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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Wow, climate change in the 13th century. It must have been all those cars that were used to transport people back in forth to work in the factories in the day. And to think about all that pollution caused by those coal burning power plants. Not to mention the electrical grid that had to be used to light up all those houses. Let’s not forget the diesel that was used by all the trucks transporting goods to and fro. Wait a minute, could it have been God who caused the draught. Of course not, according to liberal theology. You don’t have the guts to print this.
This article is mostly speculation. There is far more evidence that at the end of what – because of Homer – we call The Trojan War, there was migration not just of Greeks returning home, but of Trojans (citizens of Hatti) fleeing with Aeneas. There were enormous volcanic and other disruptions behind these migrations. The world was in a period of Change as it is now. There are tablets at Pylos that tell of Aeneas being refueled for the rest of his journey. Not long after that Pylos too collapsed despite all its positive economy. From Pylos emanated The Wine Dark Sea economy. The great vineyards of the western Peloponnesos were thriving and shipping their wines all over the Mediterranean within a network of trade with all neighboring nations. But suddenly with huge volcanic eruptions and migrations of people all this ended. Those who could fled. Those who stayed and survived did so as cave people, huddled for survival. A nuclear winter descended for months. All writing was ended and not for another 500 years would it return.
The article doesn’t include any reckoning with the development of cultures using iron. We know that the Doric migration in Greece was about that time, spelling the end of the Mycenaean kingdoms. If I’m not mistaken, the Philistines and Israelites were using iron about that time, too, enabling them to confront much larger civilizations that were still relying on bronze.