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Six civilizations destroyed by climate change

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, May 19, 2014, 12:58 PM -

The research is all pointing in one direction: Whether you believe humans are contributing to it, or not, climate change is happening, and it's going to cost us. But how much?

We scoured the history books for clues as to what happens to advanced civilizations when the climate they're used to stops behaving the same way.

Here are six cultures that simply couldn't cope.

The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization, sometimes called the Harappan Civilization, was one of the world’s first, flourishing in what is now Pakistan and northwestern India more than 4,000 years ago. And chances are, you might not even have heard about it until recently, because when it collapsed, it completely vanished from the historical record.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

At the same time as the Egyptians and Sumerians were spreading their influence over the Middle East, the Harappans developed sophisticated pottery and artwork, and built large and well-organized cities all along the Indus valley, collectively accounting for up to 10 per cent of the entire global population at the time.

But of the Harappans themselves, we know nothing. The end of their civilization was so total, we didn’t even know about them until the 20th Century, and even then we’ve still not deciphered their written language, so we have no names or stories.

What we do know is climate change was a huge factor in their demise. Archaeologists surmise the Harappans developed their civilization in a climatic sweet spot of only 2,000 years, a window that began closing in the 22nd Century B.C.E. 

That, according to scientists, is when the monsoons that watered the region became irregular, sparking a 200-year drought. As crop yields fell, the Harappans’ society began to fragment, and recent research indicates that disease levels and the rate of violent death were at the peak just as the ancient cities were in an advanced stage of abandonment.

[Image source]

Sooner or later, someone will figure out how to read their writing and see how the relatively abrupt shift in climate may have influenced their culture. Until then, for stronger evidence of the role of climate change in civilizations' collapse, we’ll turn our eyes westward where one of the greatest ancient empires was finding out what happens when the rain refuses to cooperate.

The Akkadian Empire

Unlike the Harappans, we know exactly what the Akkadians, in their domains in the Fertile Crescent, thought when their region entered a dry period lasting decades of centuries.

Simply: They blamed it on the gods. Or, rather, the gods blamed it on them.

Image: Mbzt/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Mbzt/Wikimedia Commons

[Image License]

The Akkadians roared onto the scene more than 4,000 years ago, conquering city after city until their empire stretched the Persian Gulf up to the mountains where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers start their journey as streams. 

During the sack of one such city, Nippur, Akkadian troops supposedly violated the temple of one of their gods. The entire pantheon got together and decided to make the Akkadians pay for their offence.

That’s how the conquerors saw the situation when rainfall declined. Scientists marked an increase in dust dating around the time of the collapse, along with volcanic ash, suggesting an eruption that may have made things worse.

 The famine was too much for the Akkadians’ sophisticated system of irrigation and food storage. Whole cities had to be abandoned, streaming southward and swelling the capital and other cities with refugees, more mouths to feed at a time when there wasn’t enough to go around.

Image: US Army

Image: US Army

The famine and resulting social unrest weakened the empire enough that it crumpled easily before invaders from the north. And given the generally arid conditions and heavy reliance on irrigation in today’s Middle East, the Akkadian collapse could be a chilling glimpse of the unrest that could ensue if the modern-day region suffers a similar drought.

The Minoans

It hardly seems worth it for an ancient civilization to reach staggering levels of advancement: It always seems like some kind of horrific catastrophe awaits them.

Enter the Minoans, a civilization centred on the island of Crete, reaching incredible heights of sophisticated development and artwork. They are credited as one of the first civilizations to invent a system of writing (and one of their two main scripts still hasn’t been deciphered), and their trading links are said to have spanned the eastern Mediterranean.

Image: Lapplaender / Wikimedia Commons

Image: Lapplaender / Wikimedia Commons

[Image Licence]

As for their fate, it looks like they got hit with a double whammy. Climatic research seems to suggest the island culture started feeling the sting of centuries of strong El Nino events from around 1450 B.C., coinciding with the Minoans’ decline.

Warmer summers and higher summer evaporation would have dried up lowland pastures, forcing the Minions upland and actually bringing about a change in their art and culture to reflect the changing climate.

Then the volcano on the Aegean island of Thera (now Santorini) blew its top, also around the mid-second-millenium B.C. While the tsunami alone would have devastated coastal communities, the incredibly powerful blast would have ejected enough material into the air to usher in years of colder, wetter summers.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

It was probably a combination of these two catastrophes, one instantaneous, the other slow-moving, that took down the Minoans. The island was conquered by invaders from mainland Greece, and never achieved prominence again.

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