Geologists Are Feuding About the Collapse of Civilization
The year's most acrimonious scientific fight is a mega-drama over a mega-drought.
Robinson Meyer <https://www.theatlantic.com/author/robinson-meyer/>
3:13 PM ET
A photograph of a person riding a camelAsmaa Waguih / Reuters
This summer, the decree went out: We are living in a new geological chapter in the planet's
For a certain corner of the world, this was big news. You have probably heard of the Jurassic period
(when dinosaurs ruled the Earth) or the Cambrian explosion (when complex animal life arose). Now we
had a new name for our own neighborhood in time: We modern humans—you, me, and Jesus of
Nazareth—were all born in the Meghalayan age/. /According to the global governing body of
geologists, this new era began 4,200 years ago, when a global mega-drought sent ancient societies
around the world into starvation and collapse.
/How interesting!/, you may think. /I love science!/ And perhaps in an earlier era, that's all you
would have had to think. The dawn of the Meghalayan would have earned some wide-eyed headlines
<https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44868527>, made life slightly easier for a few
researchers, and promptly been relegated to a second-round /Jeopardy!/ question.
Instead, the Meghalayan kicked off one of the cattiest, most intransigent fights among earth
scientists that I can remember—a battle that now concerns some of the most profound questions up for
scholarly debate today, including the importance of climate change, the likelihood of societal
collapse, and the ultimate place of humanity in the universe.
Not that you would always know this from listening to them. "What the fuck is the Meghalayan?" a
tenured professor of geology asked me
"It's silly," another said. Meanwhile, the new age's beleaguered advocates claimed an "incredible
press campaign" had misrepresented their work.
This week, the fight spilled into the pages of//one of the country's most prestigious journals, as a
critic raised a new concern with the embattled age. A short article published Thursday in /Science/
<http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/1204> contends that the Meghalayan is premised on
faulty archaeology. There is scant evidence, it says, that the worldwide mega-drought around 2200
B.C., which started the Meghalayan, brought ancient society to its knees.
"There was no sudden, universal civilizational collapse," writes Guy Middleton
<https://www.ncl.ac.uk/hca/staff/profile/guymiddleton.html>, a visiting archeologist at Newcastle
University, in the piece. "Overall, the archaeological and historical evidence suggests that 2200
B.C. was not a threshold date."
Middleton's point is larger than just the Meghalayan: He is siding with a group of scholars, mostly
at European universities, that argues that climate change has almost never led to war or total ruin
in the past. He writes as much in his piece: "Climate change never inevitably results in societal
collapse, though it can pose serious challenges, as it does today."
Does climate change cause more war?
The Meghalayan's architects did not mince words in their response.
"This is a totally misleading piece of writing, which displays a lamentable grasp of the facts,"
said Mike Walker <https://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/staff/michael-walker/>, a professor at the University of
Wales and the leader of the team that proposed the Meghalayan.
"I do not see a single accurate claim," agreed Harvey Weiss
<https://environment.yale.edu/profile/harvey-weiss/>, a professor of archeology at Yale who also
helped write the Meghalayan proposal.
In a series of emails, Weiss lambasted his critic's credentials. "Middleton, a pop-archeology
writer, failed archaeology Ph.D., and English-as-a-second-language instructor in Japan, now claims
archeo-expertise in matters about which he knows nothing, and gets great audience in /Science/—of
all journals!" he wrote.
"For me, the most intriguing question is, 'Why does /Science/ publish this rubbish?'" he said in
another message, sent several hours later under the subject line "and Weiss added … "
"I see you've been talking to Harvey Weiss!" Middleton replied when I told him about some of these
charges without identifying their source. Middleton is the author of a book about societal collapse
and he holds a doctorate in Aegean prehistory. He has also "proudly" taught English for Academic
Purposes classes at Tokyo University and Northumbria University, he said, writing: "It has put bread
on the table since 2002 and paid me through my Ph.D."
It wasn't always clear that the Meghalayan would arouse this level of controversy. The new age was
meant to be an aid for geologists and climate scientists who study the past 11,700 years of Earth's
history. This period of time—called the Holocene epoch—contains nearly all of modern human history
and is crucial to the study of contemporary climate change.
But much to the chagrin of some scientists, the Holocene epoch is not clearly chunked into
subdivisions. This ambiguity makes it hard to compare scientific conclusions: One researcher might
consider the year 2000 B.C. to be "late Holocene"; another might think it the "mid-Holocene." So in
2010, the International Commission on Stratigraphy <http://www.stratigraphy.org/>, which
standardizes geological timelines, convened a panel to fix this problem by subdividing the Holocene
After years of discussion and debate, the commission finalized those new subdivisions
July. The "late Holocene," it said, would start with the advent of a global mega-drought 4,200 years
ago. Since the best record of this worldwide drying event comes from a stalactite in Meghalaya,
India, the new age would be called the Meghalayan.
The July paper proposing the new age described the mega-drought of 2200 B.C. as "one of the most
pronounced climatic events" to afflict human communities since the end of the Ice Age. It offers a
tour of a world in catastrophe circa 2200 B.C.: In Egypt, the Old Kingdom "seems to have collapsed"
after the Nile's floods faltered. In Mesopotamia, the Akkadian empire crumbled, a disaster "linked
to sudden acidification." Throughout the Levant, people abandoned towns and cities. In modern-day
Pakistan, the urban Harappan civilization—which once flourished in the Indus Valley—transitioned to
a "rural, post-urban society." In China, multiple Neolithic cultures failed. Settlement around the
Yangtze and Yellow Rivers seems to have reached a nadir.
Middleton disputes almost all of these conclusions. Take Egypt, for instance. The pharaoh did lose
power during that period, he writes, but he largely chalks this up to bureaucratic changes: "There
was no disruption to Egyptian civilization, no dark age, and no mass starvation and death," he writes.
Weiss directly contests some of these claims. "The great hallmarks of the Old Kingdom, the pyramid
royal tombs cease to be built after the … mega-drought," he said in an email. "Central government
diffused to the provinces. Nile flow was diminished significantly—and thereby agricultural revenues
for Old Kingdom pharaohs and their pyramid constructions."
"I don't think you can point to just the climate and say that the climate caused the collapse of the
Old Kingdom," said Peter Der Manuelian <https://nelc.fas.harvard.edu/people/peter-der-manuelian>, a
professor of Egyptology at Harvard who was not connected to either Meghalayan effort. "There's also
changes to the kingship, to the bureaucracy, economic factors, and /also /this general desiccation
[of the environment]. Some people lean more toward the climate, and some lean more toward economics
or the kingship."
But he agreed that there was "definitely some fragmentation" in the Old Kingdom around 2200 B.C.
"But thinking these days is that it was not anarchy, total collapse, and chaos and starvation," he said.
Middleton takes a skeptical view of the idea that the 23rd century B.C. was especially devastating
for human society. "I think that if you take a two-century period, you are indeed likely to find
lots of changes and potentially things that modern scholars might sometimes term collapse (not
necessarily helpfully)," he told me in an email. "Two hundred years separates us from the Napoleonic
Wars … Take any 200 years of archaic or classical Greece or modern Europe and see how much the world
changes in different ways."
He declined to say whether the Meghalayan should be reexamined. "The Meghalayan may exist
stratigraphically, that is ultimately for geologists to determine," he told me. "As a threshold for
human cultures, and in terms of the archaeology, the Meghalayan seems to me to be questionable and
Walker, the professor who led the Meghalayan team, told me that "the archaeological record has no
relevance whatsoever" in helping to set the new age. The mega-drought that set in 4,200 years ago is
the important boundary in time, he said, adding: "I cannot understand why /Science/, which is
supposed to be a flagship journal for global science, would publish such a poorly researched article
Middleton's article ran as a short, two-page "perspective" in /Science. /In a statement, a
spokeswoman for /Science /said that articles like Middleton's "are examined by members of
/Science/'s Board of Reviewing Editors (outside practicing scientists) who are experts in the
related topic, as well as by /Science/'s in-house editors who handle papers in related areas."
Middleton's "call for archaeologists to pursue more interdisciplinary collaborations and publish in
journals so that their latest assessments are visible to the wider discourse—for further
evaluation—is one that makes it a good candidate for a perspective," she added.
Even if Middleton's criticism prompts no change to the Meghalayan, it points to a scholarly battle
that remains unresolved. As I wrote earlier this year
scholars across economics and the social sciences currently do not agree about whether environmental
change increases the chance of war and societal collapse. European scholars tend to dispute such a
link; American scholars have mostly affirmed it.
"A decade ago Jared Diamond's book was called /Collapse/. But reading it carefully suggested that
numerous societies had actually survived remarkably in the face of environmental adversity," said
Simon Dalby, a professor of political economy at the Balsillie School of International Affairs who
mostly disputes a climate-conflict connection. The next few centuries "are likely to be much less
conducive to human flourishing than the last few centuries, but humanity will survive unless some
major disease event transpires."
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Robinson Meyer <https://www.theatlantic.com/author/robinson-meyer/> is a staff writer at /The
Atlantic/, where he covers climate change and technology.
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