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Climate change could account for the fall of an Ancient Empire

Written by Science

The Neo-Assyrian empire, a powerful conquering empire in the iron age, was the third and last empire to grow out of the ancient city of Assur. The Hebrew Bible has several mentions of the Assyrians due to conflicts at the time with Israel and Judah. The end of the Assyrian empire is like many others characterised by political instability, civil war and invasion by foreign powers. However, a new study has revealed a novel factor contributing to its sudden decline— climate change.

In what is now Northern Iraq, the Assyrian empire cultivated “rain-fed” crops and developed irrigation systems to maintain large populations within their cities. Their Empire is thought to have stood from 912 to 607 BCE when their kingdom was destroyed. The historical scientists involved claim the empire “plummeted from its zenith… in just 60 years.”

The climate change discovered in this new study is not the greenhouse gas fueled climate change that is being faced today, but instead describes a stark decrease in rainfall at the time. Scientists found “a ~125-year period of peak aridity, termed here the Assyrian megadrought, which is synchronous… with the period of the Assyrian imperial collapse” around 660 to 600 BCE.

 The Neo Assyrian Empire was formed and expanded in a relatively wet “two centuries” for the region, with high amounts of rainfall, but the “high-density urbanization and imperial expansion… was not sustainable when climate shifted to megadrought conditions” after this period. Scientists involved believe that the strain caused by “frequent crop failures… [may have] exacerbated the political unrest in Assyria in its final decades” and hurt the economy of the empire. The “drying” of the area at the time is mirrored by similar findings in other parts of the world where there is a “shift from wetter to drier conditions” perhaps even on a global scale.

Scientists were able to discover all this by examining speleothem (stalagmites), rock like structures formed from minerals in water within caves. By measuring the levels of different isotopes within the stalagmites the scientists were able to determine both the age and rainfall around the time that they were formed.

In L.P. Hartley’s the Go-Between, it states in its first line that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This study demonstrates just how different the past was, not only in the behaviour of the people who belong to it but the very world that they inhabited. The fall of the Assyrian Empire also encourages us to question: how will we adapt to climate change in our time?

Last modified: 22nd January 2020

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