Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Drought May Have Doomed Sumerian Civilization

Absolutely fascinating! 

Recently I watched a PBS special on the Dust Bowl, a drought that affected large swatches of the "Bread Basket" of the USA but extended also to other parts of the country, for TEN long years, from 1930 until 1940. 

From PBS Dust Bowl Special website

Untold damage was done to the ecology of the country.  Tens of thousands of families and hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted from their homesteads as the earth beneath their feet literally blew away! Families were torn apart.  Hundreds of people were smothered to death in the horrible all-encompassing, all-engulfing BLACK dust storms of the period in the worst-affected regions of the country.  Thousands more people, mostly children and the elderly, died from a disease similar to the  Black Lung caused by the never-ending dust.  The medical establishment at the time had no cure.  Millions of domesticated and wild animals died as a result of the drought and the dust storms.  Some died of thirst; some died of starvation; some were suffocated to death.

Dust clouds from the never-ending storms in the Dust Bowl could be traced in the stratosphere by the equipment of the day, circulating around the globe (perhaps similar in effect to volcanic "winters" caused by eruptions like Krakotoa in the 1880s, but lasting much longer because more and more dust blew up into the stratosphere each year for ten years...)  Yes, the entire globe was affected.  Perhaps worst of all, this hit the USA just as The Great Depression (part of a world-wide depression) was taking a firm hold here.

I cannot even begin to imagine what might have happened here during that time IF THAT DROUGHT HAD LASTED 200 YEARS!  Would I even be here today?  Doubtful.  I wasn't born until 1951, after the end of WWII.  The worst effects of the drought ended about a year before the USA got involved in WWII, with the attack on Pearl Harbor.  But if that drought had not ended, could the USA have played the role it ultimately did in that war?  My dad may not have met and married my Mom and started a family....  Hell, my dad might not have even survived.  He was 8 years old when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl started.  If things had not gotten better around 1940 - who knows...

Date: 04 December 2012 Time: 11:35 AM ET

SAN FRANCISCO — A 200-year-long drought 4,200 years ago may have killed off the ancient Sumerian language, one geologist says.

Because no written accounts explicitly mention drought as the reason for the Sumerian demise, the conclusions rely on indirect clues. But several pieces of archaeological and geological evidence tie the gradual decline of the Sumerian civilization to a drought.

The findings, which were presented Monday (Dec. 3) here at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, show how vulnerable human society may be to climate change, including human-caused change.

"This was not a single summer or winter, this was 200 to 300 years of drought," said Matt Konfirst, a geologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center.

Beginning about 3500 B.C., the Sumerian culture flourished in ancient Mesopotamia, which was located in present-day Iraq. Ancient Sumerians invented cuneiform writing, built the world's first wheel and arch, and wrote the first epic poem, "Gilgamesh."

But after 200 to 300 years of upheaval, the Sumerian culture disappeared around 4,000 years ago, and the Sumerian language went extinct soon after that.

Konfirst wanted to see if a drought that spanned about 200 years may have caused the decline. Several geological records point to a long period of drier weather in the Middle East around 4,200 years ago, Konfirst said. The Red Sea and the Dead Sea had increased evaporation; water levels dropped at Lake Van in Turkey, and cores from marine sediments around that period indicate increased dust in the environment.

"As we go into the 4,200-year-ago climate anomaly, we actually see that estimated rainfall decreases substantially in this region and the number of sites that are populated at this time period reduce substantially," he said.

Around the same time, 74 percent of the ancient Mesopotamian settlements were abandoned, according to a 2006 study of an archaeological site called Tell Leilan in Syria. The populated area also shrank by 93 percent, he said.

"People still live in this region. It's not that the collapse of a civilization means that an area is completely abandoned," he said. "But that there's a sharp change in the population."

During the great drought, two waves of marauding nomads descended upon the region, sacking the capital city of Ur. After around 2000 B.C., ancient Sumerian gradually died off as a spoken language in the region. For the next 2,000 years, the tongue lingered on as a dead written language, similar to Latin in the Middle Ages, but has been completely extinct since then, Konfirst said.

The coincidence of the social upheaval, depopulation in the area and the geologic record of drought suggests climate change might have played a role in the loss of the Sumerian language, Konfirst said.
The findings also suggest that modern-day civilizations may be vulnerable to climate change, he said.

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