History Repeats Itself: The Hittite Empire’s Demise and the Climate Crisis of Today

The fate of the ancient Hittite Empire remains uncertain, but for nearly 500 years it reigned over much of modern-day Turkey and beyond into Syria and Lebanon. Its rulers lived in grand stone palaces within a protected capital city, supported by sophisticated farming, irrigation, and trade systems. However, after 1200 B.C., the empire vanished. Archaeological evidence suggests that the royal administration fled the capital and left the city, which was later burned. The reason for the collapse remains unclear, as few records from the kingdom survive.

A new study published in the journal Nature provides a clue, however, by analyzing climate data captured in the rings of long-dead trees. The research reveals that the Hittites experienced three consecutive years of extreme drought, which coincided with the empire’s fall. This severe water shortage could have led to famine, economic turmoil, and political upheaval, as it likely ruined the large-scale farms that were crucial to the Hittite economy.

The findings of the study add to the growing field of research that links the collapse of civilizations to abrupt changes in the Earth’s climate. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of how floods, droughts, and famines influenced the course of human history, causing societies to either die out or transform.

This research offers both a warning and a reassurance as human greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning continue to warm the atmosphere and alter the lands of modern nations. The research underscores the danger of increasingly frequent and severe climate disasters but also suggests strategies that could make communities more resilient, such as diversifying their economies, reducing environmental impacts, and developing more sustainable cities.

The recent earthquakes in Southern Turkey and Syria, which resulted in over 11,000 deaths, serve as a reminder of the Earth’s power to disrupt societies and the need for measures to protect people from environmental harm. As archaeologist Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver of Temple University said, “things like climate change, earthquakes, drought are realities of our lives, but there are human actions that can be taken to foresee what will happen and behave accordingly.”

Drought may have doomed this ancient empire — a warning for today's climate crisis

To determine the cause of the Hittite collapse, the researchers analyzed millennia-old timbers from a giant tomb in central Turkey. The wood came from juniper trees that were still standing when the empire fell, and as junipers are a long-lived species, their growth rings contained records of the weather throughout their lifespan. The scientists found that in the half-century leading up to the collapse, the rings in the tree trunks gradually became narrower, indicating water shortages were limiting the junipers’ growth. Chemical analyses also showed how the drought altered the trees at a cellular level.

These results support inscriptions on cuneiform tablets from that time in which Hittite officials expressed concern over rising food prices and asked for grain to be sent to their cities. However, lead author Sturt Manning of Cornell University says that the empire, which was known for its elaborate water infrastructure and grain silos, should have been able to survive the drought. The three consecutive years of intensely dry weather between 1198 and 1196 B.C. may have been too much for the Hittites to bear, leading to the empire’s dissolution within a generation.

However, some experts, like Yale University archaeologist Harvey Weiss, argue that climate change alone did not bring down the Hittite empire. In his book “Megadrought and Collapse,” Weiss explores how a global shift in rainfall patterns 4,200 years ago contributed to the downfall of political regimes from India to the Middle East. He believes that history has been shaped by abrupt climate “shocks” that fragmented societies or forced people to migrate. He argues that the longer-term drying trend,

in conjunction with other factors, such as the invasions of so-called ‘Sea People’ and the internal power struggles within the Hittite administration, ultimately led to the downfall of the Hittite empire.

The fate of the ancient Hittite Empire is still a subject of debate among historians and archaeologists, but the new study sheds light on the possible role of climate change in the collapse of civilizations. The findings highlight the importance of considering the impact of environmental factors on human societies and the need for preparedness to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. The study also emphasizes the need for sustainable practices and resilience strategies to protect modern nations from the impact of a changing climate. As Durusu-Tanrıöver states, ‘We can learn from the past, but we must act in the present to ensure a stable future for generations to come.

If you are interested in learning more about the impacts of global warming on various regions of the world, we recommend checking out this article: “Breaking Down The Myths Of Global Warming: A Look At Its Impacts On All Regions.” In this post, the authors explore the myths and misconceptions surrounding global warming and present a comprehensive overview of its impacts on different parts of the world, including rising sea levels, shifting weather patterns, and the loss of biodiversity. The article also highlights the steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change and how individuals can play a role in creating a more sustainable future.