What does it take to topple a civilization, or a whole group of them? Over three thousand years ago, agriculture and trade-based societies flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet something fishy happened circa 1200 BC that brought these cultural and commercial centers to their knees—something that has left historians in the dark.
Correspondence from that time attributes the decline, at least partially, to invasions from a band of raiders, referred to as Sea Peoples. Other scholars studying this period point to natural disasters, such as earthquakes or drought. Research recently published in PLOS ONE reveals a more insidious culprit: Climate change may have fueled drought, the invasions, and eventually the collapse of these civilizations in what historians call the Late Bronze Age crisis.
To explore the environmental factors behind this crisis, the researchers took continuous core samples from modern-day Cyprus, at what is now called Larnaca Salt Lake, or Hala Sultan Tekke.
Core samples were analyzed for their pollen content and tested for the presence of dinoflagellates (pictured), a type of marine plankton. The researchers then studied the abundance and variety of plants represented by the ancient pollen and plotted fluctuations in the proportions of both between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. With similar data from nearby Syria, they reconstructed likely climate conditions in the region during the Late Bronze Age.
They found the abundance of marine plankton beginning in about 1500 BC, suggesting the region was gradually becoming drier, as the lake lost its connection to the sea. The pollen record reveals a shift towards plants that could handle drier weather, indicating a decrease in rainfall. Dwindling rain, the researchers suggest, may have made it difficult to maintain agricultural production and led to food shortages. These shortages might also have caused people to travel, migrate, or raid in search of more food. This drought lasted three hundred years and coincides with the Sea People invasions.
It takes a lot to topple civilizations, and climate change has played its part in ending those in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age. This evidence adds to the growing body of literature documenting the effects of climate change. This latest research adds a compelling chapter to the story of climate change, from which everyone can learn.
Citation: Kaniewski D, Van Campo E, Guiot J, Le Burel S, Otto T, et al. (2013) Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71004. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071004
Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de – Fire of Troy, from Wikimedia
Updated to correct the timeframe for declining marine plankton.