The Hittite Empire emerged in 1650 BC in a region that includes much of modern Turkey. They were one of the major powers of the world for five centuries, but around 1200 BC, their capital was abandoned and the empire was gone. This was previously blamed on war with other regions and an internal conflict, but now it seems that wasn’t the case.
Researchers from Cornell University analyzed tree ring and isotope records and found a three-year drought was the most likely culprit behind the downfall of the Hittite Empire. The finding is particularly relevant today, as the world copes with the effects of the climate crisis and a warmer planet – from drought to flooding to heat waves.
“Probably some of what goes wrong at the end of the Bronze Age is a version of exactly what we see going wrong in the modern world, which is that groups of people are trying to move somewhere else because they aren’t in a place that’s regarded as suitable or good,” Stuart Manning, the study lead author, said in a media statement.
A changing civilization
Researchers have long tried to understand what triggered the fall of the Hittites and the broader collapse that also affected other kingdoms in Greece, Crete and the Middle East. The Hittites, with their capital Hattusa situated in central Anatolia, were the main geopolitical rivals of ancient Egypt during its impressive New Kingdom period.
To find an explanation, Manning, a professor in archaeology, teamed up with Jed Sparks, a professor of ecology. They looked at samples of timber from the Midas Mound Tumulus at Gordion – a 53-meter man-made structure located west of Ankara that could have been used to build a burial chamber for King Midas’ father.
But equally important are the trees that were used to build the structure and have a hidden paleoclimatic record of the region. The researchers looked at the patterns of tree-ring growth and found unusually narrow rings, which indicate dry conditions and “drought episodes critical to agricultural production and subsistence,” they wrote.
The analysis suggests a gradual shift to drier conditions from the later 13th into the 12th century BCE and a continued period of severe drought from 1198 to 1196 BCE, which matches the timeline of the Hittites’ disappearance. Hattusa, the empire’s capital, enclosed by a stone wall with gates adorned with lions, was burned and abandoned.
"The tree-ring widths indicate something really unusual is going on, and because it's very narrow rings, that means the tree is struggling to stay alive. In a semi-arid environment, the only plausible reason that's happening is because there's little water, therefore it's a drought, and this one is particularly serious,” Manning said in a statement.
One year of drought would be manageable, with farmers having enough stored provisions to get them through, the researchers explained. By the second year, a crisis would develop and the “whole system would start to break down,” Manning said. By the third year, hundreds of thousands of people would face famine or even starve.
Now, with the world on the verge of approaching its own tipping point due to the climate crisis, this study raises important questions about how we are addressing the climate crisis. We can still learn lessons from history and avoid further extreme weather events, but only if we take ambitious action to bring down our emissions.
The study was published in the journal Nature.