March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The cause of collapse of many societies of the past is complex.

Contemporary historians and anthropologists have adopted a different approach to answer the question. In fairness, today we have many more ways to elucidate the past. Instead of just relying on written primary and secondary sources, archaeology and paleoclimatology shed light on aspects of the lives of ancient peoples free from the biases of classical authors. In addition to that, the civilizations studied today encompass the entire world. Several books have been written about the demise of the Maya, the destruction of the Indus valley societies and the violent and sudden end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It should be stated again that in all these examples, the loss of knowledge and techniques mastered in previous centuries was enormous; e. g. in post Mycenaean Greece, even writing was forgotten. The causes of such disturbance in the natural development of progress are not treated anymore as just the product of rulers imposing foreign traditions on their peoples or the sheer contradictions that arise in a stratified society. Today, it is thought that factors like climate dynamics, natural disasters and the specific policies adopted by polities to cope with these circumstances may be much more important than previously thought. This is the approach taken contemporary historians and anthropologists. I will explore two recent books that show this characteristics over the nest paragraphs: 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline, which analyses the end of the Bronze Age cultures of the Fertile Crescent and the Aegean during the 12th century BC, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, a comprehensive study of the reasons for the decadence of both modern and historical societies all over the world.

Cline uses archaeological findings and written testimonies to find an explanation for the upheaval that wiped out the Final Bronze empires that had flourished for centuries in the area. He shows clear evidence of technological regression by contrasting the intertwined network of trade relationships between states that was active in the centuries between the 16th and 13th centuries BC (which he compares to the current day process known as globalization) to the widespread archaeological evidence of destruction and burning that caused a setback in craftwork and commerce one century later. He blames a “perfect storm”, a combination of both natural and human causes. Cline takes a more empiricist approach than Gibbon, backing his reasoning with climatic data and proofs of widespread destruction found buried in the fields of the Middle East. He does point some societal factors as likely enablers of the catastrophe. Nevertheless, he cites Gibbon as one of the influences for his work, as he was the first to look into the collapse of empires. The other book referenced is the aforementioned Collapse, by Diamond (1).

In Collapse, the reader can find numerous examples of societies that consumed themselves. The factor that links all collapses is the overexploitation of natural resources by local populations, which is usually aided by the unwillingness of the local populations to adapt to the radical changes in the environment and the attacks by rival societies that take advantage of the decay. Diamond uses several sources for his assertions, ranging from archaeological findings (e. g. the shrinking in the size of Mayan temples as their civilization was approaching its twilight) to primary written sources from neighboring polities (e. g. chronicles of Norwegian bishops regarding the disappearance of Viking settlements in Greenland). As with his previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond’s thesis is that the two main factors that determine whether a society will thrive or demise are the particular characteristics of the environment of a region, and the relationship developed by local human beings with said environment.

Therefore, the cause of collapse is not fully ecological, political or economic, but a complex combination of all these factors. The last chapters of Collapse explore modern societies that are under increasing ecological strain (China and Australia), but it is clearly stated that the pervasive effects of climate change have a worldwide scope that could dramatically alter our way of life, as countless peoples had to experience before. Thus, Collapse is also imbued with contemporary optics, but in a different way than History or The Class Struggle. In this case, it is the past that is used to analyze the present, and not the other way around. Diamond’s book has been considered by some to be a continuation of Guns, Germs and Steel, a final treaty on the cycle of life of societies. It is obvious that the final message of the book is that we are as vulnerable to crises as our ancestors were, and that we are dealing with some of the same issues. It is a 600-long warning over our lifestyle and the way our interconnected world works.In conclusion, it can be argued that the analysis carried out by historians on the processes of the decadence and disappearance of technology, trade and structures of power that took place in many past societies has been deeply influenced by the dominant ideologies and event occurring at the time they were writing their works. Ideological influences are present in all works analyzed, more patent in Gibbon (the supremacy of reason over faith) and Ste. Croix (history is the story of the general population against the elites, and that process explains the end of empires) than in Cline (the ancient world had developed a certain globalization that eventually collapsed) and Diamond (even though we cannot control the natural phenomena happening in the world, we can adapt our lifestyle accordingly to save ourselves). Use of archaeological and climatic data is obviously much more common in the most recent books, so, while still relying sometimes in testimonies from ancient writers, gives a more empirical aspect to them. What is clear is that even when civilization is long past its twilight, there always has been humans that have been intrigued by the circumstances of the fall. When nothing beside remains, historians become the channel the past uses to tell its tale of decay and collapse.

References: (1) Cline, Eric H. (2014). 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 10

Juan Gorrochategui is studying for a BSc in Chemistry at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Castillo (pyramid of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá, Wikipedia