Ancient civilizations battled climate change long before cars, factories, new study shows

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Cracks stretch across the dry bed of Lake Mendocino, a key Mendocino County reservoir, in Ukiah, California February 25, 2014. To Match CALIFORNIA-DROUGHT/ Picture taken February 25, 2014. REUTERS/Noah Berger (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER) (REUTERS)
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

In what is now the Middle East, some of the most ancient, productive farming societies going back as far as 12,000 years ago had to deal with the powerful effects of climate change – similar to what modern society fear today, according a new study.

A team of German researchers working out of Tübingen University collected and examined over 1000 ancient grains of barley from 33 locations across the ancient breadbasket region of which once was the Ancient Near East. Samples ranged in age from 2,500 years to well over 12,000 years old. By measuring the relative ratios of carbon isotopes within the ancient plant cells, they were able to determine if the plants had enough water while growing and ripening.

The lab results clearly showed a correlation between periods of extreme drought and the growth of barley. Not surprisingly, the new research shows that the natural water supply available for agriculture at the time noticeably impacted the chemical makeup of the plant cells.

These droughts, which the researchers believe were linked to major climate fluctuations occurring at various times and locations in the ancient world, significantly affected settlements.

As expected, the new finding showed that harvests along coastal regions were able to weather drought conditions, however for the first time we can see strong evidence that agricultural regions more inland were hit hard as the rains dried up.

“Geographic factors and technologies introduced by humans played a big role and influenced societies’ options for development as well as their particular ways of dealing with drought,” said lead author Simone Riehl, an archeologist with Tübingen University in a press statement.

In the most extreme cases, Riehl believes extended droughts may have led to new, more aggressive irrigation techniques and for those suffering the most, complete abandonment of entire settlements.

But this is not the first time researchers have come across ancient examples of climate change impacting civilizations. New climate research suggests major drought hit ancient Egypt, and may have directly let to the collapse of the ancient society some 3,000 years ago.

A radiocarbon dating study of the tree rings within the wood used for ancient coffins and boats indicated rapid climate change – possible drought in the year 2,200 B.C. that suggests a change in the growing season for that year.

Another devastating drought 4,000 years ago was brought on by regional climate change in ancient Mesopotamia, what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Entire cities in the region, after flourishing for thousands of years under lush, wet conditions, disintegrated as their monsoon-fed rivers dried up.

Now this new German study seems to just add to the mounting evidence for the notion that great ancient civilizations rose and fell in concert with ancient climactic shifts.

Riehl and her team’s finding not only offer clear evidence of how ancient agricultural societies dealt with differing local environmental conditions, but may also offer clues to help understand our current battle with climate change around the globe.

“They can also help evaluate current conditions in regions with a high risk of crop failures,” Riehl adds.

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @YGeekquinox on Twitter!

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting