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Climate Change - An Historic Precedent

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Chava obtained her degree in Archaeology from the University of California.

The Rise & Fall of Empires

People talk a lot about climate change and our effect on our environment. We have an affect, yes, but we are not the only factor. The geological record is filled with examples going back eons to before humans even walked the earth. That is not to say that we should not pay close attention to the dangers of climate change and attempt to mitigate them as much as possible.

History tells us what dramatic changes can come with climate change. A little over 4000 years ago, there was a period of severe drought that seems to have lasted so long that it contributed to the collapse of several Old World civilizations. The Old Kingdom of Egypt, the pyramid builders, crumbled due in part to this event. And, the Akkadian Empire, the first Mesopotamian empire, was lost.

That is not to say that everything was doom and gloom during this time. The drought also had a more positive impact on China and Ancient Greece. The weather changes led to a massive population movement in China that evolved into the earliest recorded dynasty in the region, the Xia Dynasty. And the climate-induced migrations brought the Indo-European Achaens – the people who would found Mycenae - to Ancient Greece.

Climate Change in Ancient Egypt

The First Intermediate Period is held to be a dark age for Ancient Egypt. It was politically chaotic with power being split between two competing centers – Upper Egypt in Thebes and Lower Egypt in Heracleopolis. There are a few purported causes for the collapse of the Old Kingdom so the climate is not solely to blame, but it definitely contributed to the perfect storm that brought down the pyramid builders.

In the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, Pepi II, ruled from childhood into very old age – some claim he was 100 years old at his death. This meant that he had outlived many of his heirs and that created problems with succession. The provincial nomarchs, or regional governors, had in the meantime become very powerful. The title of nomarch was also hereditary and these little princes grew increasingly independent from the pharaoh. Add a drought to the impending power vacuum and you have a recipe for disaster.

A lower crop yield led to famine and the people looked toward their powerful local governors for help instead of to the pharaohs. After Pepi II died, the empire collapsed into city-states. There existed a buffer province between Upper and Lower Egypt, but these warrior princes were loyal to the Heracleopolian kings. This made them the first targets of the Theban kings of the 11th and 12th dynasties as they invaded Lower Egypt to once again unite Egypt under one pharaoh.

This upheaval lasted for over a century, from about 2180 BCE to about 2035 BCE. However, since the artwork and texts, which archaeologists derive the history from, were so provincial, there is very little evidence of the road taken to reach political reunification. Suffice to say, the drought led to internal strife coupled with a weakened central government; and you have yourself the perfect empire killer.

But, this dark age of political turmoil wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the common man. Tomb inscriptions depict the provinces themselves flourishing with emphasis being on the individual instead of a central king/god figure so it seems they were able to retain their individual happiness despite the political disorder.

A Block from the Sanctuary in the Temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri. Made during the Middle Kingdom in Dynasty 11, during the reign of Mentuhotep II. Found at Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, Temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, EEF 1907

A Block from the Sanctuary in the Temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri. Made during the Middle Kingdom in Dynasty 11, during the reign of Mentuhotep II. Found at Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, Temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, EEF 1907

Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia experienced a similar fate to Egypt. Around 2170 BCE, widespread abandonment of the agricultural plains of northern Mesopotamia due to drought led to an influx of refugees into the south toward Akkad.

The Akkadian Empire was the first Mesopotamian empire and they controlled trade from the Mediterranean coast of what is now Syria to the head of the Persian Gulf. The empire had coalesced under Sargon of Akkad from a mass of competing city-states.

The political storm in Mesopotamia began with some weak rulers and intermittent anarchy from 2192-2168. This volatile political climate seemed to be resolving itself when the climate began to exert it's influence on history. The drought had caused the Tigris and Euphrates to fall by 1.5 meters and the people needed water. The northern plains had dried up and the Gutians, from the Zagros Mountains, attacked Akkad in search of it.

To add to the deluge of destruction were the Amorites, a group of nomadic herders that had also moved closer to water during the drought. This brought them into conflict with the agrarian Akkadians because the Amorites allowed their herds to graze on Akkadian farmland. The Akkadians even built a 180 km wall called the “Repeller of the Amorites” across central Mesopotamia but it wasn't enough to stave off disaster.

Around 2150, the Gutians defeated the Akkadian army, took the capital city of Akkad and destroyed it. This led to a dark age of Mesopotamian history. By all accounts, the Gutians were a barbaric people who only exacerbated the desperation of an agricultural people already suffering under the drought.

But as with Egypt, a new day dawned with the rise of a unifying power, the Sumerians. The dark days, and the Gutians, were cleared out by Ur-Nammu who was eventually followed by Hammurabi who established the Babylonian Empire and his famous legal code.

Death begets Rebirth

This climate change in the 22nd and 21st centuries BCE caused much death in the form of crops to drought, empires to social upheaval, and actual human death caused by war. But, as with all things in nature, death also brings rebirth. This creation can be seen in what happened during the same time period in China and Greece.

This period saw the earliest recorded dynasty arise in China. The Xia Dynasty grew out of the Yellow River Valley. As with all regions affected by the drought, the people of China followed the water. The middle reaches of the Yellow River saw a series of floods due to a lack of development and the plentiful water attracted a population. Dynastic China was born.

The gathering of people in this way created Ancient Greece as well. Before the climate event, the Early Minoans were a trading, Bronze Age people with contacts all over the ancient world. But, they were a decentralized culture with no powerful nobility or centralized authority. The climate change felt in mainland Greece and Asia Minor created the same social upheaval and migrations as it had in Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, this turmoil was more immediately beneficial. The Indo-European Achaeans came in bringing the language which would evolve into ancient Greek and founded Mycenae, one of the first great Greek city-states. Incidentally, this also forced the Minoans into further development with a founding of power structures and palaces, such as the one at Knossos.

Reconstruction of the palace at Knossos

Reconstruction of the palace at Knossos

Climate Change as a Natural Process

So, in conclusion, climate change is a part of the natural world. Nothing is static, the world is always evolving in innumerable ways. Does that mean that we should continue our lives as if we can't make a difference? Of course not. Just because change is inevitable does not mean that we can't mitigate or worsen the effects.

The Chinese and Greek ancestors turned a drought into new civilizations. Egypt and Mesopotamia may have temporarily collapsed but they rallied as well in the end. Nature is about change and evolution, but it is also about adaptation.Understanding an issue is not enough. We must act to make the best of it.

I think the major lessons to be learned from these events are:
1. Climate change has been happening for the entire history of our planet.
2. Dramatic shifts in natural cycles and temperatures occurred well before human industrialization.
3. The consequences of climate change are what you make of them.

How will you do your part?

© 2015 chavaj

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