Several responses came to mind. “What? Why didn’t someone tell me?” or “Wow, they kept that quiet!” and even “Since when have we had a civilisation?”
But as it turns out, this is going back a bit. Three thousand years or so. We’re talking about the time of the Hittites, the Canaanites, Ancient Egypt at the zenith of its power. Biblically, we’re in the general period of the Exodus. Or you might remember it as the Bronze Age.
Between about 1500 and 1200 BC, there was a civilisation centred on the Eastern Mediterranean and comprising many nations and peoples (including those I just mentioned). Their economies, linked together with a network of trade routes, were flourishing. Most important was probably the trade in copper and tin to make bronze – it seems that these things are rarely found together in any quantity – and the further trade in finished bronze implements. Bronze being the hardest metal then available, it was important for weapons, tools, armour and even building materials.
Then, around 1200 BC (and possibly starting about 1177, though this date is a bit vague and open to dispute), it all came apart. The trading networks were disrupted, the different nations disappeared from history, the entire civilised world of the time collapsed into a dark age at lasted between 150 and 300 years. Only Egypt survived as a nation, and it was badly weakened.
Traditionally, the blame is placed on the ‘Sea People’ - a confederation of maritime nations who raided and invaded all round the Mediterranean coasts, burning and destroying cities and precipitating the collapse. They attacked Egypt twice, and were defeated on both occasions, though not without inflicting considerable harm.
That these invasions took place is not in dispute, but Professor Eric Cline, who’s YouTube video I was watching, ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRcu-ysocX4&t=3424s ) argued that it was simplistic to blame the Sea Peoples alone. He showed the archaeological evidence for long periods of drought at this time, leading to famine: and for extensive earthquakes that may have devastated entire cities. And not all the warfare and violence of the time was down to the Sea Peoples: Cline also shows evidence for other invasions or possible internal revolutions.
So it was not one single cause, but an accumulation of events that brought down this great and powerful civilisation. What Cline calls ‘a perfect storm’.
Cline doesn’t say this, but reading between the lines I’m thinking that the most significant thing in the long run was the failure of the trading networks. Even those nations not directly effected by the other events were dragged down by this. Without tin or copper there was no bronze, no tools for working or weapons for defence. Any items of food, or clothing, that were previously imported became unobtainable. Local economies would have struggled as a result, and previously sustainable populations suddenly became too big for the resources available. Civil unrest would follow, and refugees would take to the roads, looking for a better place. Which would in turn put greater pressure on the surrounding nations.
It’s fascinating to speculate on what might have happened three thousand years ago, and to wonder at the way entire nations – rich, successful nations – disappeared under ‘the tide of history’. But as a writer, I find myself imagining what it might have been like for the people caught up in that – the desperate struggle to survive as event after event brought them down. Hungry children, desperate mobs, attacking enemies.
And I imagine their disbelief, as the great civilisation that had been rich and stable for hundreds of years began to disintegrate.
A terrible time for those caught up in it. Cline reads some translations of ancient documents, baked onto clay tablets and preserved over these thousands of years. People sending messages to say - ‘there is no food’. Very poignant. Fortunately for us, it was all a long time ago.
Well, that’s nonsense, of course. After all, whilst our modern civilisation has its problems, it’s far too big, too advanced and too – well, civilised to go under like that!
Of course, they probably thought the same. But realistically, we’ve got so many advantages. For one thing, there couldn’t be any equivalent to the ‘Sea Peoples’ - no attacking hordes coming out of nowhere with blood and fire. Other civilisations faced similar problems – the Romans, the Chinese, to pick a couple – but they all had the same characteristic: these invaders came from outside their civilised world. And there is no outside to our civilised world. No place where any equivalent invasion could come from.
So we’re safe from that.
Except that’s not the full picture. The Sea Peoples weren’t completely unknown. The Egyptians listed the places they were known to have come from. Enemies can arise from within a civilisation as well as without. And there have been enough international tensions to remind us of how quickly a revolution can flare into civil war, and how easily a civil war can cross borders. Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Yemen – ISIS, of course…
We don’t have to worry about barbarians at the gates. They’re already inside. They’re us.
What about the other issues? Famine, drought, etc?
Climate change 3000 years ago wasn’t something they understood. The didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand that a small change in temperature here could lead to a significant drop in rainfall there. We can measure these things, so we’re less vulnerable.
Only, we have measured them, and the climate change issues we are facing now are far greater than they had then. We can now see the situation world wide, and the general scientific consensus is that it is not good. The effect that it will have on agriculture is hard to measure, and in some cases mitigated by advances in agricultural science – but it certainly will have an impact, and a negative one, especially in poorer countries. And there’s a much bigger world population to feed now than there was in the Bronze Age.
Natural disasters are still with us. We know a lot more about earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and so on than they did back than. We don’t know how to stop them. We can predict them, sometimes. We can build to withstand some of these things. But there have been more than enough examples in recent years to confirm that we are still vulnerable. Indeed, in some respects our advanced technology has made us more vulnerable – as we saw at Fukushima.
And even what we do know and can do is sometimes hindered – by corruption, incompetence and poverty. Not to mention a lack of political will in addressing issues.
I still have mentioned the elephant in the room. The issue we have now that they didn’t then. Disease was not cited as a significant cause in the 1175 collapse of civilisation. Of course, it might have been, and the evidence just hasn’t come to life. And certainly there have been plenty of instances of plague (for example) since then, to show the damage it can do. The Black Death killed approximately 30% of Europe’s population. But it did not totally destroy civilisation.
Covid-19 probably won’t either. Our medical science has given us weapons against disease that our ancestors never had. It had done immense damage – not only in the direct loss of life, but in the economic fall out who’s effects will be felt for an unknown time to come – but it hasn’t taken us back to the Dark Ages.
However, we have been shown to be vulnerable. People travel further, faster and more often than ever before in history, and that is a fantastic opportunity for an ambitious virus. Only by voluntarily restricting that travel have we had a chance of bringing it under control.
So could it happen to us?
Not from any one thing, probably – not unless we go to a full scale nuclear / biological war, which wasn’t a danger they faced. But what did for civilisation 3000 years ago wasn’t just one thing, but a combination of factors. A perfect storm.
Another pandemic. Increasing climate change, greater and greater pressure on food production. More and more refugees, heightening tensions and instability. Disruption of trade, closing of borders, economic collapse, armed conflicts both internal and external.
Then throw in a few natural disasters.
Our civilisation, for all its science and technology, all its wealth and power, all its numbers and strength, is no more invulnerable than theirs was. The Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, the Mittani – and many others throughout history and prehistory – were once strong, wealthy, advanced peoples who vanished, leaving behind only ruins and broken artefacts for the archaeologists to puzzle over. We can avoid that – but not if we ignore it.
See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRcu-ysocX4&t=3424s for the youtube lecture by Eric Cline, PhD, that led to this post.