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Climate Change: Late Bronze Age Collapse

Posted on: August 16, 2018




The Late Bronze Age (LBA) was the ultimate expression of the settled agricultural civilization that got started in the Neolithic Revolution. The macro economy of agricultural wealth creation and its control had evolved such that the farmers themselves became pawns (peasants) in a power game among individuals who could raise armies to control agricultural lands. With further developments such as language both spoken and written and artisan and engineering innovations such as copper mining, metal works, making of tools for agriculture and warfare, and pottery, the controlled agricultural lands evolved into large and powerful kingdoms ruled by the king with his army in a palatial sub-economy and worked by peasants and artisans in a rural agricultural sub-economy. It is important in this context to understand the kingdoms as a bifurcation because these distinct sub-economies were differently impacted by the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC). The distinction is similar to that between urban and rural societies in our time. High end artisans and engineers who worked for the palace were part of the palatial culture.

In the LBA, this agricultural macro-system had grown into a large, sophisticated, and interconnected global economy similar to what we have today. The major kingdom nation states in this global economy were The Egyptian New Kingdom (where Egypt is today), the Assyrian Empire (where Syria is today), the Hittite Empire (where Turkey is today), and the Mycenaeans (where Greece is today). Trade, travel, shipping, cooperation, global policy making, and warfare among these states were common much like things are today but without those big fat good-for-nothing UN bureaucrats. The America of the day was Egypt, in economic, diplomatic, and military power as well as in terms of attracting the best and brightest writers, philosophers, and artisans from around world shown in the video. Many smaller kingdoms existed such the Biblical states in the Levant but they were vassals of the large and powerful kingdoms. This global economy was extremely successful and the powerful kingdoms and empires enjoyed enormous wealth and advancements in technology, transportation, infrastructure, the arts, and in learning and knowledge. The pyramids of Egypt are a product of this civilization.

Then, around 1200 BC or so give or take 50 years, the archaeological and textual data show that the lights went out on the LBA. A long gap of more than a 200 years of a Dark Age followed with no evidence of the great LBA global economy until the Early Iron Age-1 when an entirely new kind of global economy grew from the ashes of the LBAC.

The big question is “what happened?”. The honest answer is that we don’t know and we will likely never know. But it is possible to construct theories that are consistent with the available archaeological, textual, and paleo-climate data. The two most popular theories are the Sea Peoples theory (see Drews 1993 below) and the climate change theory (Finkelstein, Weiss, Kaniewski, Drake, and others). Yet another possibility is class warfare between the palace and rural cultures. We don’t know. It’s a mystery. This bibliography is an exploration of this line of research in the context of the climate change alarm in our time.

In the context of the current alarm about catastrophic climate change that may end this civilization (“Alien apocalypse: Can any civilization make it through climate change?, University of Rochester, 2018, in Science Daily, LINK TO FULL TEXT ), it is interesting to note that religions prior to the LBAC do not contain a Judgement Day “end of the world” but religions that got started in the early Iron Age right after the Dark Ages of the LBAC do contain an end of the world of some kind. It is likely that our obsession with the end of the world scenario, now in the form of human caused climate change with fossil fuel emissions, is a distant genetic memory of the LBAC.


  1. 1982: Weiss, Barry. “The decline of Late Bronze Age civilization as a possible response to climatic change.” Climatic Change 4.2 (1982): 173-198. The disintegration of Eastern Mediterranean civilization at the end of the late Bronze Age (late thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.) has traditionally been attributed to the irruption of new peoples into this area. However, the nearly contemporaneous decline of highly organized and powerful states in Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia warrants consideration of possible environmental causes likely to operate over sizable areas, especially since archaeological research has not succeeded in establishing the presence of newcomers at the onset of the Bronze Age disturbances. Climatic change is a particularly attractive candidate since temperature and precipitation variations persisting over relatively short times can adversely affect agricultural output. Carpenter (1966) argued that the Mycenaean decline and migrations in and from Greece in the late thirteenth century were caused by prolonged drought and not the incursion of less civilized Dorian tribes. Donley (1971) and Bryson et al. (1974) have presented evidence of a spatial drought pattern which occurred in January 1955 that might be invoked to support this thesis. Population movements in Anatolia at the same time, though not as well established, can be delimited to some degree by the distribution of Hitto-Luwian peoples in the late ninth century B.C. It is hypothesized here that a drought induced migration of Luwian peoples from Western Antolia occurred early in the twelfth century B.C., that it was associated in some fashion with the invasion of Egypt by the ‘Sea Peoples’ in the reign of Ramesses III, and that the defeated remnants of these peoples settled along the Levantine coast and filtered into North Syria and the upper Euphrates valley. It has been suggested that past climatic patterns recur in the present epoch but with a possibly different frequency. To establish that a spatial drought analogue to the above hypothesized migration can occur, temperature and precipitation records from 35 Greek, Turkish, Cypriot, and Syrian weather stations for the period 1951–1976 were examined. The Palmer drought index, an empirical method of measuring drought severity, was computed for each of these stations for the period of record. Since wheat yields tend to be highly correlated with winter precipitation for the area in question, the drought indices for the winter months were subjected to an empirical eigenvector analysis. An eigenvector (drought pattern) consistent with the postulated population movements in Anatolia occurred within the modern climatological record and was found to have been the dominant pattern in January 1972. The potential problems of eigenvector analysis in investigating problems of this type are discussed.
  2. 1993: Drews, Robert. BOOK: “The end of the Bronze Age.” Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca 1200 (1993): 113-129. BOOK REVIEW: {Note: this is the older sea people’s theory that is now challenged by the climate change theory}. A seafaring sword and shield armed infantry defeated and destroyed cities, armies and civilizations based on chariots. Stopped only in the marshes of Egypt, where they were assimilated into the Egyptian army and settled along the coasts of The Levant (the Biblical reference to the Philistines). The author doesn’t comment on how this parallels very similar events in 800 AD, where the sword and shield armed troops are the Vikings; and the mounted opponents are the Carolingians.The weakness in the book is that it doesn’t exactly explain how a loose order infantry could defeat chariots in the open. Most men run away when someone on a horse threatens to ride them down. And how does a man with a sword actually kill a man on a chariot? I also felt that the issue of whether the Sea Peoples weapons, iron versus bronze, was poorly addressed. If the Sea Peoples were not using iron weapons, then who did bring iron weapons to global prominence in this period?Also, an alternative theory on the end of the Bronze Age is that the Trojan war was real; the Sea Peoples were the Greeks who sacked Troy, who then went on a Med wide rampage and eventually settled as the Philistines. Would like to have seen this theory addressed…..Stimulating work, may need an update.4 of 4 people found the following review helpful. Notewory by Peter G. TsourasThis is one of those books that brings light to a distant but formative stage in history when the seemingly stable world of the late near eastern bronze age collapsed suddenly. The author makes good sense of the fragments of information that have survived. He pieces together the systemic collapse of the Mycenaean world and the forces that it unleashed against the already weakened Hititte Empire and sent like a growing storm to devastate the region from Anatolia to Canaan only to dash itself against the last might of Egypt. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Greek Bronze Age as well as the other contemporary cultures of the eastern Mediterranean as well as to anyone interested in the evolution of the art of war. FULL TEXT
  3. 1997: Weiss, Harvey. “Late third millennium abrupt climate change and social collapse in West Asia and Egypt.” Third millennium BC climate change and Old World collapse. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1997. 711-723. The palaeoenvironmental record for the 2200 BC abrupt climate change is synthesized. Alternative explanations for synchronous and extended Old World social collapse are examined and rejected. Quantification of the abrupt climate change is necessary if we are to understand its social consequences. FULL TEXT
  4. 2010: Kaniewski, David, et al. “Late second–early first millennium BC abrupt climate changes in coastal Syria and their possible significance for the history of the Eastern Mediterranean.” Quaternary Research 74.2 (2010): 207-215. The alluvial deposits near Gibala-Tell Tweini provide a unique record of environmental history and food availability estimates covering the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. The refined pollen-derived climatic proxy suggests that drier climatic conditions occurred in the Mediterranean belt of Syria from the late 13th/early 12th centuries BC to the 9th century BC. This period corresponds with the time frame of the Late Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent Dark Age. The abrupt climate change at the end of the Late Bronze Age caused region-wide crop failures, leading towards socio-economic crises and unsustainability, forcing regional habitat-tracking. Archaeological data show that the first conflagration of Gibala occurred simultaneously with the destruction of the capital city Ugarit currently dated between 1194 and 1175 BC. Gibala redeveloped shortly after this destruction, with large-scale urbanization visible in two main architectural phases during the Early Iron Age I. The later Iron Age I city was destroyed during a second conflagration, which is radiocarbon-dated at circa 2950 cal yr BP. The data from Gibala-Tell Tweini provide evidence in support of the drought hypothesis as a triggering factor behind the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean.
  5. 2011: Kaniewski, David, et al. “The Sea Peoples, from cuneiform tablets to carbon dating.” PloS one 6.6 (2011): e20232. The 13th century BC witnessed the zenith of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean civilizations which declined at the end of the Bronze Age, ∼3200 years ago. Weakening of this ancient flourishing Mediterranean world shifted the political and economic centres of gravity away from the Levant towards Classical Greece and Rome, and led, in the long term, to the emergence of the modern western civilizations. Textual evidence from cuneiform tablets and Egyptian reliefs from the New Kingdom relate that seafaring tribes, the Sea Peoples, were the final catalyst that put the fall of cities and states in motion. However, the lack of a stratified radiocarbon-based archaeology for the Sea People event has led to a floating historical chronology derived from a variety of sources spanning dispersed areas. Here, we report a stratified radiocarbon-based archaeology with anchor points in ancient epigraphic-literary sources, Hittite-Levantine-Egyptian kings and astronomical observations to precisely date the Sea People event. By confronting historical and science-based archaeology, we establish an absolute age range of 1192–1190 BC for terminal destructions and cultural collapse in the northern Levant. This radiocarbon-based archaeology has far-reaching implications for the wider Mediterranean, where an elaborate network of international relations and commercial activities are intertwined with the history of civilizations.
  6. 2012: Drake, Brandon L. “The influence of climatic change on the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Greek Dark Ages.” Journal of Archaeological Science 39.6 (2012): 1862-1870. Between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, most Greek Bronze Age Palatial centers were destroyed and/or abandoned. The following centuries were typified by low population levels. Data from oxygen-isotope speleothems, stable carbon isotopes, alkenone-derived sea surface temperatures, and changes in warm-species dinocysts and formanifera in the Mediterranean indicate that the Early Iron Age was more arid than the preceding Bronze Age. A sharp increase in Northern Hemisphere temperatures preceded the collapse of Palatial centers, a sharp decrease occurred during their abandonment. Mediterranean Sea surface temperatures cooled rapidly during the Late Bronze Age, limiting freshwater flux into the atmosphere and thus reducing precipitation over land. These climatic changes could have affected Palatial centers that were dependent upon high levels of agricultural productivity. Declines in agricultural production would have made higher-density populations in Palatial centers unsustainable. The ‘Greek Dark Ages’ that followed occurred during prolonged arid conditions that lasted until the Roman Warm Period. {Notes: Stable carbon isotopes from radiocarbon-dated pollen can indicate paleoclimate, Mediterranean sea surface temperatures (SST) indicate precipitation patterns, The Bronze Age Collapse is contemporaneous with a sharp drop in temperatures (GISP2), The Bronze Age Collapse and Greek Dark Ages may result from the same arid period.
  7. 2013: Langgut, Dafna, Israel Finkelstein, and Thomas Litt. “Climate and the Late Bronze Collapse: new evidence from the Southern Levant.” Tel Aviv 40.2 (2013): 149-175. A core drilled from the Sea of Galilee was subjected to high resolution pollen analysis for the Bronze and Iron Ages. The detailed pollen diagram (sample/~40 yrs) was used to reconstruct past climate changes and human impact on the vegetation of the Mediterranean zone of the southern Levant. The chronology is based on radiocarbon dating of short-lived terrestrial organic material. The results indicate that the driest event throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages occurred ~1250–1100 BCE—at the end of the Late Bronze Age. This arid phase was identified based on a significant decrease in Mediterranean tree values, denoting a reduction in precipitation and the shrinkage of the Mediterranean forest/maquis. The Late Bronze dry event was followed by dramatic recovery in the Iron I, evident in the increased percentages of both Mediterranean trees and cultivated olive trees. Archaeology indicates that the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age took place during the same period—from the mid- 13th century to ca. 1100 BCE. In the Levant the crisis years are represented by destruction of a large number of urban centres, shrinkage of other major sites, hoarding activities and changes in settlement patterns. Textual evidence from several places in the Ancient Near East attests to drought and famine starting in the mid-13th and continuing until the second half of the 12th century. All this helps to better understand the ‘Crisis Years’ in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the quick settlement recovery in the Iron I, especially in the highlands of the Levant.
  8. 2013: Kaniewski, David, et al. “Environmental roots of the Late Bronze Age crisis.” PLoS One 8.8 (2013): e71004. The Late Bronze Age world of the Eastern Mediterranean, a rich linkage of Aegean, Egyptian, Syro-Palestinian, and Hittite civilizations, collapsed famously 3200 years ago and has remained one of the mysteries of the ancient world since the event’s retrieval began in the late 19thcentury AD/CE. Iconic Egyptian bas-reliefs and graphic hieroglyphic and cuneiform texts portray the proximate cause of the collapse as the invasions of the “Peoples-of-the-Sea” at the Nile Delta, the Turkish coast, and down into the heartlands of Syria and Palestine where armies clashed, famine-ravaged cities abandoned, and countrysides depopulated. Here we report palaeoclimate data from Cyprus for the Late Bronze Age crisis, alongside a radiocarbon-based chronology integrating both archaeological and palaeoclimate proxies, which reveal the effects of abrupt climate change-driven famine and causal linkage with the Sea People invasions in Cyprus and Syria. The statistical analysis of proximate and ultimate features of the sequential collapse reveals the relationships of climate-driven famine, sea-borne-invasion, region-wide warfare, and politico-economic collapse, in whose wake new societies and new ideologies were created.
  9. 2014: Armit, Ian, et al. “Rapid climate change did not cause population collapse at the end of the European Bronze Age.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.48 (2014): 17045-17049. The impact of rapid climate change on humans is of contemporary global interest. Present-day debates are necessarily informed by paleoclimate studies in which climate is often assumed, without sufficient critical attention, to be the primary driver of societal change. Using new methods to analyze paleoclimatic and archeological datasets, we overturn the deterministic idea that population collapse at the end of the northwestern European Bronze Age was caused by rapid climate change. Our work demonstrates the necessity of high-precision chronologies in evaluating human responses to rapid climate change. It will be significant for geoscientists, climate change scientists, and archeologists. The impact of rapid climate change on contemporary human populations is of global concern. To contextualize our understanding of human responses to rapid climate change it is necessary to examine the archeological record during past climate transitions. One episode of abrupt climate change has been correlated with societal collapse at the end of the northwestern European Bronze Age. We apply new methods to interrogate archeological and paleoclimate data for this transition in Ireland at a higher level of precision than has previously been possible. We analyze archeological 14C dates to demonstrate dramatic population collapse and present high-precision proxy climate data, analyzed through Bayesian methods, to provide evidence for a rapid climatic transition at ca. 750 calibrated years B.C. Our results demonstrate that this climatic downturn did not initiate population collapse and highlight the non-deterministic nature of human responses to past climate change.



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Climate Change: Late Bronze Age Collapse




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