by Andrew Rattray
With a constant flow of newer and ever flashier technology these days, it’s easy to think that human civilization simply moves endlessly forward, but this isn’t always the case.
Consider, for instance, the extensive setback of industry and architecture in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Humanity has faced no shortage of setbacks during our storied history, but one of the most significant, and enigmatic, is the Late Bronze Age Collapse.
For those unfamiliar, the Late Bronze Age Collapse refers to the rapid disintegration of some of the most prominent civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean over 3,200 years ago during the first part of the 12th century BCE. It effectively wiped out the progress of human civilisation in the region for hundreds of years afterwards. In fact, the American historian Robert Drews described the event as “the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire”.
This is no exaggeration either. Supremely powerful nations of the time, such as the Mycenaeans, Babylonians, Hittites, and others, were devastated over just a few decades. Drews elaborates, “… every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again”. What’s even more important to consider is that these were not just siloed city states; the whole region was an interconnected hub of flourishing trade and well-developed civilisation, not unlike our own modern world. For such well-established power structures to be upturned so rapidly, it must have taken a supreme change in the status quo; what could cause such upheaval?
Interestingly, it is far from a settled matter. Historians have been debating the root cause of the Collapse for over a century. Several theories have been put forward ranging from economic and political instability, to climate change, and even invasion, but no theory is without its detractors.
First, let’s consider economic and political instability. The whole region had deeply interconnected trade routes, and with this interconnectedness no doubt came inter-reliance. One theory of the Collapse is that a breakdown in trade between the regions caused a snowball effect, which ultimately led to devastating economic impacts that left these societies unable to recover. One region’s economy collapsed, which in turn affected another, and then another, until the whole region was in turmoil. However, the detractors of this idea outline that it would be unlikely for economic collapse to appear out of the blue, and there must be a more primary cause which ultimately started the ball rolling in that direction.
Internal unrest is one idea put forward as a potential primary cause of such an economic collapse. There is some evidence of this across the region, for example the first recorded labour strike in history occurred under the rule of Ramses III of Egypt in 1170 BCE. The stonemasons and other artisans of Deir el-Medina did not receive payment, and so threw down their tools and refused to work until their grievances were settled. This is just one example are of what historians believe was a key problem across the region: mounting inequity between the ruling and working classes, ultimately leading to rioting and unrest. Perhaps mounting internal disruption was the catalyst for the economic instability?
Another possible factor is climate change. This is a severe threat to our current way of life today, but it has also had an impact on humanity throughout history as well, and the Late Bronze Age Collapse is no exception. There are several climatic factors that modern scholars believe may have impacted civilisations in the region. For example, we know from recovered records from Ramses IIII’s reign in Egypt that a famine swept across the area during the period of the Collapse. This has been further demonstrated by historians such as Brandon L. Drake, who was able to establish a 150,000 year record of rainfall in the region through his investigations in the Soreq cave. By examining this data, Drake has argued that there is clear evidence of a sufficient decrease in precipitation between the period 1250 – 850 BCE to cause a famine.
So, we know climatic conditions changed enough to cause famine during this time, and we have historical records indicating that famine did strike some of these nations, but what caused the change in rainfall? Well, some historians, such as Frank Yurco in his book End of the Late Bronze Age and Other Crisis Periods: A Volcanic Cause?’, link an eruption of the Hekla volcano in Iceland (known as the Hekla 3 eruption, and dated to the 12th Century BCE) with famines in the region during the period of the Collapse. The dating of the eruption, however, is not exact, and there is contention amongst scholars who argue the eruption occurred either considerably earlier or later.
Ultimately, we are still unsure of the driving factors behind the climatic changes. Furthermore, while such changes may well have led to reduced crop yields, it may be the case that the famine had some other cause. It is also important to remember that while famine can absolutely be devastating, many historians do not believe that food shortages alone would have been enough to topple these civilisations in such a dramatic way.
We should also consider the impact of the invasion of warlike tribes from outside the region. Of particular note are the incursions of the enigmatic tribes titled simply as ‘the Sea Peoples’ by the 19th century Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé. Why such a non-specific name? Well, neither de Rougé nor modern historians are sure of the exact origin of the Sea Peoples. They arrived by ship and raided across the area, but we don’t know where they came from, who they were, or what prompted them to ravage the region at the turn of the 12th century.
Much of the evidence of the Sea Peoples comes from reliefs and other records from Egypt. From these we can see that both Ramses II and his son Ramses III fought off these invaders. Archaeological evidence from the surrounding areas suggests, however, that other powers were not so successful. Sites across the region were razed by the invaders, such as Alashiya in Cyprus in 1085 BCE, as well as various coastal regions in what is now modern-day Syria.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of factors at play here. For a long while, historians considered that these events happened independently and sequentially. Historians such as Eric Cline, however, have forwarded the argument that such a simplistic view is unlikely to be the true telling:
“Based on the evidence presently available, therefore, we may be seeing the result of a systems collapse that was caused by a series of events linked together via a “multiplier effect,” in which one factor affected the others, thereby magnifying the effects of each. Perhaps the inhabitants could have survived one disaster, such as an earthquake or a drought, but they could not survive the combined effects of earthquake, drought, and invaders all occurring in rapid succession. A “domino effect” then ensued, in which the disintegration of one civilization led to the fall of the others.”
As Cline suggests, each of these factors alone was not enough to topple such powerful civilisations but taken together with each factor influencing the others, we can paint a picture of a region rocked by several body blows. Volcanic activity leading to drought across the Mediterranean and further afield may have led to migratory activity, which ultimately became invasion as groups of refugees banding together formed armies of ‘Sea Peoples’ trying to settle land for themselves and their families. These pressures in turn may have damaged trade, which in such an interconnected region could have disrupted already unstable supplies of food. This disruption could have in turn led to internal strife and rebellion as people felt their rulers were not effectively acting in their interests. Each factor worsening the others until a feedback loop finally erodes the well-established power structures of the region.
Ultimately, like so much of history, there is no one smoking gun we can point to that will perfectly explain the Late Bronze Age Collapse. We may never know how these different factors interplayed with and affected one another. We would do well, however, to remember these setbacks, lest history repeat itself.
The Bronze Age is long past and a new age of science and technology reigns now, but even our current Information age will pass to something new. Do you think we will progress to a new age of enlightenment, or will our challenges overcome us and force us to rebuild society in a world of lost knowledge?