Hakai Magazine

Did climate change bring down the Hittite Empire in Anatolia 3,000 years ago? Photo by North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo

Did Climate Change Bring Down Late Bronze Age Civilizations?

Marine archaeologists excavating the eastern Mediterranean are learning how the Bronze Age Mycenaean, Egyptian, and Anatolian Empires fell.

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by Ramin Skibba

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Clutching a set of drills, scuba divers plunge into a bay near the Gulf of Corinth, in central Greece. On the seafloor, they punch a 4.5-meter-deep hole into history. The divers are expecting to find sediment, bits of coral, and fish bones, but they’re hoping the core will reveal something more: evidence of the world of the ancient Mediterranean, and clues as to why multiple empires collapsed here more than 3,000 years ago.

The divers are part of a scientific team excavating on land and underwater to investigate why a string of Late Bronze Age civilizations toppled—the Mycenaean kingdom in Greece, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, and the New Kingdom of Egypt. Each fell around the same time, in the 12th century BCE. Over the past year, the team has drilled nine cores. This month, they’re looking to open the first of the set.

“Each core is like gold,” says Thomas Levy, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the leaders of the project. “It’s like a page of a book, an archive of paleoenvironmental data.”

Levy believes the cores may help explain how climate change contributed to the rapid downfall of the Mycenaean civilization.

The scientists have been working on the project since July 2016, but with at least six more months of field research and analysis to go, they’ve yet to really dig into what they’ve unearthed. But Levy and his colleagues have already made some tantalizing finds. Through sonar surveys, the scientists have located two ancient beaches now submerged beneath the Mediterranean. They’ve also discovered an ancient burial site which suggests high-ranking Mycenaeans lived here in some kind of coastal village. Levy hopes to find traces of local trade networks, too.

The project is an interdisciplinary effort, bringing together a mix of social and Earth scientists, including marine archaeologists, geologists, paleobiologists, and historians. It’s one of a handful of similar studies going on around the world, in which scientists are seeking to understand how people of the past learned to cope with climate change, or failed to do so.

Beverly Goodman, a marine geoarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel who’s not involved in the project, has studied how climate change and natural disasters have affected ancient cultures around the world. Though such events are often destructive, she says they do not always lead to the civilization’s end.

“When you have any environmental change or disaster, slow or fast, some of what happens afterward is a reflection of the state of the society at the time,” she says.

Some societies are resilient, some are not. For example, the ancient Minoan civilization primarily occupied the Greek island of Crete until disaster struck around 1645 BCE. A volcano on nearby Santorini erupted, causing a massive tsunami, which historians believed wiped out Minoan society. But archaeological evidence now suggests the Minoans suffered a more gradual decline; the eruption was only the final blow. Had they had a stronger state or social networks, Goodman says, the Minoans may have responded effectively to the destruction caused by the tsunami and collectively recovered over time.

Levy and historians of the period think nature may have also contributed to the Mycenaeans’ demise. Rather than the sudden shock of a volcanic eruption, however, the Mycenaeans faced the gradual grind of natural climate change in the form of a widespread drought.

Previously, anthropologists have found evidence that surface temperatures in the eastern Mediterranean Sea cooled rapidly around 1250 BCE, which resulted in reduced rainfall and marked the beginning of the drought. The drought lasted at least 150 years, and possibly as long as four centuries, in what is now Syria and Cyprus. But to date, key pieces of the puzzle remain elusive. Over the next few years, researchers anticipate finding the answers to key questions: the extent of the drought, whether it triggered famine, and if it contributed to the spread of disease.

As they pore over the contents of the cores, Levy and his collaborators will study the sediment layers for signs of flooding or drought, and the organic matter to understand the health of the sea, the presence of plant species, and the fish that were available. The jackpot, says Levy, would be to uncover artifacts from ancient ports, which would reveal what the Mycenaeans lacked and needed to import, and what they exported.

But climate woes were only one problem the Mycenaeans faced, says Eric Cline, an anthropologist and archaeologist at George Washington University in Washington, DC, who was not involved in the project. “Into your mix of famine, drought, and earthquakes, you’ve also got invaders.”

The Sea Peoples, multiple groups that may have included the Philistines and Homer’s Danaans, repeatedly invaded the Mycenaeans. Little is known about them or where they came from, though they may have been environmental refugees, abandoning land affected by the same drought the Mycenaeans were grappling with, says Cline.

“It was probably [the Sea Peoples] who cut the trade routes,” says Cline. “That, to me, was the final straw, the death knell.” Like other Late Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations, the Mycenaeans were not self-sufficient. “They couldn’t survive, and they couldn’t get the copper and tin they needed to make bronze.”

It’s likely the drought played a role in the Mycenaeans’ decline. But even if so, Bridget Buxton, an archaeologist at the University of Rhode Island, says we should be leery of oversimplifying history and focusing too closely on any one force. “In this age of environmental awareness,” Buxton said by email, “climate change becomes the lens through which people today interpret the past.”

Levy agrees that the fall of the three Mediterranean civilizations is likely not solely attributable to climate change. “My impression is that it will be multicausal. I shy away from environmental determinism. Let’s open the cores and see what they tell us,” he says.