Understanding how military innovations, climate change, farming methods and financial operations can come together in a mess that breaks the backs of civilizations is life and death for us. For the exact same forces that destroyed almost ALL civilizations at the SAME TIME, 4,000 years ago, are still at work, today. So let’s go visit the city of Ur and learn some important lessons:
OTTAWA — Forget the Great Depression for a minute. Canadian academics Karl Moore and David Lewis argue that you can get a better perspective on the Great Crash of 2008 AD by contrasting it with the Great Crash of 1788 BC – a market meltdown that befell the ancient world’s most dynamic financial centre almost 4,000 years earlier.
By 2000 BC, the Mesopotamian city of Ur (referenced in the Old Testament as Ur of the Chaldees) was the largest city-state in the world (population: 65,000), a metropolis of extraordinary prosperity in the fertile land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in modern-day Syria and Iraq.
As it happened, the most ancient of crashes followed the collapse of the world’s first mutual fund, a distinctly capitalistic financial innovation that had enabled ordinary people (among them, shopkeepers, farmers and labourers) to invest in enterprises previously limited to the rich and the powerful. In this historic meltdown, the investment that went wrong was in copper. For the first time, investors in a publicly traded pool had experienced the excessive optimism that former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan would famously describe as “irrational exuberance.”
Quite frankly, I believe that there is little new under the sun. The human brain has evolved in a particular way which allows us to think through things, always the same way. What changes are the names we give things and when we do things we did in the past but have forgotten, we think, we discovered something new. But we seldom discover much that is really new.
Share prices soared. Investors spent anticipated profits before they earned them. Ur never recovered from the credit freeze that followed the calamity of history’s first public offering.
I’m certain they also leveraged their deals. Borrowing is very old. To make money lending, one has to have the ability to ‘seal the deal’ and to do that, you have to have two other things: writing and a government that will enforce the loan repayments.
The earliest city-states had both. The cuniform tablet above is 5,000 years old. It was made to track rationing of grain. All money ultimately is the stored value of the grain storehouses. Note there is also a sheep’s head as well as bowls in this clay document.
Trading future grain rations for some sort of advantage before the rations are doled out, was probably due to the need to hand over something in the future so one could pay off a debt from today. Say, if one’s daughter must marry and needed a dowery.
Karl Moore (faculty of management at McGill University in Montreal) and David Lewis (faculty of history at California State University, Long Beach) were former college roommates in Toronto. In their new book, The Origins of Globalization, they combine archeology, history, religion and economics with the theory and practice of the modern multinational corporation to tell a compelling tale that appears never before to have been told.
Sounds like a fun, fun book to read. I hope I can find it someday. Maybe the publisher would pass me a copy? Anyway, the idea that early humans played the games we play should come as no surprise. Many of the games we play were invented long ago. For example, the dice we use today was first in the vicinity of the city of Ur.
In 2005, a team of archaelogists unearthed an ebony-made board, two dices and 60 checkers made of stones from the pre-historic site in the “burnt city” in south-eastern Iran. This set is dated back to 3000 BC, and this makes it a century or two older than a similar set found in the anciet city of “Ur”, in modern Iraq. In other words, one can claim that “Takhteh Nard” is most probably the oldest recorded game in human´s history.
Games of luck and chance sprang into being alongside the concept of trade and deals. Herder/hunter groups commonly trade sheep and other livestock. Often, these deals were made via the transfer of marriage partners. Even in the Middle Ages, state diplomatic affairs were cemented with marriages.
Often, complex tribal deals have to be made in order to arrange a proper marriage that would expand dynastic influence and expand business opportunities. To get the best advantage when cobbling together a marriage deal, relatives would have to make various promises for future delivery and to insure these promises were kept, had to have sureties and contracts.
Since contracts were often written down in some fashion, it was not a great step to using these written future promises by reselling them to others. Say, you give a bride-to-be 15 ewes on the promise of the father that this will be repaid with 50 woven rugs five years hence. The point being, the bride will use the ewe’s wool to weave the rugs.
The future value of 50 rugs can then be handed off to another person who is owed rent on 3 acres of land. This is how all money systems evolve: they are promises to pay in the future. If the bride’s ewes are eaten by wolves, she still owes the rugs and will have to make a deal to go into debt to someone who has the wool from 15 ewes. She can promise the labor of her child for 10 years, for example.
We can see how losses can cause burdens to grow greater. If there is some catastrophe and everyone’s burdens grow greater at the same time, we get financial collapses that are much worse due to ecological or governmental collapses. Usually, the city/states are strong so long as the farming is strong. The good crops can then be stored and the future value goes down but the magic of capital excess means, this can be turned into lending and thus, the dropping value due to excess is ameliorated.
Then there are taxes and tithes: these also suck down capital excess. But if there is none or it sucks down all excess leaving nothing for bad times, the government falls and the city is usually put to the sword and burned and the inhabitants, killed. This happened to Ur.
The third dynasty was established when the king Ur-Nammu (or Urnammu) came to power, ruling between ca. 2112 BC and 2094 BC. During his rule, temples, including the ziggurat, were built, and agriculture was improved through irrigation.
This is 300 years before the 1788 BC financial collapse. The growth of irrigation usually ends very badly unless the farmland is regularly flooded by very muddy water that deposits new topsoil over the increasingly saline soil which comes from water evaporating in the sun.
According to one estimate, Ur was the largest city in the world from c. 2030 to 1980 BC. Its population was approximately 65,000.
The history of agriculture is simple: when things are going well and there is good rain, good soil and good government, people spread out. When times deteriorate, they move inwards, to the cities. This is why all major cities swell greatly before collapsing.
In the sixth century BC there was new construction in Ur under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. The last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, improved the ziggurat. However the city started to decline from around 550 BC and was no longer inhabited after about 500 BC, perhaps owing to drought, changing river patterns, and the silting of the outlet to the Persian Gulf.
The Wikipedia entry is OK but very thin. The Euphrates river system is unstable just like almost all of the major rivers where human civilizations first developed. The Chinese rivers also were often erratic or outright, destructive. Only the Nile was fairly reliable and seldom changed course or flooded at unexpected times.
This might be why Egypt was the most stable of the ancient civilizations, even if overrun, it never faced total destruction on the scale of the horrors that overtook many other civilizations that were utterly wiped out, their writing destroyed and their culture, scattered to the four winds.
By 1800 BCE, salinization had greatly diminished agriculture in southern Mesopotamia from what it had been many centuries before when Sumer was a more densely populated land.
We suffer from this today. I was against the building of the Aswan Dam simply because, after just 100 years, all of the great Nile valley, the world’s longest, continuously farmed region, would be uninhabitable. I have seen what salinization does to the US Southwest! Natural rain causes ‘caliche’ which is as hard as cement and only inches below the surface!
Irrigation is worse. It saturates the soil so even the surface is rendered hostile to all plants, even cacti. The Roman stories about salting the farmlands of the Punic people was just tall tales…the Romans paid their soldiers with salt and the word, ‘Salary’ comes from the word ‘salt’ so why would they expend their very precious resource, making the lands sterile?
At no point, did Romans undo farming, they always were most happy to enslave farmers! No, the Punic people fell because they ceased having good farmlands so when they were under siege, they had very little grain stored. And this is probably what happened to Ur, nearly 2,000 years earlier.
Still, salty soil wasn’t enough. So I looked up more material. I suspected, the fall of Ur after 1788 BC was due to a confluence of factors. Not only did farming suffer but there was a military revolution that shook the entire ancient world: the horse was tamed and turned into the puller of chariots. These, in turn, swept out of the high plains and rushed like an unstoppable river, overrunning all the ancient Indo-european lands.
This map shows how the chariots rapidly spread outwards from just one point.
I decided to take a shot of the earth showing how the shift in the monsoon rain stream moved southwards at the same time the charioteers came flooding out of central Asia:
This map is my own hypothesis as to what happened to the rain-bearing prevailing winds 4,000 years ago. Egypt was one of the few places that was able to resist the charioteers but this was due to the fact that Egypt ceased depending on the monsoons and the monsoon rains much further south would flow down into the Mediterranean Sea via the Nile. So even though the grazing in the Sahara became impossible, the green cultivations of the Nile valley didn’t suffer hardly at all, compared to the utter destruction visited upon the great civilizations of that time.
The idea that earliest city/states and civilizations all fell at nearly the same time has been noticed for quite a while. Here is an older NYT story about research that proved there was a terrible drought that was 300 years long during this time frame:
UNDER the renowned Sargon and his successors, the Akkadians of Mesopotamia forged the world’s first empire more than 4,300 years ago. They seized control of cities along the Euphrates River and on the fruitful plains to the north, all in what is now Iraq, Syria and parts of southern Turkey. Then, after only a century of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly, for reasons that have been lost to history.
By the way, it is rather interesting that many dynasties and great empires often rot rather fast. Rome went from Queen of the entire Mediterranean to utterly insane and going broke in only a little more than 100 years.
The traditional explanation is one of divine retribution. Angered by the hubris of Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson and most dynamic successor, the gods supposedly unleashed the barbaric Gutians to descend out of the highlands and overwhelm Akkadian towns. More recent and conventional explanations have put the blame on overpopulation, provincial revolt, nomadic incursions or managerial incompetence, though many scholars despaired of ever identifying the root cause of the collapse.
A team of archeologists, geologists and soil scientists has now found evidence that seems to solve the mystery. The Akkadian empire, they suggest, was beset by a 300-year drought and literally dried up. A microscopic analysis of soil moisture at the ruins of Akkadian cities in the northern farmlands disclosed that the onset of the drought was swift and the consequences severe, beginning about 2200 B.C.
“This is the first time an abrupt climate change has been directly linked to the collapse of a thriving civilization,” said Dr. Harvey Weiss, a Yale University archeologist and leader of the American-French research team….
The correlation between drastic climate change and the Akkadian downfall also appears to complete the picture of widespread environmental crisis disrupting societies throughout the Middle East in the same centuries. Earlier studies had noted the effects of severe drought, including abandoned towns, migrations and nomad incursions, in Greece, Egypt, Palestine and the Indus Valley. Until now, the connection between chronic drought and unstable social conditions had not been extended to Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, often called “the cradle of civilization.”
The need to gather real information is all part of understanding history. We can’t just rely on stories, myths and occasional ruins, we need to study all these things not just out of idle curiosity but to learn lessons we must heed! For we are making the EXACT same mistakes today, that were made by our very first civilizations. One of these is to assume, the world will not change.
The world always changes. This is a very restless planet. It has volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, ice ages and hot house conditions. This is the flywheel that drives evolution and extinction. We also have celestial forces at work: the variable sun, distant star explosions, asteroids and comets, the moon, the shape of the galaxy and our relative position within it: all of these have sometimes catastrophic effects. We are at the mercy of all these forces and have zero control over them.
The next question is, why was there a drought? I speculate, the monsoon pattern shifted southwards. It turns out that the cold climate also shifted southwards, too, which may have motivated the Horse People to hitch up their newly-tamed steeds and hightail it southwards, too.
Indus Valley Civilization – Decline collapse and legacy
Around 1900 BC, signs of a gradual decline begin to emerge. People started to leave the cities. Those who remained were poorly nourished. By around 1800 BC, most of the cities were abandoned.
In the aftermath of the Indus civilization’s collapse, regional emerged, to varying degrees showing the influence of the Indus civilization. In the formerly great city of Harappa, burials have been found that correspond to a regional culture called the Cemetery H culture. At the same time, the Ochre Coloured Pottery culture expands from Rajasthan into the Gangetic Plain.
It is in this context of the aftermath of a civilization’s collapse that the Indo-Aryan migration hypothesis into is discussed. In the early twentieth century, this migration was forwarded in the guise of an “Aryan invasion”, and when the civilization was discovered in the 1920s, its collapse at precisely the time of the conjectured invasion was seen as an independent confirmation. In the words of the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, the Indo-Aryan war god Indra “stands accused” of the destruction. It is however far from certain whether the collapse of the IVC is a result of an Indo-Aryan migration, if there was one. It seems rather likely that, to the contrary, the hypothized Indo-Aryan migration was as a result of the collapse, comparable with the decline of the Roman Empire and the incursions of relatively primitive peoples during the Migrations Period. A third possibilty is that IVC colapsed primarily due to natural reasons (climate change, activity along the subduction zone along the Indo-Asian plate boundary) and that there was no Indo-Aryan invasion that took place. Swastika, a symbol associated with the Indo-Aryans by easrly historians, has been found in large numbers over several IVC sites. Similarly, several Shiv Lingum type structures have been found at several IVC sites. Both the Swastika and Shiv Lingum have been symbols closely related to the Hindu (even to the present day), indicating continuity of the IVC civilization rather than a complete collapse or destruction. The discovery of Swastikas have put to question the theory of an Aryan invasion of Indian subcontinent.
A possible natural reason of the IVC’s decline is connected with climate change. In 2600 BC, the Indus Valley was verdant, forested, and teeming with wildlife. It was wetter, too; floods were a problem and appear, on more than one occasion, to have overwhelmed certain settlements. As a result, Indus civilization people supplemented their with hunting. By 1800 BC, the climate is known to have changed. It became significantly cooler and drier.
See? The great Indus valley civilization that also had indoor plumbing, an organized bureaucracy, religious leaders, riches, lots of farming and all the other goodies we call ‘civilized’—this collapsed very suddenly. At first, people thought, the river shifted and that was the key event.
But we know what we do when rivers shift: we move to accommodate this. But if the cities are destroyed and never rebuilt or even moved, then something hideous has happened. No invader can kill off a strong civilization. Only if a civilization has been destroyed by other forces, can mere savages wreck everything—TOTALLY. At most, they might displace the rulers. But when everything is destroyed, this usually signals to us, something else was very bad, very bad indeed.
AFRICAN ICE CORE ANALYSIS REVEALS CATASTROPHIC DROUGHTS, SHRINKING ICE FIELDS AND CIVILIZATION SHIFTS
COLUMBUS, Ohio – A detailed analysis of six cores retrieved from the rapidly shrinking ice fields atop Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro shows that those tropical glaciers began forming about 11,700 years ago.
The cores also yielded remarkable evidence of three catastrophic droughts that plagued the tropics 8,300, 5,200 and 4,000 years ago….
Aha! 4,000 years ago, things dried up, even in central Africa.
Clues from the cores suggest a much different, far wetter landscape near Kilimanjaro 9,500 years ago than is there today. Thompson said that at that time, Lake Chad, now the fourth-largest body of water on the African continent and measuring about 17,000 square kilometers today, covered some 350,000 square kilometers – an area larger than the Caspian Sea.
The biggest lake dried up. Still, the Nile flowed but we must suspect, due to the reduction in volume, this stressed out the farming ability of the Nile culture.
The analysis of the core showed a 500-year period beginning around 8,300 years ago when methane levels in the ice dropped dramatically. “We believe that this represents a time when the lakes of Africa were drying up,” Thompson said, adding that the methane levels would register the extent of the wetlands thriving in the tropics.
It is also interesting that agriculture first flourished and most of the grains we still use today, millet, rice, wheat, rye, barley and corn, all began to be cultivated by humans right when the abundant rains began to fail.
After all, why cultivate things when everyone is a hunter-gatherer and there are massive herds of wild kine and wild goats to hunt and eat? Why reduce oneself to eating grains?
The cores showed an abrupt depletion in oxygen-18 isotopes that researchers believe signals a second drought event occurring around 5,200 years ago. This coincides with the period when anthropologists believe people in the region began to come together to form cities and social structures. Prior to this, the population of mainly hunters and gatherers had been more scattered.
In times of famine and social stress, to this day, all humans rush to mass themselves in one place. This is a very strong human tendency. When times are good, we all spread out. Notice how the US has seen the spread of ‘suburban’ and even ‘exurban’ communities during an era of cheap energy and easy transport.
The third marker is a visible dust layer in the ice cores dating back to about 4,000 years ago. Thompson believes this marks a severe 300-year drought which struck the region. Historical records show that a massive drought rocked the Egyptian empire at the time and threatened the rule of the Pharaohs. Until this time, Thompson said, people had been able to survive in areas that are now just barren Sahara Desert.
So, there were probably vast dust storms which made temperatures drop. I remember back in 1994 when Asia had a drought and red dust was blown into the stratosphere. Over here, I could put my hand over the sun at midday and the sky around the sun would be copper-colored. Also, this chilled the air significantly due to blocking the sun’s light.
So it was very cold on sunny days! We had a much shorter summer and a brutal winter. This combination is bad for the herds people who follow their animals. The animals, fleeing the sudden, very cold winters and deep snows, moved southwards. Since herders don’t have cities, they easily abandon their home range. And to their eyes, the verdant fields surrounding ancient cities looked like perfect grazing grounds!
The Mongols did this thousands of years later. They cleared the land of peasants and installed great herds of horses and cattle. This is a common theme in history.
This is evident from the data presented in Figure 4. The upper panel of Figure 4 shows 200-year averaged data on the content of potassium (K) and sodium (Na) aerosols in Greenland ice for 11,400 years [Mayewsky et al.,2004]. These data contain information on the character of atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region.
A 2300-2400-year periodicity in the atmospheric circulation is clearly seen in the figure.
Um, this means, we are entering exactly this sort of phase. Not a pleasant thought. People think, we can somehow control the climate if only we do various things. I fear not.
The lower panel shows results of wavelet filtering (Morle basis) of variations in the 14C concentration shown in Figure 3 for the range of periods 2000-3000 years. It can be seen that the solar minima repeating with a periodicity of 2300-2400 years coincide with increases in the contents of aerosols in Greenland ice, which points to intensification of the atmospheric circulation during these time intervals. Figure 4 also shows time intervals of glacier advance in Central Asia, the Southern Hemisphere, North America, and Scandinavia [Denton and Karlén, 1973; Haug et al., 2001] and also the time intervals of glacier retreat in Switzerland [Hormes et al., 2001]. It is evident from Figure 4that the 2300-2400-year solar activity variations in the years of solar minima are accompanied by glacier advance.
My father hypothesized that we are entering a new minimum. A number of scientists are worried about this as the sun seems to have stopped producing sun spots. It is hard for people to accept, this sun star of ours is uncertain and changeable. We want whatever status quo that pleases us to continue forever.
However, there are also the time intervals of cooling (glacier advance) that occurred at a high solar activity level…. The maximum northward extent of forest was observed in the interval 4300-4000 years BP. Beginning from 4000 years BP, a southward retreat of the timberline associated with cooling has been taking place everywhere….
More proof that the climate saw a dramatic change and the drought was NOT brought about due to higher temperatures but due to lower temperatures.
Analysis of palaeoclimatic data has shown that climate changes around 4200-3800 and 1500-1300 years BP had a global character [Mayewsky et al., 2004; Ristvet, 2003]. While in Northern regions, such as Scandinavia and Canada, they were accompanied by coolings, in southern regions, such as, for example, Mesopotamia and Mexico, they were accompanied by the droughts that led to collapse of civilizations, such as the Akkadian Empire and Maya civilization, respectively [Gill, 2000; deMenocal et al., 2000; Hodell et al., 1991].
This report, written just a year and a half ago, sees the implications of their study of ancient submerged logs can be tied into other research about the sun as well as data from ice cores in Greenland or Siberia.
It is likely that the reason for such abrupt climate changes, which are not associated with deep solar minima of the Maunder type, is the development of internal processes in the atmosphere-ocean system.
All it takes is some small alteration in the balance of power to trigger an avalanche of changes! Since these Russian authors brought up the topic of ‘no major mini-ice age’ I thought I should find some solar activity data and check it out:
OK: I put a red bar at the 4,000 year mark which is -2000 on the BC-AD system. Look at that! Just before the droughts, the solar activity spiked above normal! As it is doing, today, incidentally. This event was in the center of a long warm interglacial period. The change in variability is probably what unsettled things. But also, there were human changes, too.
For example, launching agriculture always changes climate conditions. The felling of distant forests and then bringing the wood down to the plains, not to mention, cutting down trees all over the plains, too! Humans tend to create desertification. We were kicked out of the jungles of central Africa hundreds of thousands of years earlier. And we destroy any trees or other plants while trying to turn everything into savannas. So the earliest farmers created local climates that desiccated the soil due to removal of all shade and then, irrigating the flatlands.
We are still doing this even as we try to plant trees, knowing that we must have trees to protect the world’s climate patterns!
Despite dire warnings of water shortages due to prolonged drought, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday rejected a plan to ration water in the nation’s second-largest city for the first time in 18 years.
The unanimous 15-0 vote against the plan marked a surprise setback for Los Angeles water managers, who like their peers in cities throughout California were directed to cut water use 20 percent this year under a drought emergency proclaimed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger….
The current dry spell, now in its third year, is considered the worst to hit the state since the 1970s….
A spokesman for the mayor, Matt Szabo, said the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies 70 percent of the city’s water, would impose rationing on Los Angeles if the city fails to take action itself.
The Amazon and all the other major jungles are now under assault. No longer are humans nomads doing slash and burn. We now denude all the great tropical forests which are where all the monsoons originate! And will this affect climate patterns?
YOU BET! No ifs, ands or buts! I remember when world markets were opened to sheep goods. My herd of sheep went from being worth $200 @ to under $50 @ and the Mongolian shepherds all expanded their flocks and overgrazed the land which turned to dust and which blew into the atmosphere and made it very cold, here on my mountain! See how these things operate?
It is not a simple system, it is very complex. And we have no idea, how the destruction of most of the equatorial forests will change our climate. I am betting, it won’t be for the better, it will be very different from what we hope or want. The other question is, what is the next military invention that will tip the scales for invaders who are fleeing climatic collapses?
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