Ancient Egypt: early casualty of climate change?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Lucas Joseph, Forum Contributor

Ancient Egypt—specifically the Old Kingdom 4700-4160 cal. BP [calibrated years before the present] or the third through the eighth dynasties—has often been described as a grand civilization with a uniquely diverse society and ever-revered (albeit misunderstood) culture, intimately connected to both its climate and the Nile River.

Without the waters of the Nile, early Egyptian civilizations would not have thrived as they did for so many thousands of years. They were so heavily reliant on the Nile’s predictable seasonal ebb-and-flow for their agricultural yields that changes in precipitation at the great river’s headwaters were catastrophic for those reliant on the river.

According to Karl W. Butzer in his paper “Collapse, Environment, and Society,” rapid collapses of societies are rarely simple in origin and are a result of many factors. However, the Old Kingdom of Egypt must have collapsed as a result of low Nile levels.

Indeed, varying theories exist, from weak monarchs to invading forces. But the prevailing scientific wisdom points to a more plausible natural entity: the mighty Nile River.

There was, according to Professor Fekri Hassan with the Institute of Archaeology, University College in London, an “unanticipated, catastrophic reduction in the Nile floods over two or three decades. This was so severe that famine gripped the country and paralysed the political institutions.”

Hassan added, “The Nile can be considered as the force which destroyed the civilization that it had nurtured.” This is exactly what occurred when Nile levels fell significantly during the period of 4,200-4,100 cal. BP.

The Nile is a river of constant water-level fluctuations, but what took place during the 4,200-4,100 cal. BP period speaks to a far broader climatic deterioration. There is compelling evidence for this climatic deterioration, so much so that it’s known as the “4.2 kiloyear BP aridification event” to paleoclimatologists, and the “Dark Age” to others.

World-renowned glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, in his 2002 “Kilimanjaro ice core records: evidence of Holocene climate change in tropical Africa,” uncovered ice-core data atop Mount Kilimanjaro which accurately recorded severe aridity in tropical eastern Africa around this period. This evidence is compelling due to Kilimanjaro’s proximity to the Nile’s watershed.

Additional findings from as far away as Italy and across the mid-latitudes of Europe provided stark evidence of a severe drought during this same time which was in all likelihood global in nature.

This global climate anomaly is doubtless the reason the Old Kingdom of Egypt collapsed. Moreover, it speaks to how civilizations, regardless of how advanced they may be, can and will be impacted by climate shifts and trends.

Low Nile flooding due to northeastern African aridification, low precipitation from the Ethiopian highlands, and a southward shift of the InterTropical Convergence Zone over Africa, came together for a “perfect mix” of climate dynamics, all of which proved too much for humanity at that time in Egypt. The scope of this evidence presented is only a narrow view into a complex yet definite paleoclimatic event, one which was dictated by many factors.

To put it succinctly, the river surged. The river dried. And thriving ancient Egypt died.

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