Some archaeologists believe that a series of protracted droughts helped bring about the Mayans' downfall, basing their controversial theory on climate information gleaned from sediment cores.
Potts said he believes the research program outlined in the new report would help society look to its future, not just better understand its past.
The science academy panel is recommending an effort to broaden the collection of fossils to new geographic areas and across time periods, expand scientific drilling programs in lakes and oceans near sites where ancient humans evolved, and improve climate models to help scientists reconstruct the environment of the past.
That could help researchers understand how fast the environment changed at different points in human history -- and how that compares to conditions today.
"I think we need to look very closely at climate changes in the past and compare them to climate changes in the present and see where our sources of resilience will come from," Potts said. "What we're in now is an experiment that has never been tried. Homo erectus was never able to modify the landscape in the ways we do today."
"There's kind of a cautionary message there," he said, "but also a hopeful one."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500