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WIREs Clim Change
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Climate, history, society over the last millennium in southeast Africa

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Climate variability has been causally linked to the transformation of society in pre‐industrial southeast Africa. A growing critique, however, challenges the simplicity of ideas that identify climate as an agent of past societal change; arguing instead that the value of historical climate–society research lies in understanding human vulnerability and resilience, as well as how past societies framed, responded and adapted to climatic phenomena. We work across this divide to present the first critical analysis of climate–society relationships in southeast Africa over the last millennium. To achieve this, we review the now considerable body of scholarship on the role of climate in regional societal transformation, and bring forward new perspectives on climate–society interactions across three areas and periods using the theoretical frameworks of vulnerability and resilience. We find that recent advances in paleoclimatology and archaeology give weight to the suggestion that responses to climate variability played an important part in early state formation in the Limpopo valley (1000–1300), though evidence remains insufficient to clarify similar debates concerning Great Zimbabwe (1300–1450/1520). Written and oral evidence from the Zambezi‐Save (1500–1830) and KwaZulu‐Natal areas (1760–1828) nevertheless reveals a plurality of past responses to climate variability. These were underpinned by the organization of food systems, the role of climate‐related ritual and political power, social networks, and livelihood assets and capabilities, as well as the nature of climate variability itself. To conclude, we identify new lines of research on climate, history and society, and discuss how these can more directly inform contemporary African climate adaptation challenges. WIREs Clim Change 2016, 7:370–392. doi: 10.1002/wcc.389

Map of key sites, areas, and political units referred to in the text, together with proxy‐documentary datasets covering the last millennium. Red and green shaded areas indicate the spatial coverage of the paper. (1) Cold Air Cave speleothem T7 and T8; (2) Dante Cave speleothem; (3) Lake Sibaya diatom; (4) Limpopo Baobab trees; (5) Karkloof Yellowwood tree‐rings; (6) Limpopo valley faunal remains; (7) Lake Nhauhache and (8) Lake Nhaucati. SRZ – Summer Rainfall Zone; WRZ – Winter Rainfall Zone. Inset (a) locates the focus region; inset (b) depicts variations in mean annual rainfall (1950–2000).
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Political change in the KwaZulu‐Natal area ca 1780–1828. Shaded circles represent political authority. Inset (a) locates focus region; inset (b) shows mean annual rainfall (1950–2000).
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The Zambezi‐Limpopo region and links to the Indian Ocean world: Zimbabwe culture states, Portuguese settlement and other key sites prior to 1830. Approximate state boundaries taken from Huffman and Mudenge. Timeline details phases of Zimbabwe culture state formation (L. Kopje – Leopard's Kopje and Map. – Mapungubwe), hatched areas represent dating uncertainty. Inset (a) locates focus region; inset (b) shows mean annual rainfall (1950–2000).
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Annually resolved series of rainfall variability for the Summer Rainfall Zone (1800–1900): (a) tree ring‐width series for Zimbabwe; (b) ships’ logbook‐derived series for Mthatha, Eastern Cape, and Royal National Park, KwaZulu‐Natal (anomaly relative to 1979–2008 mean); (c–d) documentary‐ and gauge data‐derived series for South Central Africa (Zambia, northeast Botswana, Zimbabwe, southern Mozambique) and the ‘Kalahari’ (south Botswana, north/east South Africa) (e–i) documentary‐derived series for Namaqualand, southern Kalahari, Lesotho, KwaZulu‐Natal and Eastern Cape. Inset map shows locations of series.
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High‐resolution (multidecadal) southern African Summer Rainfall Zone paleoclimate proxy series from: (1) Cold Air Cave speleothem T7 and T8; (2) Dante Cave speleothem; (3) Lake Sibaya diatom; (4) Limpopo Baobab trees; (5) Karkloof Yellowwood tree‐rings; (6) Limpopo valley faunal remains; (7) Lake Nhauhache and (8) Lake Nhaucati. Numbered labels correspond to locations in Figure . Red bands indicate drier periods and blue band indicates wetter period.
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