A walk through history easily shows that cultures can’t count on remaining stable forever.
Edward Gibbon wrote a classic on that subject: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (It’s on my bucket list of famous-books-I-have-yet-to-actually-read.) You can have a whack at it on line at a marvelous site called Project Gutenberg, along with lots of other free e-books.
What makes cultures or nations strong – and what brings them down – is fertile ground for discussion and complaint. Those keen on this subject often have their own favorite cautionary take: the danger of moral decay, the tendency of empires to collapse due to over-reach, or the risk of environmental factors gone awry.
Writing in the New York Times this past week, Isabel Kershner detailed a pollen study that may explain why successful Mediterranean area bronze-age cultures suffered a notable decline. (I am unable to find a direct link but the over-all study in question was published in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.)
Over 3200 years ago – paraphrasing Kershner – the region boasted “the mighty Hittite empire”, a thriving Egypt, the copper emporium of Cyprus, Greece and the Mycenaean culture, the bustling port of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, while Canaan supported city states like Hazor and Megiddo. From the NYT article:
Vibrant trade along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean connected it all.
Yet within 150 years, according to experts, the old world lay in ruins.
Experts have long pondered the cause of the crisis that led to the collapse of civilization in the Late Bronze Age, and now believe that by studying grains of fossilized pollen they have uncovered the cause.
In a study published Monday in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, researchers say it was drought that led to the collapse in the ancient southern Levant.
As reported in National Geographic, researchers studied pollen contained in sediment core samples taken from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee:
The scientists noticed a sharp decline around 1250 BCE in oaks, pines, and carob trees—the traditional flora of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age—and an increase in the types of plants usually found in semiarid desert regions. There was also a big drop in the number of olive trees, an indication that horticulture was on the wane. All are signs, say the researchers, that the region was in the grip of regular and sustained droughts.
The Biblical sound of those places and names is no coincidence. Here’s how Bible History Daily/Bible Archeology Society summarized the significance of this region and what happened there:
The new pollen data is critical for understanding the Bronze Age collapse. While a single source for the centuries-long upheaval seems unlikely, an extended period of drought may have led to economic failures and population migration, sparking broader military and other conflicts that broke down the extended imperial network of the Late Bronze Age. While Egypt, Hatti, Mycenae and others would never rise to their pre-collapse levels of prosperity again, the so-called Dark Ages saw the birth of some of history’s most prodigious cultures, including the Biblical Israelites.
The last sentence is insightful. To date, planetary human declines have been rare. When certain cultures – or regions – fall into decline, others come into their own, or go on to evolve toward subsequent successes.
Of course the example of dinosaurs would suggest that really big changes can happen too. (Life in general may go on, but your life form might run into a dead end.)
Are questions of why civilizations come and go ones you find intriguing? What are you concerned about right now, if anything?