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Ancient Responses to Climate Change

Written By: Ashley Koca

Changes in the Earth’s climate can either make or break a civilization. It is best humanity learns now from past societies brought to their knees, as well as those who showed resilience in the face of nature’s whim, on how to combat the current crisis before the world. 


Two teams of archaeologists hailing from Cornell University and the University of Toronto traveled to Tell Tayinat in modern day Turkey to investigate ancient responses to the changing climate. Their research focuses on the occupation of Tell Tayinat’s Levant region during Bronze Age periods of megadrought from around 2,200 BCE and 12,000 BCE. Employing radiocarbon data and Bayesian chronological modelling, the two teams were able to pinpoint ancient movement between regions. 


Wood, charcoal, and seeds were used as samples for Carbon-14 dating. This form of dating helps scientists better understand the past 50,000 years on Earth. Using this method, scientists compare three different Carbon isotopes—a version of an element with the same number of protons but varying numbers of neutrons, changing the mass of the isotope. In conjunction with radiocarbon dating, Bayesian statistics are employed in coordination with the Carbon-14 calibration curve to be used in chronological modelling (Bronk 2009). The archaeologist found, with these methods, that the Tell Tayinat site was occupied during the early Bronze Age’s 22nd and 23rd centuries as the climate event began. 


The two teams focused on the settlement during the eras falling between the early Bronze Age periods of 2,500–2,000 BCE and 2,300-2,000 BCE and early Iron Age (1,200–900 BCE) in the northern Levant. Occupation during these periods occurred between eras of “high” civilization during the mid to late Bronze Age. During these outer periods, another site, called Tell Atchana, was the primary settlement instead. 


It appears that the ancient civilization thriving within the Levant used the Tell Tayinat settlement as a sort of “refugia” during the drought as it had karst topography, providing underground aquifers to rely on (Manning et al 2020). Through analyzing paleobotanical evidence, the archaeologists found that there was minimal stress on crops in the northern Levantine region. This was established through the examination of barley and other notably water-dependent crops like fig, grape, and olive. Free-threshing wheat was also shown to flourish as it was farmed throughout the region, accompanied by large quantities of vetches—a genus of plants in the legume family. These growing patterns hint at a  strategy for labor optimization, crop failure prevention, crop yield stabilization, and soil fertility maintenance. 


The people of the Levant knew their land and how to cultivate it in order to survive in times of drought. Unfortunately, other civilizations throughout history have not been such stewards of their piece of earth. In examples of past civilizations, “we very rarely find any evidence that they as a whole society made any attempts to change in the face of a drying climate, a warming atmosphere or other changes, I view this inflexibility as the real reason for collapse” (Ur, 2020. As cited in “Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations”, 2014). 


Inflexibility equates to the inability to adapt, halting evolution. The species lost to history are those unable to change. Where does this leave humanity? In the modern day, humanity has been awarded the unique opportunity to reflect on its past and understand its failures. If its more ancient ancestors with far fewer technologies could adjust to a more sustainable way of life, what would stop humans today? To face the current changing climate, modern peoples must once again become stewards of their land, cultivating a greener future. 




Bronk Ramsey, C. (2009). Bayesian Analysis of Radiocarbon Dates. Radiocarbon, 51(1), 337-360. doi:10.1017/S0033822200033865

Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. (2014, October 02). Retrieved November 25, 2020, from

Manning, S. W., Lorentzen, B., Welton, L., Batiuk, S., & Harrison, T. P. (2020). Beyond megadrought and collapse in the Northern Levant: The chronology of Tell Tayinat and two historical inflection episodes, around 4.2ka BP, and following 3.2ka BP. Plos One, 15(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0240799

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