In the past 30 years, much has been written about climate’s effects on ancient civilizations, but paleoclimatology has driven the narrative. Humanists wonder: what if we put the focus on the people rather than their environment?

Coping with Changing Climates in Early Antiquity (3CEA) brings together researchers from UChicago, the University of Michigan, and Purdue to investigate the social and cultural implications of a changing climate in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages (third to first millennium BC). Archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and text specialists focus on Egypt and Nubia, the Eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia, and Mesopotamia to examine human agency in the narrative of ancient climate change. Two UChicago researchers discuss their methods of inquiry and what they hope to find.

Hervé Reculeau, assistant professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and 3CEA principal investigator, studies the environmental and social histories of Syria and Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C.

Unlike present-day climatologists, paleoclimatologists cannot directly measure parameters like temperature and precipitation. They use proxy data, such as ice and sediment cores, to build models, which can then be compared to modern climate patterns.

As humanists, we use our own proxy data, looking for ways ancient people responded to climate change from multiple angles. The 3CEA researchers work with datasets including human and artefactual remains, settlement patterns, and texts. My specialty is Assyrian cuneiform. From this information we investigate whether social change coincided with episodes of abrupt climate change.

It is commonly assumed that Assyria saw a wet late Bronze Age followed by an abrupt aridification during the twelfth century BC, and that these climatic trends match the chronology of a flourishing Assyrian society followed by a rapid collapse. While scholars often try to look at such tipping points, it is in fact more interesting to study the period leading up to that, because “abrupt” climatic events span generations, and the so-called “wet” Late Bronze Age was already quite arid compared to the preceding centuries and to the present climate in the region. The assumed “tipping point” was but the final aggravated event of a long-lasting trend. We want to complexify the picture beyond “good climate, societies flourish; bad climate, societies collapse.” For paleoclimatology, 100 years is a blip, but within that blip could be the rise and fall of kingdoms.

The Assyrian Kingdom in the thirteenth to eleventh centuries BC left administrative accounts that we can search for signs of crisis, such as harvest records. The thirteenth century was a time of expansion for Assyria—in newly conquered lands, the kingdom invested in irrigation, building great canals, particularly along the Khabour River. Despite the infrastructure improvements, harvest yields were terrible. It is possible (yet remains to be proven) that this construction was a response to changing climatic conditions that proved unsuccessful.

These efforts were not forgotten by the Assyrians: when King Sennacherib built long-distance canals in the seventh century BC for the capital of Nineveh, the city and its surrounding fields prospered. While the discrepancy in success between the two periods of Assyrian investment in large-scale irrigation could be attributed to climate change (the seventh century was more humid), it could also be due to a lack of human resources and/or expertise to build or manage the thirteenth-century BC canal system. More probably, it’s a combination of both.

There is still much we don't know, and the aim of this project is to make room for a nuanced narrative of ancient people’s actions. Too simplistic a view unfairly frames ancient civilizations as either all-powerful beings who destroy themselves or poor fools who can’t or won’t save themselves. At the end of the day, what makes a society thrive or change is always going to be human agency.

Catherine Kearns, assistant professor in Classics, studies human-environment relationships, landscape practices, and concepts of space and place in the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

When scientists study climate in antiquity, they often approach the past in a reconstructive, descriptive mode—an understanding of physical climate that helps improve projections for future climate change, but which can render societies static or simplified. Humanists ask fundamentally different questions: What does it mean for societies to experience, imagine, or respond to climate change?

In the past century, most questions in this subfield of ancient environmental history were geared toward learning why civilizations collapse. In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen a more capacious way of thinking about the human dimension of environmental change, looking at, for example, relationships between the state, infrastructure, taxation, and unstable climatic conditions.

My work for the 3CEA project involves an archaeological focus on Cyprus during the Iron Age. I wanted to really think about how people inhabited this region during a shift in regional climate, so I needed a paleoclimatic study. I conducted carbon stable isotope analysis on charcoal—to create an indirect proxy for precipitation—to identify periods of wetter and drier climates. Much of what archaeologists and ancient historians tend to study are big episodes of societal collapse caused by increased aridity, but I was particularly interested in how communities would have experienced a shift to wetter conditions.

I then looked at textual and archaeological evidence for this wetter time period, revealed by the isotope analysis, to ask questions about the social and political dimensions of that environmental change. On a semi-arid island like Cyprus, one societal development you might see is a reinvestment in agriculture due to increased water availability. This type of response can be seen in material signatures such as terrace walls, which serve multiple functions but are particularly associated with soil erosion mitigation.

These walls can indicate how some communities might have taken advantage of wet, opportune conditions by expanding cultivation into newly arable soils on hillsides. But they can also indicate an attempt to retain soil moisture in drier times. There are no generalizable explanations in archaeology; the reasons behind certain responses are contingent on the context, including the climate at the time, but also potentially important political and social factors, like the aims of local leaders or the pressures of regional markets.

What’s interesting about terrace walls is that some that we think were built during the Iron Age are still used. Studying them provides long-term observations about the ebbs and flows of landscapes and how different human populations use them in varied or similar ways.

This project doesn’t attempt to draw blueprints for modern climate change scholarship or policy. We’re trying to illuminate parts of our past where these same issues were at play, building a historical perspective that could help contextualize our widespread anxiety about climate change and our concerns about the future.