Around 1200 B.C., the reigning civilizations in the Mediterranean and Near East collapsed. Archaeologists have posited several explanations for the Late Bronze Age Crisis, as the event is known, but new evidence suggests that a changing climate may have been a key factor in the civilizations’ demise.
Prior to the Late Bronze Age Crisis, the Hittite civilization in Syria and northern Mesopotamia, the Mycenaean civilization in Greece, and the New Kingdom in Egypt were centers of thriving trade and advanced culture. They began to decline simultaneously towards the end of the 13th century B.C., a slump that scientists have variously attributed to natural disaster, technological advances and internal political strife. Written sources from the time also tell of a band of mysterious “Sea Peoples” who raided the coasts and hastened the civilizations’ fall. The study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, supports the idea that climate change helped drive the events of the late Bronze Age collapse.
Researchers from the University of Paul Sabatier in France and elsewhere analyzed pollen samples and carbon isotopes from the Larnaca Salt Lake in southeastern Cyprus, an area at the crossroads of trade routes during the Late Bronze Age. The analysis revealed that the lake was once a lively harbor connected to the sea, but had dried up and became landlocked over time while the woodland around it retreated, indicating that a major climate shift had occurred between the 13th and 9th centuries B.C. By examining cuneiform tablets and correspondence records, the researchers determined that the onset of the drought coincided with the Late Bronze Age Crisis and the rise of the Sea Peoples.
The researchers theorize that the 300-year drought lead to crop failure and famine, creating socio-economic conflicts and forcing the formerly pastoral nomads to take to the seas. Rather than an isolated event, they contend that the crisis was the result of a confluence of several factors, and conclude that the Late Bronze Age decline, previously considered one of the great archaeological mysteries, highlights the sensitivity of ancient agricultural societies to fluctuations in climate.