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A fluid past: Socio‐hydrological systems of the West African Sahel across the long durée

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Abstract Since the end of the last glacial period (~12.4 ka bp) the African continent has undergone no less than 30 dramatic climate transitions. West Africa in particular witnessed abrupt climate oscillations—between humid optima and hyper‐aridity—which lasted anywhere between 10 and 15 years and a millennium. Such unpredictable shifts forced local communities to develop a suite of risk‐buffering strategies that could withstand climate change on various scales. Both archeological and palaeoclimatic research has begun to reveal how these societies engaged with their erratic environment over the span of the Holocene. The adoption of pastoral lifeways, the domestication of cereal crops, and the emergence of monumentality or urbanism may indeed be viewed through the lens of environmental risk‐buffering strategies. Yet, these developments proceeded along trajectories that belie traditional narratives rooted in environmental determinism and underscore the unique cultural processes at play, which do not conform to presumptions imported from outside regions. Revised narratives, therefore, must take into account cultural perceptions of climate change, and the localized nature of landscape. This article is categorized under: Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented Science of Water > Water Extremes
Annual migration of the ITCZ and regions receiving increased precipitation
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Map of post‐African Humid Period sites mentioned in the text
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Map of African Humid Period sites mentioned in text
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Timeline of major West African climate phases during the Holocene
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Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
Science of Water > Water Extremes

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