Last week the Los Angeles Times had an interesting article on new scientific research that claims to have demonstrated that climate changed caused the widespread collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BCE. According to research done by David Kaniewski et al. on pollen samples recovered from Cyprus, a massive drought hit at just the time when the Bronze Age cultures are known to have collapsed.
Ancient writings have described crop failures, famines and invasions about the same time, suggesting that the drying trend triggered a chain of events that led to widespread societal collapse of these Late Bronze Age civilizations.
This is particularly interesting to me since the late Bronze Age is one of my favorite periods, especially the survival of memories of it in later mythology.
The Times was reporting on an article published in the Public Library of Science’s PLoS One journal. In it, the authors report the results of their findings, which suggest that climate change between the thirteenth and ninth centuries BCE resulted in widespread destabilization, leading to the collapse of the Hittites, Mycenaeans, and other cultures. The period of climate crisis is roughly equal to the period known as the Greek Dark Age, and the climate apparently began returning to more prosperous and wetter conditions during the Greek Geometric and Orientalizing periods, when trade with the Near East resumed.
According to this analysis, the mysterious Sea Peoples, whom the ancients considered responsible for much of the late Bronze Age crisis, were an ethnic group driven by a climate crisis into the eastern Mediterranean in search of resources.
Who the Sea Peoples were is unknown. Scholars have also proposed that the Sea Peoples were Mycenaeans fleeing the collapse of Mycenaean power in Greece, or Minoans fleeing the same in Crete. Several other hypotheses have also been proposed, including an identification with the Philistines (who are also sometimes identified as early Greek migrants) or the Hittites. In fact, the Hittite hypothesis rests on early climate work that had suggested decades ago that droughts had caused famines around the time of the Sea Peoples’ invasion.
By combining data from coastal Cyprus and coastal Syria, this study shows that the LBA [Late Bronze Age] crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.
The Times interviewed archaeologist Lee Drake, who was not one of the study’s authors, but who went beyond the cautious conclusions of the article to essentially blame climate for the Bronze Age collapse single-handed: “We tend to focus on political, human-driven problems, but there isn’t a human driver for the destruction that matches what happened 3,000 years ago.”
I think that overstates things a bit. Right now, due to the current climate change situation, climate change has become a catch-all explanation for civilizational collapse, just as inter-ethnic warfare was a hot topic during the Civil Rights era. The most famous example of climate change destroying civilization—the Maya collapse—has now received criticism from scholars who have found human hands at work in the Maya collapse, particularly in the Maya’s unsustainable agriculture. In other words, climate did not cause the collapse by itself but rather worked in conjunction with human-made systems that were unable to adapt to changing conditions, creating instability, promoting warfare, and leading to collapse.
I wonder if that’s not the case in the Bronze Age Mediterranean as well, as Kaniewski et al. suggest. The collapse occurred because the drought hit at a time when the region had become dependent on marginal agriculture (especially in mainland Greece) and international trade. Disrupting, for example, Mycenaean crops could lead to widespread systemic changes and collapse—but only because the human systems involved were rigid, authoritarian, and dependent on the status quo. Climate has changed more than once, and each change does not lead to collapse. I think it requires multiple components, including human factors, to cause widespread systemic failure.
The Mycenaeans and he Hittites did not burn their rulers’ palaces and temples or abandon half the old gods just because of climate but rather because the elites failed in some way to address the changes and restore prosperity. Climate change exacerbated the tensions between the elite and peasantry, but it required a rigid and hierarchical system for that to occur. In other words, multiple factors result in historical events, and we can’t pin everything on just one cause, be it climate change or alien death rays.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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