Think 2020 was bad? 1177BC was worse. That was the year a civilisation collapsed. Now historians are warning that – if we don’t heed the warning signs – 2077 may bring the same fate.
Like our own, the Bronze Age civilisation survived many crises in the century before 1200BC. But, then – all of a sudden – it fell apart.
It took just 30 years for seven centuries of world building to come apart at the seams.
Historians have a favourite saying: History doesn’t repeat – but it does often rhyme.
And its tune can be telling.
Mostly, it offers an opportunity to drown out partisan politics by dubbing the past over our future.
And the result sounds bleak.
War. Climate emergency. Economic disruption. Famine. Pandemic. Refugees.
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A similar convergence of calamities occurred 3200 years ago. The outcome was Biblical – both in the figurative and literal sense. Now archaeology is providing us with a rough idea of how things panned out.
Priests suddenly lost their appeal. Kings were brought low by war and revolution. Trade routes unwound and economies collapsed. Meanwhile, a mysterious militarised force roamed the Mediterranean. Collectively called the Sea Peoples, this rag-tag assortment of pirates looted cargoes, sacked cities and built colonies.
“You reach a point in the Bronze Age where it could no longer deal with the catastrophes that were happening, so it falls,” says Professor Louise Hitchcock. “Then it emerges as something else 600 years later.”
The scenario isn’t just an academic exercise.
It’s reflected in the United Nations’ 2020 Human Development Report. It warns humanity faces an “unprecedented moment”. It warns civilisation’s – and the planet’s – “pressures have grown exponentially over the past 100 years”.
It also makes one salient point: “Humanity’s future is largely within humanity’s control”.
The coming century of crises needn’t be Armageddon, Professor Hitchcock notes.
But that depends on how we recognise the rhyme of history.
Isaac Asimov explored the idea of “psychohistory” in his famous Foundation series of science fiction novels. It was a science of predicting the future. Of determining the fall of empires. Of charting the reconstruction of civilisation.
The current state-of-the-art is nothing so grand.
But its equations are producing disturbing results.
“I use a scientific model called self-organised criticality,” the University of Melbourne School of Historical and Philosophical Studies professor says.
Civilisation, the theory postulates, is like a pile of sand.
Grain after grain of troubles can be heaped on each other to form a growing pile.
Occasionally, a little avalanche cuts loose as it self-corrects for stability.
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“Eventually you reach a point where instead of having one or two avalanches, you have cascading avalanches. And then the system collapses.”
You can’t be sure which grain of sand is the one that causes the cascade.
“But it comes at the point where every grain is disrupting the system, and the system has no choice but to collapse,” Hitchcock says.
The hourglass of our future, she says, is yet to run empty.
But the grains of disruption are falling fast on our global society.
“Does the ship right itself or doesn’t it? Does it keep going steadily down? What happens when the automated economy hits? What happens if populism takes hold?” she asks.
Unless you’ve heard it before, it’s part of a historical rhyme you’re not likely to notice – until it’s too late.
Professor Hitchcock’s internationally renowned research explores the Bronze Age civilisation collapse. Naturally, she has a tendency to compare then with now.
But the 2020 pandemic took the professor by surprise.
“I was predicting political populism as the next major disrupter,” she said in an interview for news.com.au. “I believed we were on the verge of a tipping point from our economic automation, the impact of the internet and smartphones – not some pandemic.”
Just as we’re impressed by the power of silicon, the ancients were in awe of bronze. Everything revolved around its production and use.
“The Bronze Age and a lot of globalisation was being driven by the metals trade,” Hitchcock says.
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The oil and iron of the 13th Century BC was copper and tin. Put together in controlled quantities, and you get glittering bronze. The strength of this alloy made soldiers almost untouchable – except to others also armed with bronze. Its expense and complexity put it out of reach for all but the extremely wealthy.
So metal magnates quickly became warlords and kings.
These soon started accumulating prestige goods, like ivory, to broadcast their wealth. Gold was imported from Egypt. Strong cedar woods from Lebanon.
Middle-men also began to grow rich. International trade boomed. Middle classes of artisans, scribes, technicians and skilled trades arose.
There was no network of trade treaties as we’d recognise now, Hitchcock says. “It was what you’d call an international brotherhood of kings. They would exchange elite objects with each other that they could display to impress their retinues and subjects. They probably had more in common with each other than with their own people.”
This produced diplomacy: Kings would ask each other for help in the face of famine or attack.
But it was a short-lived utopia.
At some point in the 13th Century BC, Mediterranean palaces and temples began to sprout walls. Towns began moving off the coast to more defensible hills. Everywhere in the archaeological record are signs of war.
PRICE OF PROGRESS
History teaches us the only certainty is change.
This fate eventually befell the Mediterranean’s bronze magnates.
The specialisation that transformed Bronze Age economies brought about dependence on distant supplies. This ultimately proved vulnerable to the weather, coercive diplomacy – and piracy.
It’s another rhyme.
“I’m a big believer in globalisation and free trade,” Professor Hitchcock says, “but to outsource the manufacturing of things like PPE (personal protective equipment) or critical drugs – it’s not so bright.”
Bronze Age metal magnates found themselves similarly out on a limb.
The supply lines of materials for their exclusive alloy were disrupted. Deposits were mined out. Monopolies were overturned.
On top of all this, another winning innovation emerged: Adjustable sails. This soon fell into the hands of pirates.
“A brailed sail has rings on it so you can easily turn it about to sail in directions that you couldn’t before,” Hitchcock says. “But pirates would actually take any ship they could capture and use.”
The pressures of progress, however, is not uncommon.
The horse-and-cart underwent a transition to the combustion engine and car. The industrial revolution was wildly disruptive. But civilisation didn’t collapse in AD1977.
So, like the Bronze Age, there must be more to the story.
“It’s possible the Bronze Age Collapse had plague as well,” Professor Hitchcock says. “I used to sort of dismiss the idea because why would people go around destroying things if they’re hungry? But watching what coronavirus has done, I can see it hurts certain communities and classes more than others.”
Transportation. Living conditions. Overcrowding.
This made some communities susceptible. It also determines the speed any plague spreads.
It’s another rhyme.
COVID-19 was carried around the world in a matter of weeks by airliners and cruise ships.
We know a devastating plague was carried through Europe in the 14th Century AD by sail.
“There was a mouse found on the 14th Century BC Uluburun shipwreck off southwestern Turkey,” Hitchcock says. “A mouse itself doesn’t cause illness. But if you had mice, you could have had other things as well – like fleas. These could have brought viruses or bacteria to various centres, causing weaknesses in supply chains.”
The evidence of a global Bronze Age pandemic remains indirect and inconclusive.
There are Hittite records of plague leading to the death of a king. The Amarna tablets of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s era talk of epidemics. There are hints of a rise in disease-related deities. Some changes in burial customs also suggest health fears.
But no discovery as yet incriminates pestilence for bringing the Bronze Age to its knees.
Instead, the professor says it most likely added yet another destabilising pressure on the already strained, fast-paced, high-density international network.
The Bronze Age gave rise to two great superpowers: Egypt and the Assyrians.
Egypt was isolationist. “They kept to themselves because one of the worst things that could happen to you if you were an Egyptian would be to die outside of Egypt,” says Professor Hitchcock.
It also had an internal power play between the Pharaohs and the priesthood. “This is why Akhenaten created a monotheistic religion, to deny the priesthood of Amun some of its wealth and power”.
But the distribution of wealth was likely a fundamental issue.
All through the ruins of this ancient world are signs of violent struggle. But not all match the profile of an outside invader. Some ruined cities reveal deliberate destruction in the palace and merchant districts. But not the suburbs.
The cause, Hitchcock says, could have been civil unrest.
Disrupted international trade had up-ended local economies. Unemployment was added to the growing toll of disaster, migration and hunger.
Soon after, elites failed to deliver their side of social contracts.
It was a scenario faced by Bronze Age priests and kings throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They found linking their wealth and power to divine providence came with a steep price: “If the elites weren’t able to deliver on their promises, it could be a reason for revolt”.
“The most important thing the Egyptian King had to do every year was to deliver the flooding of the Nile,” Hitchcock says. “That’s why they developed astronomy. But if they didn’t predict its arrival correctly, the king might be overthrown.”
It’s another rhyme echoing through society now.
Even before the pandemic, people in the service industries had been losing jobs to automation at an alarming rate.
The result, Hitchcock says, is social disruption and even greater concentration of wealth. And that’s in a context of global unrest, political discontent, fire, flood, famine and migration.
FLEEING FOR SAFETY
The UN warns some one billion people may be on the move by 2050.
No one factor will be the cause. It will likely involve a mix of catastrophes.
It’s something history has seen before. And once on a potentially similar scale.
Some researchers have pointed to possible mass migration out of Europe at the end of the Bronze Age. Indications are the continent was undergoing a century-long drought brought on by volcanic activity in Greenland and Iceland.
Echoes of war across the Bosphorus between Greece and Turkey hint of this human tide. But there’s also the longstanding mystery of the “peoples of the sea”.
The popular narrative talks of this assembly of tribes rampaging across the Mediterranean, sacking cities as they went. Eventually, the Sea People were fought to a standstill at the mouth of the Nile by Pharaoh Ramesses III in 1177BC.
But Professor Hitchcock says the term falsely implies co-ordination and unity. Instead, they were likely a diverse collection of cultures that happened to sometimes share common goals.
“They might have joined together in a single attack, but that doesn’t mean they were all working together all the time,” Hitchcock says.
They may have been pirates. They might have been refugees. Most likely, they were a combination of both.
“I think some of them are refugees because anybody can row a ship,” Hitchcock says. “But to be a warrior takes a certain amount of skill that you need to develop from an early age.”
Another rhyme can be seen in the mass migration out of Syria into Europe.
“People rarely migrate to a place they don’t already have some kind of prior connection to,” Hitchcock says. Trade and pilgrim routes left multicultural communities across the map. Stories of brave new worlds filtered their way back home.
“It’s quite likely that some of these different tribes of Sea Peoples that settled in the Levant or Cyprus had prior links to these places because some sites are destroyed, but not all sites are destroyed”.
“What you have at the end of the Bronze Age is that the sea lanes start to become less secure,” Professor Hitchcock warns.
International relations were deteriorating. Outlaws became increasingly bold.
Ultimately, this up-ended everything and little could be done to stop it.
“Pirates tend to engage in hit-and-run attacks where they go in and burn a village at night rather than engaging in direct warfare,” Hitchcock says. “This left organised armies unable to respond effectively”.
Eventually, however, indications are these marauders became a powerful force.
“I think what you have with the Sea Peoples is that you have a small amount of piracy going on at the start. But, then, as they sack more cities, they attract more and more followers.”
Hitchcock says a rhyme can be seen in the 13th Century AD Barbary Pirates of the Mediterranean and again in the 18th Century North Atlantic corsairs of popular culture. “There you had just two original ships,” she says, “and from taking on more ships and followers, they eventually grew to be 3500 pirates”.
That’s yet another historical rhyme: Piracy is catching.
“The Cilician pirates were big in the era of the late Roman Republic,” Hitchcock says. “There were like 10,000 of them, but they could not have all come from Cilicia. Cilicia didn’t have a big enough population.”
In every case, social circumstances were ripe for revolt.
The crews of the British Royal Navy, for example, were poorly paid and harshly treated. Ships of the Crown were minimally crewed and fed cut-price rations. So they eagerly jumped ship.
“With the pirates, their ships had more people carrying the workload. Everything was shared equally. So you might have had a short life as a pirate, but you had a better life.”
It’s a similar story now off Somalia.
Fishers there lost their livelihoods when poorly-policed local waters were stripped bare by illegal international trawlers. Civil war raged across their land. Now they’re swapping nets for Kalashnikovs in the hope of a rich bounty.
“When we look at the Bronze Age Collapse, we tend to say ‘oh, what terrible things happened’,” Professor Hitchcock says. “Eventually complexity re-emerges, and you get the Assyrian Empire, you get the Greek city-states, and then you get the Roman Empire.
“If you didn’t have all the inventions of the Bronze Age – like domesticated agriculture, agricultural surplus irrigation, writing, contracts, private property, maritime navigation, metallurgy, ceramics – you wouldn’t have had the basis for the world that followed where philosophers debated what the ideal state would be.”
But the new world was born from the wreckage of the old.
And foreseeing the future of this world isn’t easy.
“I’ve largely been socially isolated since mid-February. But I still get a paycheck,” Hitchcock says. “I bought a new bicycle and a bunch of nice new clothes. I go out with my dogs. I write my articles. We order Uber many nights. The garbage gets collected. So life hasn’t really changed.”
But it’s not that way for everybody.
The world is awash with woes. And, as history teaches us, we’ll likely not recognise the last grain of sand that brings everything tumbling down.
“Maybe it’s time to look at where the economy’s going instead of trying to bring it back to where it was,” Hitchcock says.
Her key takeaway lesson from the Bronze Age Collapse?
“Don’t be elite. I would not want to be a leader of any sort, to tell you the truth.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel