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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bang or whimper? | Science


Bang or whimper?

1. Guy D. Middleton1 <>,2

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Science 21 Sep 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6408, pp. 1204-1205
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8834

The International Commission on Stratigraphy recently announced the creation of a new unit in the
scale of geological time, the Meghalayan Age, from 4200 years before present, or 2200 BCE, to the
present. The Commission explains that this period began with a two-centuries-long megadrought that
caused the collapse of civilizations in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Indus
Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley (/1/
<>). However, there is little
archaeological evidence for such sudden, widespread civilizational collapse.

Since at least 1971, scientists have repeatedly argued that a major drought caused civilizational
collapse at numerous locations at this time (/2/
<>). Some scholars have amassed
impressive amounts of data to demonstrate the existence of a megadrought and have linked this
causally with civilizational collapse (/3/
<>). However, detailed archaeological
and historical analysis, including recent investigations of chronology and paleoclimate, suggests
that rather than simultaneous civilizational collapse, different kinds of changes occurred in
different parts of the world at different times, all of them less abrupt than once thought (/4/
<>). The environmental and climatic
determinism behind the megadroughtcollapse narrative fails to account for specific historical
circumstances, the power of human agency to drive substantial change, and the translation of
environmental factors into cultural and sociopolitical contexts. Current evidence, therefore, casts
doubt on the utility of 2200 BCE as a meaningful beginning to a new age in human terms, whether
there was a megadrought or not.

To understand in more detail what happened around 4200 years ago, consider the situation in several
of the locations for which collapse has been suggested. In Egypt, there is evidence that the
centralized power of the pharaoh in the Old Kingdom fragmented slowly into the hands of local
potentates in the First Intermediate Period (2181 to 2055 BCE). However, there was no disruption to
Egyptian civilization, no dark age, and no mass starvation and death (/10/
<>). Contemporary tomb inscriptions
such as that of the governor Ankhtifi note military exploits, demonstrating that the land could
produce enough food to feed armies; non-elite tombs became more common and richer at this time. The
Dialogue of Ipuwer, read by some as a factual account of drought, famine, and chaos around 2200 BCE,
belongs to a class of later Middle Kingdom "pessimistic" or "lamentation" literature. Written from a
rigidly aristocratic perspective, it uses the themes of chaos and disorder—really, social fluidity
and mobility—as a counterpoint to an ideology that proclaimed the rightness of centralized pharaonic
power and order (/11/ <>).

Embedded Image

The Stele of Khuivi from the First Intermediate Period in Egypt (2181 to 2055 BCE) is better
considered as art and expression from a lively social milieu.


Around the same time, the short-lived (about 100 years) Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia also fell
apart, probably due to the desire for independence of the Mesopotamian city-states. Attributing the
empire's demise to the megadrought is problematic because the absolute chronology of the empire in
Mesopotamia remains debated; it is possible that the empire formed during the period of the
megadrought, rather than before it (/12/
<>). Some sites in northern
Mesopotamia were abandoned around 2200 BCE, but urban areas flourished elsewhere in the region,
including Carchemish and Ebla, with researchers noting that a climate change explanation does not
seem to fit the varied patterns of change over time (/5/
<>). The collapse of one empire did
not imply a general societal collapse of Mesopotamian city-states or Mesopotamian civilization;
complex societies continued to exist uninterrupted, and even the Akkadian dynasty continued as
rulers of their city.

Urbanism in northern Lebanon continued at this time, though deurbanization is apparent in the south
and in the southern Levant (/13/ <>).
This deurbanization was a centuries-long process starting around 2500 BCE, not simultaneous with the
end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom or the Akkadian collapse (/6/
<>). Indus Valley deurbanization was
only partial and also a long-term process, with an eastward shift of settlements and cultural
continuity (/7/ <>). In Greece, a land
of small-scale, fairly simple societies, changes once thought sudden—the destruction of particular
types of high-status houses and the building of new-style apsidal houses, mainly based on work at
Lerna in the 1950s—are now known to have been much more gradual processes (/8/
<>). In China, researchers note a
number of Neolithic collapses, perhaps of chiefdoms, but these happened around 2000 rather than 2200
BCE (/9/ <>). They also explain that
the Henan Longshan culture did not collapse, but rather developed into the complex Erlitou state.

Overall, the archaeological and historical evidence suggests that 2200 BCE was not a threshold date
and that there was no sudden, universal civilizational collapse. If there was a megadrought around
2200 BCE and after, it may be more instructive to look at how societies survived—their
resilience—rather than suggesting an ancient apocalypse.

What causes the misunderstandings about past collapses? A key issue is communication. Although
archaeology and history are interdisciplinary fields, they can seldom be presented in major
interdisciplinary scientific journals, because the research does not usually fit into the form of
scientific research papers and is difficult to present meaningfully in short articles. Key issues
and developments in archaeology are thus less visible to researchers in other fields and in wider
academic discourse, with discussion often remaining buried in a vast and disparate archaeological
literature. Furthermore, scholars outside archaeology may assume that older or well-known ideas
remain valid, but in archaeological discourse, knowledge is often provisional and contested, subject
to change and questioning.

Archaeologists are making efforts to address these communication problems through interdisciplinary
and outward-facing projects. For example, the Climate Change and History Research Initiative at
Princeton University draws together scholars with a range of specialisms and seeks to communicate
more nuanced messages to a wider audience (/14/
<>). Also, an increasing number of
archaeologists combine their expertise with paleoclimatology, leading to more effective and
convincing projects (/15/ <>).

Even if scientists agree that the paleoclimate data indicate substantial and widespread climatic
changes around 2200 BCE, accompanied by sudden, severe, and long-lasting aridification, they must be
prepared to admit that many people and societies seem to have coped with it and even flourished at
this time, as in Egypt. Climate change never inevitably results in societal collapse, though it can
pose serious challenges, as it does today. From an archaeological perspective, the new Late Holocene
Meghalayan Age seems to have started with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is an article distributed under the terms of the Science Journals Default License

References and Notes

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*Acknowledgments: *I thank J. Haldon for commenting on a draft of this paper. This work was
supported by the European Regional Development Fund-Project "Creativity and Adaptability as
Conditions of the Success of Europe in an Interrelated World" (no. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000734).

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