To the Collapse
July 18, 2013 10:42 AM   Subscribe

To imagine the scale, picture this: almost every city in Western Europe and North America destroyed. Not reduced, not scaled down. People-don't-live-here-anymore-just-ruins destroyed.
Between about 1200 and 1150 BC, civilization in the northeastern quadrant of the Mediterranean collapsed. Mycenae and the other Iliad-era Greek city-kingdoms; the Hittite Empire; the Levantine possessions of New Kingdom Egypt—cultures which had flourished for five hundred years fell and dispersed within a single lifetime, their palaces razed, their every city toppled, burned, and abandoned.

What caused the Bronze Age Collapse and the subsequent centuries-long dark age? Consensus vacillates between emphases on external invaders (like the enigmatic Sea Peoples) and on technological disruption (the proliferation of cheap iron weapons; the invention of the long sword; the decline of chariot-centric warfare). Natural disaster and climate change might also have triggered or hurried the fall. (And this gentleman would like a word with you about comets.)
posted by Iridic (95 comments total) 200 users marked this as a favorite

 
From a modern perspective, one can even admire the desire of oppressed peasants and impoverished neighboring peoples to take revenge on those who had so long ravaged them. But they were an instrumental part of a death toll that, per capita, has rarely been equaled in history.

This does not make me feel sanguine. Well, not in the conventional sense.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:01 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


This does not make me feel sanguine. Well, not in the conventional sense.

Poor sense of humors?
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:04 AM on July 18, 2013 [44 favorites]


This is an interesting topic, but I think I need a map. I wouldn't call the Sinai Peninsula (per the article) or Egypt (per this post) part of the "northeastern quadrant of the Mediterranean".
posted by DU at 11:09 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The message isn't "look at those assholes." The details don't matter.

The message is "look at how we're turning into those assholes."
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:13 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Someone can make a Mad Libs template for the reasons of dark ages both past and future. The proliferation of 3D-printed firearms; the invention of the Longsword Personal Drone; the decline of nonlethal cyberwarfare.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:13 AM on July 18, 2013


I think by "northeastern quadrant of the Mediterranean" they might be talking about the people and civilizations that were influential throughout the area rather than the physical geography itself. In that sense, "Levantine peoples" or "Mediterranean peoples" would have probably been more accurate, but oh well.
posted by Avenger at 11:14 AM on July 18, 2013


No Villains: There's not a mustache-twirling Dark Lord in all this

That would seem to be one of the causes. Despotic leadership (good or bad) has always been key to human success. Without it there is no organisation, no coordination, no one man's insatitable greed to guide the headless masses.
posted by three blind mice at 11:15 AM on July 18, 2013


I wish that more popular media was set in this period. I feel like everything that takes place in the past is always high fantasy conceptions of Feudal Europe, or classical Egypt.
posted by codacorolla at 11:17 AM on July 18, 2013 [16 favorites]


I guess we can't be interested in a historical mystery without solipsistically wielding it as a moralistic tempate for the perceived ills of today. "The distant past is interesting because it's really about me!"
posted by aught at 11:17 AM on July 18, 2013 [20 favorites]


It's actually kind of terrifying to me that we don't really know why they collapsed or that we think that the great collapse was from a confluence of many small factors. I mean if that's the case, what's to prevent that sort of thing happening again? Scarytown.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 11:19 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


All of a sudden conflict-stressed trading networks and economies are stretched even farther, and some of them break. It takes just one bad run -- a rotten harvest or few cities flattened by earthquakes -- for the breakdown to begin.

This is why just-in-time manufacturing and "efficiency" scares the hell out of me. You need redundancy and slack when the disaster peaks happen to coincide and you need to coast for a while.

I guess we can't be interested in a historical mystery without solipsistically wielding it as a moralistic tempate for the perceived ills of today

Incredibly, I am able to do TWO things!
posted by DU at 11:19 AM on July 18, 2013 [29 favorites]


Blame George Santayana for that, aught.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:19 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Incredibly, I am able to do TWO things!

Hmph. That lack of focus is what's bringing on the collapse of our society. ;-)
posted by aught at 11:25 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


They all died because my Axemen and Archers were XP'ed up enough to withstand city and garrison barrages and had extra range, which meant I was able to whittle down their defenses from relative safety and then plunder their cities with impunity before they discovered Construction and could upgrade their Archers to Composite Bowmen.

Oh, wait, we're not talking about my latest Civ 5 campaign? Crap...
posted by daq at 11:27 AM on July 18, 2013 [17 favorites]


"The distant past is interesting because it's really about me!"

So "Go home Toynbee, you're drunk!" huh?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:27 AM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have always been interested in the cycle of growth and collapse that civilization is prone to. The civilizations of the time collapsed so entirely in certain areas (not Egypt) that the written language in use was entirely forgotten. When civilization recovered to the point that the need for writing rose again an entirely new system had to be invented.
posted by Gwynarra at 11:28 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have long been interested in the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations and the subsequent Greek Dark Age. Fascinating how what we think of as Classic Greek civilization was a coda to these two advanced societies.

When we think of a the "great Fall", we instinctively think of Rome. But look at how much of Rome is preserved; not only does the majority of Western Civilization speak a daughter language of Rome, we have modeled most of our public institutions upon theirs. We know many of their leaders, and can recognize much of their world.

By contrast, the West lost almost everything in the Greek Dark Ages. Literacy had to be rediscovered. We still can't read Linear A!

We're still basically Romans when held up against such a loss of continuity.
posted by spaltavian at 11:30 AM on July 18, 2013 [36 favorites]


Didn't Julian Jaynes suggest that the cataclysmic upheavals were caused by the transition from humans having a bicameral mind (i.e., being apes who hallucinated the voice of the God-King telling them when to plant crops) to having full consciousness and free will, and chaos breaking loose?
posted by acb at 11:32 AM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think it's missing the point to say that the main takeaway here is that there is some correlation with our current culture.

Examining and thinking about and understanding history is intrinsically good and interesting.

Or, in other words (jokingly):

"The distant past is interesting because it's really about me!"
posted by KokuRyu at 11:32 AM on July 18, 2013


Not really so enigmatic, the name comes from their tribal motto, "If you see people, invade, kill and raze everything."
posted by Abiezer at 11:35 AM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's a pretty scary thing to imagine -- a sort of rolling wall of collapsing societies. You'd probably hear about it a few countries away, maybe a rumor passed on by travelers or via trade routes. Then there is the news that the kingdom next door has collapsed, overrun by... well, who, exactly? The king really ought to do something about this... What? our army is... defeated? What's that glow on the horizon? The next town is burning! crap....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:35 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


We're still basically Romans when held up against such a loss of continuity.

On this note, I'm working my way through the History of Rome podcast and I'm continually wowed at the way institutions start popping up that are still around in some form, or are direct precursors to something from fairly recent history. It's awesome in the original sense of the word.
posted by COBRA! at 11:35 AM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


All guesses look frail in light of The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter.
posted by michaelh at 11:37 AM on July 18, 2013 [13 favorites]


Ooh, I'm going through History of Rome too! Is there anything similar for this time period? Sounds like it could be fascinating, although by definition there are very few sources to work from.
posted by echo target at 11:39 AM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Didn't Julian Jaynes suggest that the cataclysmic upheavals were caused by the transition from humans having a bicameral mind (i.e., being apes who hallucinated the voice of the God-King telling them when to plant crops) to having full consciousness and free will, and chaos breaking loose?

I'm not sure how this could work, unless evolution suddenly works simultaneously across an entire species spread out across the globe.
posted by dng at 11:42 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't Julian Jaynes suggest that the cataclysmic upheavals were caused by the transition from humans having a bicameral mind (i.e., being apes who hallucinated the voice of the God-King telling them when to plant crops) to having full consciousness and free will, and chaos breaking loose?

Actually, I think he suggested that the waves of migrating populations in the wake of the collapses suddenly commingling might have been a trigger for the process. But it's been a while since I read the book.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: A theory so good I don't even care if it's true.
posted by figurant at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2013 [16 favorites]


I wish that more popular media was set in this period. I feel like everything that takes place in the past is always high fantasy conceptions of Feudal Europe, or classical Egypt.

I agree, it's a fascinating period that hasn't seen much attention in media, possibly because it's full of so many unknowns. Jo Graham's book Black Ships, a retelling of the Aeneid from the Sybil's point of view, is set in this period and pays some attention to the whole "our world seems like it's ending" factor of all the upheaval. Other than that, all I can think of media-wise is the old Highlander tv show of all things, which had some flashbacks to what I assume was this period when one of the secondary characters was contributing to the dark age with his raping and pillaging.

In general, the lack of information on this period is kind of maddening. I remember in my ancient Mediterranean history course, our professor basically just shrugged and said, "Sea Peoples? Volcanic eruption? Some other societal changes? We don't know, and we don't have many sources! Moving on..."

And yeah yeah, making it all about us, but it's a hell of a sobering thing to confront the possibility of this kind of societal collapse. I know it's always the end of the world somewhere, to someone, and that the world has always been ending in some form or another, but it has to be terrifying to see it coming or live through it. The Mayan collapse has always creeped me out too for similar reasons.
posted by yasaman at 11:47 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


...the majority of Western Civilization speak a daughter language of Rome...

TIL: France, Spain and Italy are a majority of Western Civilization.
posted by DU at 11:51 AM on July 18, 2013


TIL: France, Spain and Italy are a majority of Western Civilization.

And Portugal and Romania, and all of Latin America.
posted by spaltavian at 11:52 AM on July 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


This doc about the period is interesting. "Secrets Of The Aegean Apocalypse" it is a fairly recent production.
posted by Gwynarra at 11:52 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


TIL: France, Spain and Italy are a majority of Western Civilization.

English has a lot of Latin in it. Not to mention the fact that, for example, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet was invented by post-Roman Byzantine missionaries. (Cyril and Methodius)

Didn't Julian Jaynes suggest that the cataclysmic upheavals were caused by the transition from humans having a bicameral mind (i.e., being apes who hallucinated the voice of the God-King telling them when to plant crops) to having full consciousness and free will, and chaos breaking loose?

As dng said, what about China? Or Peru?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:55 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there anything similar for this time period?

The Ancient World may serve your needs. On iTunes even.
posted by Winnemac at 11:56 AM on July 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


I have a fear that the digital age we live in will someday be looked back on as another Dark Age because nothing will survive. Our printed materials aren't archival and our digital lives are so very fleeting. Will anything be left?
posted by stoneweaver at 11:56 AM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Sure it will survive stoneweaver, but will anyone be able to read it?
posted by Wretch729 at 12:00 PM on July 18, 2013


Our printed materials aren't archival and our digital lives are so very fleeting. Will anything be left?

Both print and digital "stuff" is being archived in a myriad of ways by numerous organisations. Some will survive. Of course, the matter of who will be around to read it is another thing.
posted by Wordshore at 12:00 PM on July 18, 2013


I just finished my latest re-read of two of Mary Renault's historical novels, The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea--which, despite what Wikipedia says, are not set in Ancient Greece. They're actually set in Bronze Age Greece, before the collapse (and before the Trojan war, which she foreshadows at the end of the second book), telling the story of the rise and fall of Theseus.

She doesn't write about the collapse, but you can see some threads and context and long-term foreshadowing she's weaving in there--the waves of immigration (fleeing their own collapse or displacement) Theseus's people have to fight off from the north, for instance, in The Bull From the Sea. Or the way that the unified/expanding kingdom Theseus builds starts to fall apart so quickly when it's not directly under his hand, painting a picture of cyclical successes and failures, civilizations rising and falling. (Plus the catastrophic overturn of Minoan Crete in the first book, from earthquake plus fire plus rebellion.)
posted by theatro at 12:02 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


I blame it on a forgotten megatrend of cultural minimalism. Do we really need this building here? Let's take it down. Do we really need these theories, scrolls and tablets? Better without them taking this clean, nice space. Do we want to teach our children all this messy, burdensome knowledge we have? No. Do we need to make notes of what we just did? No.
posted by Free word order! at 12:03 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Will anything be left?

I'm looking forward to thousands of years from now when the only thing left of this century is elizardbits' tumblr, and academics are poring over it like Linear A.
posted by echo target at 12:04 PM on July 18, 2013 [25 favorites]


The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I think it was Richard Dawkins who said that this book is either sheer genius or complete rubbish; there is no middle ground for it to occupy.
posted by thelonius at 12:06 PM on July 18, 2013


I guess we can't be interested in a historical mystery without solipsistically wielding it as a moralistic tempate for the perceived ills of today. "The distant past is interesting because it's really about me!"

Yeah, that was what bugged me about some of these pieces, too. I think the radical material differences between contemporary societies and those of the Bronze Age are so dramatic that any "OMG, we're repeating exactly what happened to THEM!" argument is going to be based almost entirely on handwaving. And, of course, it will always have the perfect built-in escape hatch of "well, of course, my predictions will only be borne out over the coming centuries" that makes all arguments of historical determinism both impossible to refute and pointless to engage with.
posted by yoink at 12:07 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I blame it on a forgotten megatrend of cultural minimalism.

I first misread this as cultural millenialism, which would actually make a lot of sense.
posted by echo target at 12:08 PM on July 18, 2013


Digging into the mystery of the Sea Peoples damn near made a History major out of me in college. Good thing I didn't go through with it, or the last thing the Sea Peoples razed would have been my future earning potential! Ha ha! Just kidding, History majors, I still wish I was one of you.

Anyway, we can all do our part to prevent digital culture from being lost to obscurity by printing out our Twitter and Facebook feeds on acid-free archival paper and storing them in our basements, attics etc.
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:08 PM on July 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


...I think I need a map. I wouldn't call the Sinai Peninsula (per the article) or Egypt (per this post) part of the "northeastern quadrant of the Mediterranean".

The map I linked with "external invaders" is a decent depiction of the area and scale of the Collapse. To be more specific than the FPP form allowed:

Virtually all major and most minor cities in Greece, the Aegean, Anatolia, modern-day Syria, and Canaan were destroyed.

Greece, by which I mean the states at play in the Iliad, was out of the game for hundreds of years. The remaining population huddled together, illiterate, in dispersed collections of huts.

Before the collapse, the Levant had been split, north and south, between the Hittite Empire (still reeling from the wars with the Assyrian Empire, which lay farther inland) and Egypt. The Collapse destroyed the Hittites, but there was enough cultural continuity for a number of petty successor kingdoms to emerge in inland Anatolia and the Syrian coast after about a century. The Assyrians, who had been insulated from the Collapse, assumed control of much of the rest of the old Hittite territory.

The wars with the Sea Peoples cost the pharaohs control of their half of the Levant (which the Assyrians were also happy to mop up after the dust settled), but left the Egyptian heartland comparatively unscathed. The struggle's cost in treasure broke the absolute power of the pharaoh and brought on a long period of moribund ambitions and political division - but if you were a brickmaker in Memphis, life went on pretty much as it had for thousands of years.

Given this complexity, referring to the "northeastern quadrant of the Mediterranean," which was indeed the area hardest hit, and specifying Egypt's Levantine possessions seemed the best way forward.
posted by Iridic at 12:10 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


prize bull octorok: "Digging into the mystery of the Sea Peoples damn near made a History major out of me in college. Good thing I didn't go through with it, or the last thing the Sea Peoples razed would have been my future earning potential! Ha ha! Just kidding, History majors, I still wish I was one of you."

Trust me, no you don't. :(
posted by Gin and Comics at 12:16 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm looking forward to thousands of years from now when the only thing left of this century is elizardbits' tumblr, and academics are poring over it like Linear A.


Abandon your studies! There is only madness there. Some things we were not meant to know.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:20 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


For some really awesome accessible ancient history, I've really been digging Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Ancient World. Steps through time, telling you what the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and China were doing at each stop, instead of long running sections on each society.
posted by jason_steakums at 12:22 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is a great post, and I'm really digging all the supplementary linking you guys are doing in-thread. Thanks so much!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:23 PM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is why just-in-time manufacturing and "efficiency" scares the hell out of me. You need redundancy and slack when the disaster peaks happen to coincide and you need to coast for a while.

Me too. I don't have a cite, but I read somewhere that the US used to have about a month's worth of reserve food in its supply chain, but now that's been reduced to just a few days worth.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 12:24 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a pretty scary thing to imagine -- a sort of rolling wall of collapsing societies. You'd probably hear about it a few countries away, maybe a rumor passed on by travelers or via trade routes
A Letter from Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem
EA 286


To the king, my Lord, thus speaks Abdu-Heba, your servant. At the feet of the king, my Lord, seven times and seven times I prostrate myself. What have I done to the king, my Lord? They blame me before the king, my Lord, saying: "Abdu-Heba has rebelled against the king, my Lord."
I am here, as far as I am concerned, it was not my father, nor my mother, who put me in this position; the arm of the powerful king lead me to the house of my father! Why would I commit a transgression against the king, my Lord?
While the king, my Lord, lives, I will say to the commissioner of the king, my Lord: "Why do you favour the Hapiru [2] and are opposed to the rulers?"
And thus I am accused before the king, my Lord. Because it is said: "Lost are the territories of the king, my Lord."
Thus am I calumniated before the king, my Lord! But may the king, my Lord know, that, when the king sent a garrison, Yanhamu [1] seized everything, and ///// the land of Egypt /////
Oh king, my Lord, there are no garrison troops here! (Therefore), the king takes care of his land! May the king take care of his land! All the territories of the king have rebelled; Ilimilku caused the loss of all the territories of the king. May the king take care of his land!
...
May the king direct his attention to the archers, and may the king, my Lord, send troops of archers, the king has no more lands. The Hapiru sack the territories of the king. If there are archers (here) this year, all the territories of the king will remain (intact); but if there are no archers, the territories of the king, my Lord, will be lost!
To the king, my Lord thus writes Abdu-Heba, your servant. He conveys eloquent words to the king, my Lord. All the territories of the king, my Lord, are lost.
The Hapiru aren't the Sea People, though I think this isn't that far, chronologically. All the territories of the king, my Lord, are lost.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:25 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


As with most world shatterings, there's almost never a single cause.

It does show how vulnerable we are. Events line up right - bad harvest, systemic social changes, really can level a civilization. The damn mines run out of tin. Then the barbarians come over the hill with their new fangled weapons.

The introduction of the potato to the Old world f'ristance came along just as new styles of warfare were emerging. The areas that could grow potatoes grew faster, became more urbanized and so produced more (and more weapons) and (following historian Wm. McNeill) allows a small group of European nations to dominate most of the world starting around 1750.

Ended the big sweeping famines Europe had, and, importantly, stopped the easy burning of the fields on the way out of looting the city. You have to take the time to dig 'em up. So cities recover and holding it is not just a matter of implying retribution to stop rebellion.

Similarly, iron made sweeping changes not just in weapon technology but tactics and logistics. Particularly with infantry (and agriculture, e.g. the plow).

What is striking is not just that you really have to sort of intentionally work at destroying civilization (the Mongols swept the world with new techniques of warfare and backed it with terror and destruction, but they at least accepted submission) - but that we do work at it.

I suspect as response to change and the already existing catastrophes. World looks to be going to hell, so why should you change your ways? Lots of resistance to potatoes. For no real reason other than it offended sensibilities (which eventually led to the opposite view, that one kind of potato is everything, which then led to famine).

And the only people who seem psychologically willing (or able) to roll with it are the people who aren't invested (or that invested) in the system in the first place.

I don't buy that all collapse is cultural. Sometimes things just blow the hell up. The water drained out from under the Pueblo.

Nor do I think those that are operating against civilization, his examples the Somali pirates or the drug lords in Mexico, are the harbingers of collapse. For one they're too invested in exploiting the status quo. Opposition to civilization can often prop up civilization.

The breaks come when a civilizations' responses no longer have any real world value but the people refuse to change.
("Sometimes giving in to nature can be the biggest victory of all.")
posted by Smedleyman at 12:26 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm looking forward to thousands of years from now when the only thing left of this century is elizardbits' tumblr, and academics are poring over it like Linear A.


Abandon your studies! There is only madness there. Some things we were not meant to know.


Ahhahaha are you kidding me? Elizardbits's tumblr is just like studying the classics! Lots of incomprehensible timelines, canon characters, references to bizarre foodstuffs, and attractive nudes!
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:27 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Digging into the mystery of the Sea Peoples damn near made a History major out of me in college. Good thing I didn't go through with it, or the last thing the Sea Peoples razed would have been my future earning potential! Ha ha! Just kidding, History majors, I still wish I was one of you.

The great thing about history is that you don't have to major in it to continue to study it, and you'll still have a pretty damn good shot at actually understanding it. As posts like this show. (Oh, and I agree with Gin and Comics - no, you don't. Not that I'm sorry, exactly - but no, you don't.)
posted by jennaratrix at 12:28 PM on July 18, 2013


For a good introduction on the Catastrophe, see The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. by Robert Drews, but there are others. Drews has a pretty good theory what happened, but also lays out all the other theories and why they are probably not true.
posted by stbalbach at 12:29 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


The thing I hate most about history is the saying "those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it". Not because it's false (because it isn't), and not because it's true (it is), but because even those who do learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it -- either because through stupidity they don't take those lessons to heart or much more likely through impotence as they are simply pulled along in our species-defining maelstroms of egotism and aggression.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:30 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


seanmpuckett: What I find from talking to people is not that they don't learn the lessons of history, but that they believe those lessons are so firmly limited TO history that they are inapplicable now. "Oh, the French Revolution could never happen now - the circumstances are too different!" "Oh, the collapse of the Roman Empire could never happen now, we know too much!" etc. We seem to be unable to accept that we are, in fact, not unique. No one ever believes that huge, momentous, history-changing events could actually happen in their lifetime, because statistically, they usually don't. Also, those events often play out over years, decades, sometimes even millennia; and the events that kick off what we later refer to as a major collapse or era are unrecognizable in the early stages. That saying is probably true in a sense, but not especially useful, I agree.
posted by jennaratrix at 12:35 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Gin and Comics what are you talking about?? I have a history degree (Medieval ahahahahahhahahahaaa!!!!) and I have a thriving career as a web developer.
posted by supermedusa at 12:36 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


A theory so good I don't even care if it's true.

Be careful, for you tread upon the doorway of Chaos.
posted by aramaic at 12:38 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here in on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, I'm banging on the keyboard about two blocks from ground zero of where Pacific Northwest First Nations (i.e., "Indian") culture rapidly imploded just over a century ago.

Pre-contact, there were about 500,000 people living along the coast from Puget Sound all the way up to the Alaskan Panhandle. They formed complex and stable societies for many thousands of years, since at least to Iliad-era Greek city-kingdoms.

They traded up and down the Northwest coast, and one congregation point was a beach just a few blocks from where I live, a sort of RV park close to the main Songhees settlement here, for people in ocean-going canoes.

Anyway, this beach was where smallpox was transmitted. People stopped here on their travels, and took smallpox home with them all up and down the coast. Within a generation many cultures, while not erased, nearly vanished completely.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:42 PM on July 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


echo target: "I'm looking forward to thousands of years from now when the only thing left of this century is elizardbits' tumblr, and academics are poring over it like Linear A."

Lolbutts-A?


GenjiandProust: "a sort of rolling wall of collapsing societies. You'd probably hear about it a few countries away, maybe a rumor passed on by travelers or via trade routes. Then there is the news that the kingdom next door has collapsed, overrun by... well, who, exactly?"

I think these phases of collapse and transition only appear abrupt and catastrophic from a historical perspective. I suspect that when you were in the thick of such a phase and it's something that lasts longer than 1 or 2 generations, like a hundred years or so in this case, then it would simply have appeared as the new normal. A sucky new normal for sure but just day to day stuff nevertheless. I think very few people, if any, were likely aware of more than specific events here and there and maybe short connected sequences of events. Before the advent of mass literacy and mass communication people outside of any educated elites would forget stuff rapidly within a few generations and at best maintain vague memories of mythological quality.

After the collapse of the Roman empire people migrating from the now unsustainable cities to the countryside would dismantle abandoned Roman villas in order to procure building materials. In some places all that was left behind was the floor heating systems which were essentially crawlspaces where slaves would maintain fires to heat the floors. They were built like anything else in the Roman world supporting the main floor above with little arches just a few feet tall. It didn't take long before regular people completely forgot about the buildings that had stood there and the Romans who had lived in them. They thought they were looking at the remains of dwarf cities.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:11 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Speaking of collapse, when I visited Mycene it was December and one of the coldest Decembers Greece had seen for decades. It was snowing lightly as we drove into the empty parking lot. The guard popped his woefully underdressed body out of his tiny shack only long enough to briefly glance in the direction of our tickets and wave us in. After that we never saw another human being.

Being young and stupid, we of course immediately set about entering the restricted areas and taking pictures of ourselves doing so (like these folks). Ah, to be young again!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:17 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


This was a really interesting article, destruction on this scale simply is impossible to envision, but for some random reason the thought I was left with was:

"Thank God for nukes, huh?"

I somehow think it wouldn't end up the way I think though.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:36 PM on July 18, 2013


I always wonder if twenty or thirty thousand years ago if there weren't other thriving civilizations that had thousands of years behind them that abruptly flickered out of existence and over time disappeared from memory or even myth or tale. Technically, humans have been generally human for quite a long time, and it has always bothered me that we took so long to suddenly get our figurative excrement together and give rise to civilization.
posted by Atreides at 2:04 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am so into that last link. Comet Encke man! Regular visitor to earth and occasional bringer of destruction: turning summer into winter, and originating the swastika symbol across various cultures. Craziness!

Atreides, I also wonder if buried beneath desert areas of the world aren't the remains of civilizations that flourished for thousands of years and then disappeared (possibly due to an environmental destruction that kickstarted that desertification process).

Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years. We have recorded history going back no more than, what, 10,000 years? There's enough time in our species' existence to have had a cycle of 10,000 years of progress-and-collapse, followed by 40,000 years of nothingness and forgetting repeat itself four times over.
posted by molecicco at 2:30 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure how this could work, unless evolution suddenly works simultaneously across an entire species spread out across the globe.

but it wouldn't really be evolution in the darwinian sense - no, it would be a few people, perhaps because of some trauma, experiencing a shift in mental perspective that made them realize that the "voices of the gods" were really just their thoughts - and so their minds refocused in a way that we call modern consciousness - and of course they would tell others and the ideas would spread, especially in times where everything was going to hell

i'm not sure that jaynes is right about the mental mechanics, but ask yourself - what kind of society was it where the idea that people "heard" gods all the time wasn't questioned and what kind of minds would they have? - and would we really be able to understand them?

perhaps we'd be able to understand the "barbarians" better than the civilizations they invaded at that time - perhaps what jaynes calls the "bicameral mind" and what i'd vaguely call the different mind set of those civilizations were a dead end - that kind of consciousness wasn't going anywhere and we needed to go back to barbarism to find a better way forward, finding a new balance between the individualism of the barbarians and the collectivism of civilization

of course, we spend a lot of our time talking to, listening and watching people and things that aren't really around us in physical space

maybe that's a dead end, too
posted by pyramid termite at 2:33 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


it has always bothered me that we took so long to suddenly get our figurative excrement together and give rise to civilization.

I think it's no coincidence that human civilization coincides with a period of unusually stable climate. Hmmm.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:41 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's quite a cool overlay of climate and human evolution from the Smithsonian here.

But our knowledge of human history stretches back farther than recorded history does, and while there are certainly swathes of it that are unexplored (woo Doggerland!) it's not like it's a blank tablet. We know humans were making music 42,000 years ago, if not before; we know there was "art" or however we'll deem it in the future maybe as far back as 200,000 years, even if you don't count contemporaneous finely-worked stone tools as art. (Which, I mean, who am I to judge, my flints look indistinguishable from the rubbish pile.) Sure there's been a lot lost in ephemeral materials. But we're only about 200,000 years old, as a species, and we've managed to go from hitting stones together to the moon and to the deepest reaches of the ocean! That's pretty awesome!
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:56 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Atreides, I also wonder if buried beneath desert areas of the world aren't the remains of civilizations that flourished for thousands of years and then disappeared (possibly due to an environmental destruction that kickstarted that desertification process).

It's also interesting to think about the civilizations that might come after ours disappears. We've gotten pretty good at vacuuming up all of the easily-available energy and mineral resources. Could an advanced civilization arise if the only coal left is deeper than a kilometer and the only oil can be extracted via fracking?
posted by cosmic.osmo at 3:10 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Only familiar with Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind from its use in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.
posted by larrybob at 3:11 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The biggest threat, though, came from the groups they ignored: outlying primitives and their own serfs. Instead of making them unassailable, their century-long bids for power only weakened them, using up precious resources, straining trade networks and taxing their economies. For what? All the empires ended up collapses or drastically reduced, and the old dynasts were often the first to die.

This lesson is particularly important, as a lot of foreign policy thought in powerful nations today look at the world exactly in this matter: invade here, stare down enemy there, expand sphere of influence, control world. Neoconservatism is probably the worst example, but far from the only one. The Bronze Age collapse provides a grisly object lesson in how devastating these delusions can be. Borders are something only humans acknowledge, problems usually don't care.


I thought this was interesting. It's exactly what I worry about in our current society. This may give me nightmares.
posted by medusa at 3:19 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


this thread is FANTASTIC. i have recently been developing this hankering for history and a desire to understand its overall slope and i have SO MANY NEW BOOKS TO READ you guys, thank youuuuu
posted by a birds at 3:19 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the author of the first link mischaracterizes the Sea Peoples when he makes them sound like pirates or populist revolutionaries. The bronze age collapse took out entire cultures, leaving nothing behind but a few cryptic letters in some royal Hittite archive. Greece, a place of massive redundancy full of independent little countries, each hidden away in their own nook or cranny of a craggy land, lost ninety percent of its villages. The survivors forgot how to spell. What would cause that?

If the Sea People were just another historical movement, there'd be some cultural continuity in the lands they conquered. Their leaders would take over from the local leaders, or in the worst case scenario, their people would drive off the original inhabitants of a town and then move into the vacated structures. But these places were just destroyed, and the survivors were so few in number that it took them generations to rise back above the level of subsistence farming.

To me, the Sea People seem more like a natural disaster in human form, wiping out everything in their path much like Genghis Khan did many centuries later.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:16 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


In some places all that was left behind was the floor heating systems which were essentially crawlspaces where slaves would maintain fires to heat the floors. They were built like anything else in the Roman world supporting the main floor above with little arches just a few feet tall. It didn't take long before regular people completely forgot about the buildings that had stood there and the Romans who had lived in them.

The hypocaust was a pretty simple technology, but it has always struck me when looking at ruined roman-era buildings that it still took ~1500 years for underfloor heating to make a comeback.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:06 PM on July 18, 2013


Is there any speculative fiction about what the world would be like today if this had never happened?
posted by codacorolla at 8:31 PM on July 18, 2013


Disclaimer: I am a graduate student in ancient history. Pedantry follows.

To me, the Sea People seem more like a natural disaster in human form, wiping out everything in their path much like Genghis Khan did many centuries later.

This is a fun scenario to think about, but there's really no evidence for it. Actually, the more popular interpretation right now among people who study the Bronze Age for a living is that the Sea Peoples phenomenon was a symptom rather than the cause of the BA collapse.

We have quite a lot of perfectly readable Bronze Age (even Late Bronze Age) texts from Egypt and the Near East, which are briefly mentioned in the Sea Peoples wikipedia page (but unfortunately not quoted! You can find them, along with more nuanced discussion, in recent textbooks on the Bronze Age). If I remember correctly, the Egyptian texts are the only ones to actually use the term "Sea Peoples." In any case, the Sea Peoples are not a monolithic group, but a classification of small ethnic bands. In different texts, you get variation in the ethnicities reported. The Sea Peoples are referred to either as mercenaries (hired by one major Bronze Age power or another) or as invaders/marauders. We have an image of the invader-Sea Peoples in Ramesses III's funerary temple reliefs that gives us an important piece of information: they brought their women and children with them (hard to find a decent image online, but you can kind of see them here in the top half).

So, we have a loose classification of different small tribes (for lack of a better word) engaging in similar activities and defined (at least by the Egyptians) by their willingness to engage in those activities: soldiering for hire, piracy, sometimes violent migration. In all three activities, the Sea Peoples take advantage of the relative wealth and security of the Great Powers (Egypt, Babylonia, the Hittite kingdom). Why? And why bring the most vulnerable members of their tribes along with them in some cases? Because they were desperate, because their own societies were collapsing due to a Mediterranean-wide economic breakdown that had already started.

As a side note, just as the fall of Rome has been rebranded with some success, there is currently a trend among ancient historians to challenge the idea of the period between the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of Archaic Greek culture as a period of total devastation and then a phoenix-like rise from the ashes. Instead, they suggest a change in type of state: instead of the Bronze Age-style empire, in this period you see the emergence of small, independent kingdoms. This period is when the Phoenicians build their merchant empire. They seem to have traded with mainland Greece throughout these centuries. It's also when the Aramaeans expand into Mesopotamia. There's little on the scale of New Kingdom Egypt or Kassite Babylonia in terms of monuments or literature, but there were definitely people and there were definitely functioning power structures.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:59 PM on July 18, 2013 [20 favorites]


Thanks for this - a lot of interesting links here for later.

This part of history has always fascinated me since reading about it in Brad Hick's livejournal, to the point where I once made a very basic roguelike where you're one of the people tearing down the Mycenaean kings.

Ken MacLeod's new novel Intrusion brought it back into my mind recently, as the novel has a global mutated Naxalite resurrection that's more nihilist than communist and that is explicitly compared with the City Burners by characters.
posted by dragoon at 10:28 PM on July 18, 2013


This is why I say, "A Dark Age always follows a Golden Age." The full meaning seems lost on most people.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:01 PM on July 18, 2013


it has always bothered me that we took so long to suddenly get our figurative excrement together and give rise to civilization.

Don't let it get to you! Just stop thinking about anthropology as a positive progression. There are a lot of great things about being a hunter/gatherer.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:39 AM on July 19, 2013


I was first introduced to the idea of the sudden collapse of long standing civilizations by Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. His Judgment at Nineveh episode kindled my fascination with ancient ancient history.
posted by whuppy at 6:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there a best post of the month contest going on? Because I have my vote.
posted by DigDoug at 6:27 AM on July 19, 2013


they brought their women and children with them

Seriously?
posted by medusa at 8:59 AM on July 19, 2013


they brought their women and children with them

Seriously?

That's why the Egyptians called them "Sea Peoples" instead of something less gender neutral like "Sea Men"....

But seriously, this fpp is full of pure win.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:08 AM on July 19, 2013


they brought their women and children with them

Seriously?


I should clarify (I wrote that comment too late at night, clearly): there's only evidence for female/child Sea Peoples in the Ramesses III reliefs at Medinet Habu, which show an attempted invasion/mass migration into Egyptian territory. Mercenary and pirate activity were probably just dudes.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:12 AM on July 19, 2013


I guess we can't be interested in a historical mystery without solipsistically wielding it as a moralistic tempate for the perceived ills of today. "The distant past is interesting because it's really about me!"

Well, more like the distant past is interesting because it's really about us. They are us, we are them. Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it using lasers, robots, and nanites.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:52 AM on July 19, 2013


they brought their women and children with them

Seriously?


The Germanic tribes that got all up in Rome's grill did that, too.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:54 AM on July 19, 2013


Speaking of Egyptians and seamen...
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:10 AM on July 19, 2013


jason_steakums: "The Germanic tribes that got all up in Rome's grill did that, too."

Tough to leave them kids behind when the reason you're moving south and west in the first place is that you're being pushed by others from the east.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:21 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


We're still basically Romans when held up against such a loss of continuity.

Universally Romans, even?
posted by Chuckles at 12:19 PM on July 19, 2013


That last letter from Amurrappi of Ugarit, that never made it out of the city, was interesting for describing the relatively modest scale of the invasion that brought down his city-state. Only seven ships worth, but they were so overstretched that was all it took.
posted by tavella at 7:53 PM on July 19, 2013


The bronze age collapse took out entire cultures, leaving nothing behind but a few cryptic letters in some royal Hittite archive. Greece, a place of massive redundancy full of independent little countries, each hidden away in their own nook or cranny of a craggy land, lost ninety percent of its villages. The survivors forgot how to spell. What would cause that?

But what was the literacy rate? Like.. I'm with you, I find "forgetting" how to spell kind of unimaginable, but in this society we have a 95%+ literacy rate. If modern civilization were to collapse, might people forget how to code in C?
posted by Chuckles at 11:30 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Universally Romans, even?

The Empire Never Ended.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:06 AM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


But what was the literacy rate?

Extremely low. All the texts we have from the Bronze Age were written by professional scribes working for palaces or temples, and they were trained (at least in Egypt and the Near East) in very rigorous, very selective schools. The technology of writing stayed inside the very top level of society until the Phoenician alphabet took off around the end of the Bronze Age (Phoenician, of course, continued to be written straight through the collapse and the "Dark Age" and was picked up in the 9th century by Greeks). For the major kingdoms of the Bronze Age, there was probably something in the 5-10% range for literacy, quite possibly even less.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:29 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know, that's fascinating to consider. That today such a dark age is far less likely to occur due to near universal literacy. If the only use for reading and writing is the administration of one particular state then when that state collapses there is no more use for reading and writing. Even surviving literatures would be unlikely to pass those skills on to their children. However, when everyone can read and write, then in a post-collapse world, these skills remain usable and even vital to survival. I think universal literacy and improved food preservation are the main things that make a similar such total collapse of modern society far less likely.
posted by molecicco at 4:26 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I find from talking to people is not that they don't learn the lessons of history, but that they believe those lessons are so firmly limited TO history that they are inapplicable now….We seem to be unable to accept that we are, in fact, not unique.

Yes, yes, yes. "But we have iPhones!. We’re smart!"

That today such a dark age is far less likely to occur due to near universal literacy.

Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think that technology has raised the bar and possibly made us much more susceptible to a collapse. We have just entered a point where we have destroyed working systems and replaced them with much more fragile systems. If electricity were to go out in a large part of the Western world for any significant amount of time there would be a massive death count, where people survived in the same areas without it just fine until recently. If the internet were to stop working the entire financial world might collapse.
posted by bongo_x at 11:34 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


For anybody interested in the Hittites, go read Trevor Bryce's Kingdom of the Hittites and Life and Society of the Hitties.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:09 AM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's an interesting article from PLOS One newly out and doing the rounds: Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis:
The Late Bronze Age world of the Eastern Mediterranean, a rich linkage of Aegean, Egyptian, Syro-Palestinian, and Hittite civilizations, collapsed famously 3200 years ago and has remained one of the mysteries of the ancient world since the event’s retrieval began in the late 19th century AD/CE. Iconic Egyptian bas-reliefs and graphic hieroglyphic and cuneiform texts portray the proximate cause of the collapse as the invasions of the “Peoples-of-the-Sea” at the Nile Delta, the Turkish coast, and down into the heartlands of Syria and Palestine where armies clashed, famine-ravaged cities abandoned, and countrysides depopulated. Here we report palaeoclimate data from Cyprus for the Late Bronze Age crisis, alongside a radiocarbon-based chronology integrating both archaeological and palaeoclimate proxies, which reveal the effects of abrupt climate change-driven famine and causal linkage with the Sea People invasions in Cyprus and Syria. The statistical analysis of proximate and ultimate features of the sequential collapse reveals the relationships of climate-driven famine, sea-borne-invasion, region-wide warfare, and politico-economic collapse, in whose wake new societies and new ideologies were created.
(An earlier Sea People-themed article headed by the same author, Daniel Kaniewski is here from PLOS One as well.) It will be interesting to see how this theme plays out!
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:37 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


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