Using data extrapolated from fossils at 73 sites around the world, scientists have been able to model temperatures going back to the Holocene period, the warm period that followed the last ice age, about 11,300 years ago.
The Holocene peaked approximately 5,000 years ago, at which point the planet began to cool gradually – until a century ago, when global temperatures shot up to levels not seen for millennia.
If current trends continue, then the world of 2100 will be hotter than at any time since humans developed agriculture, according to the study.
Published in the journal Science, it is a nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers who assert that climate change is not a phenomenon caused by humans, and that global temperatures have been just as high in previous pre-industrial centuries.
“We are heading for somewhere that is far off from anything we have seen in the past 10,000 years – it’s through the roof,” said study co-author Jeremy Shakun of Harvard University. “In my mind, we are heading for a different planet to the one that we have been used to.”
Speaking to the Independent, Candace Major, programme director of the US National Science Foundation, which funded the study, said: “This research shows that we’ve experienced almost the same range of temperature change since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as over the previous 11,000 years of Earth history – but this change happened a lot more quickly.”