 1779 1780 1780 1780
1781 1783 1784 1785 1785 1785 1787
1787 1790 1792 1795 1797 1798 1799
1800 1800 1801 1801 1803 1803 1805
1809 1810 1810 1810 1811 1812 1812
1814 1817 1818 1818 1820 1820 1821
1821 1821 1821 1822 1823 1824 1824
1824 1824 1826 1826 1826 1826 1826
1827 1827 1829 1829 1831 1831 1831
1833 1833 1834 1836 1836 1837 1837
1838 1838 1839 1841 1841 1841 1844
1844 1844 1845 1847 1847 1847 1847
1847 1848 1849 1849 1850 1851 1852
1852 1856 1857 1858 1860 1860 1861
1862 1863 1864 1865 1866 1867 1868
1868 1869 1870 1872 1873 1874 1874
1877 1877 1877 1878 1879 1879 1880
1881 1882 1882 1883 1884 1884 1884
1884 1885 1885 1885 1886 1886 1886
1887 1887 1888 1889 1890 1891 1892
1893 1894 1894 1895 1895 1896 1896
1898 1899 1899 1900
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2 Belize Blue Hole -17.5 -87.5 -125 18O Temperature Maya Gischler et al., 2008
3 Faiyum Oasis 29.43933 30.3977778 250 Ca2+ Temperature, moisture Egypt Marks et al., 2018
4 Qishan section 34.45 107.65 687 Magnetic susceptibility Temperature, moisture Xia Pang et al., 2001
5 Gulf of Oman 23.4457 58.7454 -2732 Carbonate content Temperature, moisture Akkadian Cullen et al., 2000
6 Indus delta 23.5812 66.7159 -316 18O Temperature, moisture Harappan Staubwasser et al., 2003
7 Alpi Apuane karst 45 10 300 13C Temperature, moisture Europe Drysdale et al., 2006
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