How severe drought contributed to the Bronze Age collapse
While the fall of the Hittite Empire—and indeed the collapse of the entire Bronze Age world—has been an important area of research for decades, new evidence for what caused the collapse is continually coming to the surface. Indeed, according to many scholars, this pivotal moment in history was not the result of one factor, but the perfect storm of causes. As discussed in an article in Nature, a primary factor was likely one of humanity’s oldest enemies, nature.
For half a millennium, the Hittite Empire—located in what is today Turkey and northwestern Syria—was one of the most powerful forces in the ancient Near East, often vying for power with other empires for control of Syria and the Levant. But that all came to a screeching halt around 1200 BCE, during the infamous Bronze Age collapse when the empires and kingdoms of the region suddenly fell apart. This, in turn, led to a long “dark age,” which opened the door for many later kingdoms to come to power, including the biblical Israelites and Arameans. Yet, the cause of this disaster is still not completely understood.
The study in Nature, which utilized dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) and stable isotope analysis, examined a group of ancient Juniper trees from Hatti to look into one possible cause: climate change. This technique allowed the team to examine the level of rainfall in the region with greater temporal precision than ever before, which in turn revealed an unexpectedly severe multi-year drought from 1198–1196 BCE. Although droughts were a frequent occurrence in the ancient world, long-period droughts had the potential to strain agricultural and administrative systems to the breaking point. According to the study, this is likely exactly what happened to the Hittite Empire. Combined with other internal and external factors, the sudden ecological crisis was too much to overcome.
“This would have led to a collapse of the tax base, mass desertion of the large Hittite military, and likely a mass movement of people seeking survival. The Hittites were also challenged by not having a port or other easy avenues to move food into the area,” Brita Lorentzen, co-author of the study, told The Guardian.
Over the years, scholar have suggested many factors to explain the Bronze Age collapse, most notably the invasions (and/or migrations) of the infamous Sea Peoples (including the biblical Philistines), who were first mentioned in Egyptian sources in the 13th-century BCE. However, recent studies have emphasized the role that nature played in this massive civilizational collapse. Pollen samples from around the Mediterranean, for example, have demonstrated a steep decline in annual rainfall during the 13th and 12th centuries. These include studies from Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Iran.
Several texts from the 13th century, which mention grain shortages and famines in Hatti, corroborate the evidence of drought from modern scientific studies, although they lack the necessary context to connect them with the severe drought the researchers date to 1198–1196 BCE. Shortly after this time, however, the Hittite Empire collapsed, with its capital city of Hattusa abandoned and no further mention of its last king, Suppiluliuma II.
The authors of the study were quick to point out, however, that the drought was not the only factor in the collapse of Hatti and the rest of the Bronze Age powers. Instead, they suggest that it may have only exacerbated already existing political, economic, and social issues facing the empire.
According to Eric Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology at George Washington University and author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, “In my opinion, drought was just one of the numerous problems that the Hittites and others were facing at that time.” Instead, Cline said, “There was a cacophony of catastrophes that led not only to the collapse of the Hittite Empire but also to the collapse of other powers as well. They include climate change, which led in turn to drought, famine, and migration; earthquakes; invasions and internal rebellions; systems collapse; and quite possibly disease as well. All probably contributed to the ‘perfect storm’ that brought this age to an end, especially if they happened in rapid succession one after the other, leading to domino and multiplier effects and a catastrophic failure of the entire networked system.”
Ed. Note: Eric Cline is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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