NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Rise And Fall Of Cultures Linked To Climate Change

February 5, 2001

Is there a lesson for modern industrial civilization in the fact that throughout history "cultures of great sophistication have inevitably collapsed?"

According to a recent article in the journal Science by anthropologist Harvey Weiss and geoscientist Raymond Bradley, recent precise dating of ancient weather changes reveals that many cultural disruptions corresponded with drastic climatic shifts. They found that societies can collapse quickly, with whole populations abandoning areas, altering their way of life or radically reorganizing their social and governmental systems.

  • About 12,000 years ago, for example, the Natufians of southwest Asia became farmers and herders due to a cooler, drier climate in which nomadic hunting and foraging could no longer supply enough food.
  • Then, 8,200 years ago, a drought lasting about two centuries led to abandonment of the farming settlements.
  • Only millennia later moister conditions allowed the rebirth of Mesopotamian civilization.
  • From about 2600 B.C. onward, favorable climate supported civilizations from the Mediterranean and Egypt through Mesopotamia to India -- but many of those cultures suffered drastic change after 2290 B.C., when the weather cooled and rainfall levels dropped dramatically.

Similarly, severe drought coincided with the Maya collapse of the ninth century, and decades of drought in the 13th century apparently forced the Anasazi to abandon their habitats.

Today, global climate change due to shifting weather patterns -- possibly driven by human release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- could bring about abrupt societal changes. However, scientists now can anticipate the future, which could help society plan to reduce the damage that climate change might inflict.

Source: Tom Siegfried, "Science Could Help Societies Weather Ruinous Climate Change," Dallas Morning News, February 5, 2001.


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