Pollen Down: Clues about Civilizations’ Collapse

SCIENCE

What happened about 3,200 years ago to bring about the collapse of not just one but a number of flourishing civilizations—Egyptian, Hittite, Mycenaean—on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean? Wars, pestilence, and sudden natural disasters have all been postulated as possible causes, but now, thanks to sophisticated pollen-sampling techniques and advances in radiocarbon dating, scientists think they know the primary culprit: drought. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to better understand droughts and their consequences.

Palynologists (researchers who study pollen) have conducted an exhaustive survey of plant life in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age—just when legendary civilizations such as pharaonic Egypt were collapsing. What they have found is a series of massive droughts throughout the region. These beautiful grains of pollen (magnified with a powerful scanning electron microscope) are from a sunflower. Photograph by Louisa Howard, courtesy Wikimedia

Palynologists (researchers who study pollen) have conducted an exhaustive survey of plant life in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age—just when legendary civilizations such as pharaonic Egypt were collapsing. What they have found is a series of massive droughts throughout the region. These beautiful grains of pollen (magnified with a powerful scanning electron microscope) are from a sunflower.
Photograph by Louisa Howard, courtesy Wikimedia

Discussion Ideas

  • How does palynology, the study of pollen, help archaeologists better understand ancient climate?
  • Read the section “Impacts of Drought” from our encyclopedic entry on drought. Does the climate/pollen study in the Nat Geo News article offer evidence for how the natural and developed environments adapt to drought conditions? How?
    • Absolutely, it’s a case study of the impacts of a severe drought or series of droughts. Compare the predicted impacts with the study’s findings.
      • Natural environment: The encyclopedic entry says “many organisms cannot adapt to drought conditions.” What is evidence for this in the study?
        • Pollen studies show “a sharp decline in “oaks, pines, and carob trees—the traditional flora of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age.” These plants could not adapt to long periods without water.
      • Natural environment: According to the encyclopedic entry, further “[n]egative impacts include damage to habitats, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, and an increased risk from wildfires.” What is evidence for this in the study?
        • Pollen studies show a marked decrease in olive groves, “an indication that horticulture was on the wane,” possibly due to lack of water for irrigation and increased soil erosion.
      • Developed environment: According to the encyclopedic entry, drought “can also create significant economic and social problems. The lack of rain can result in crop loss, a decrease in land prices, and unemployment due to declines in production.” What is evidence for this in the study?
        • Pollen studies show that the periods of supposed drought “correspond nicely to the few remaining historical records of the period, which mention shortages of grain, disruption of trade routes, civil unrest, and pillaging of cities as people began to fight over diminishing resources.”
      • Developed environment: The encyclopedic entry says that a long-term impact of sustained drought is “forced migration away from drought-stricken areas.” What is evidence for this in the study?
        • Pollen studies show that “groups of people in the northern regions were uprooted from their homes because of destruction of the agricultural output, and [they] started moving in search of food. They could have pushed other groups to move by land and sea. And this in turn caused destructions and disruption of the delicate trade system of the eastern Mediterranean.”

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