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Climate Change - An Historic Precedent

Updated on June 24, 2015

The Cycle of Life

People talk a lot about climate change and our effect on our environment. We have an affect, yes, but we are not the cause. History is filled with examples going back eons to before humans walked the earth. That is not to say that we should not pay close attention to the effects of climate change and attempt to mitigate the effects as much as possible: history also tells us what dramatic changes can come from climate change.
A little over 4000 years ago, there was what historians and geologists call the 4.2 kiloyear event. This was a period of severe drought that probably lasted the entire 22nd century BCE and caused the collapse of several Old World civilizations. The Old Kingdom of Egypt, the pyramid builders, came to an end due in part to this event. The Akkadian Empire, the first Mesopotamian empire, collapsed.
That is not to say that everything was doom-and-gloom during this time. The drought also had a more positive impact on China and Greece. The weather changes led to population movement in China that evolved into the earliest recorded dynasty in the region, the Xia Dynasty. And the migrations brought the Indo-European Achaens to Greece – the people who would found Mycenae and Ancient Greece.

Effects of Climate Change on Ancient Egypt

First Intermediate Period is held to be a dark age for Ancient Egypt. It was chaotic and miserable with power being held between two competing centers – Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. There are a few purported causes for this collapse so the climate is not solely to blame, but it contributed to the perfect storm that brought down the pyramid builders.

The last pharaoh of the Old Kingdom, Pepi II, ruled from childhood into very old age – some claim he was 100 years old at his death. This meant that he had outlived many of his heirs and that created problems with succession. The provincial nomarchs, or regional governors, had in the meantime become very powerful. The title of nomarch was hereditary, and these little princes grew increasingly independent from the pharaoh. Add a drought to the power vacuum and you have a recipe for collapse. The lower crop yield led to famine, which caused the people to look toward their powerful local governors for help instead of to the pharaohs. The empire collapsed into city-states.

The 7th and 8th dynasties were run from the old capital of Memphis, but are much overlooked by archaeology. It produced very little textual or architectural evidence of the collapse of power there. An influential nomarch out of Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt overran the Memphite nomarch to establish the 9th and 10th dynasties.

There existed a buffer nome between Upper and Lower Egypt. These warrior princes were from Asyut and paid homage to the Heracleopolian kings. This made them the first targets of the Theban kings of the 11th and 12th dynasties as they took Abydos, and then Heracleopolis itself to once again unite Egypt under one pharaoh, Mentuhotep II.

All of this upheaval began about 2181 BCE and lasted until the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, about 2033 BCE. This dark age of political turmoil wasn’t necessarily bad on the common man though. Tomb inscriptions depict the provinces themselves flourishing with emphasis being on the individual instead of a central king/god figure so it seems they were able to salvage their own happiness from the confusion. However, since the artwork and texts, which archaeologists derive the history from, were so provincial, there is very little evidence of the road taken to reach political reunification. Suffice to say, the drought led to internal strife coupled with a weakened central government; and you have yourself the perfect empire killer

The First Semitic Empire Falls to Thirsty Nomads

Mesopotamia experienced a similar fate to Egypt. Around 2170 BCE, widespread abandonment of the agricultural plains of northern Mesopotamia led to an influx of refugees into the south toward Akkad. The drought had caused the Tigris and Euphrates to fall by 1.5meters; and the people needed water.

The Akkadian Empire was the first Mesopotamian Empire and they controlled trade from the Mediterranean coast of Syria to the head of the Persian Gulf. The empire had coalesced under Sargon of Akkad from a mass of competing city-states. The perfect storm in Mesopotamia started with some weak rulers and intermittent anarchy from 2192-2168. The political climate seemed to be resolving itself into order when the natural climate began to influence history. The northern plains dried up and the Gutians, from the Zagros Mountains, attacked.

To add to the tornado of destruction were the Amorites, a group of nomadic herders that had moved closer to water during the drought. This brought them into conflict with the agrarian Akkadians because the Amorites allowed their herds to graze on Akkadian farmland. The Akkadians even built a 180km wall called the “Repeller of the Amorites” across central Mesopotamia to no avail.

Around 2150, the Gutians defeated the Akkadian army, took the capital city of Akkad and destroyed it. This led to a dark age of Mesopotamian history. By all evidence, the Gutians were a barbaric people who only exacerbated the desperation of an agricultural people already suffering under the drought.

But as with Egypt, a new day dawned with the rise of the Sumerians. The dark days, and the Gutians, were cleared out by Ur-Nammu, and eventually followed by Hammurabi who established the Babylonian Empire and his famous Code

In Nature, Death begets Rebirth

This climate change in the 22nd century BCE caused much death in the form of crops to drought, empires to social upheaval, and actual human death caused by war. But, as with all things natural, death also causes rebirth. No more is the rebirth caused by the 4.2 kiloyear event more evident than in China and Greece.

2200 BCE saw the earliest recorded dynasty in an ancient land - China. The Xia Dynasty grew out of the Yellow River Valley. As with all regions affected by the drought, the people of China followed the water. The middle reaches of the Yellow River saw series of floods due to a lack of irrigation and flood protection. The plentiful water attracted a population and the Xia Dynasty was founded.

The gathering of people in this way created Greece as we know it as well. Before the climate event, the Early Minoans were a trading, Bronze Age people with contacts in Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Cyprus, Canaan, Levantine coasts, and Anatolia. But they were a decentralized culture with no powerful nobility or centralized authority. The climate change felt in mainland Greece and Asia Minor created the same social upheaval, external dangers, and migrations as it had in Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, this invasion, contrary to the Mesopotamian one, was more productive. The Indo-European Achaeans came in bringing the language which would evolve into ancient Greek and founded Mycenae, one of the first great Greek city-states. Incidentally, this also forced the Minoans into further development and a founding of power structures and palaces, such as the one at Knossos.

Evils of Climate Change?

I think the major lessons to be learned from these histories are:
1. Climate change has been happening for the entire history of our planet.
2. The most dramatic shifts in natural cycles and temperatures occurred well before human industrialization.
3. The effects of climate change are what you make of them.

What will you make of them?

© 2015 chavaj

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