Climate Change in Antiquity: Mass Emigration Due to Water Scarcity

Related Articles

The absence of monsoon rains at the source of the Nile was the cause of migrations and the demise of entire settlements in the late Roman province of Egypt.

This demographic development has been compared with environmental data for the first time by professor of ancient history, Sabine Huebner of the University of Basel – leading to a discovery of climate change and its consequences.

The oasis-like Faiyum region, roughly 130 km south-west of Cairo, was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Yet at the end of the third century CE, numerous formerly thriving settlements there declined and were ultimately abandoned by their inhabitants. Previous excavations and contemporary papyri have shown that problems with field irrigation were the cause. Attempts by local farmers to adapt to the dryness and desertification of the farmland – for example, by changing their agricultural practices – are also documented.

 

Volcanic eruption and monsoon rains

Basel professor of ancient history Sabine R. Huebner has now shown in the US journal Studies in Late Antiquity that changing environmental conditions were behind this development. Existing climate data indicates that the monsoon rains at the headwaters of the Nile in the Ethiopian Highlands suddenly and permanently weakened. The result was lower high-water levels of the river in summer. Evidence supporting this has been found in geological sediment from the Nile Delta, Faiyum and the Ethiopian Highlands, which provides long-term climate data on the monsoons and the water level of the Nile.

A powerful tropical volcanic eruption around 266 CE, which in the following year brought a below-average flood of the Nile, presumably also played a role. Major eruptions are known from sulfuric acid deposits in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, and can be dated to within three years. Particles hurled up into the stratosphere lead to a cooling of the climate, disrupting the local monsoon system.

New insights into climate, environment, and society

In the third century CE, the entire Roman Empire was hit by crises that are relatively well documented in the province of Egypt by more than 26,000 preserved papyri (documents written on sheets of papyrus). In the Faiyum region, these include records of inhabitants who switched to growing vines instead of grain or to sheep farming due to the scarcity of water. Others accused their neighbors of water theft or turned to the Roman authorities for tax relief. These and other adaptive strategies of the population delayed the death of their villages for several decades.

“Like today, the consequences of climate change were not the same everywhere,” says Huebner. Although regions at the edge of the desert faced the harshness of the drought, others actually benefited from the influx of people moving from the abandoned villages. “New knowledge about the interaction of climate, environmental changes and social developments is very topical.” The climate change of late antiquity was not, however – unlike today – caused mainly by humans, but was based on natural fluctuations.

UNIVERSITY OF BASEL

Header Image Credit : Public Domain

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Roman Villa of Tiberius and the Cave of Imperial Pleasure

The Villa of Tiberius is a ruined Roman villa complex located in the present-day town of Sperlonga, in the province of Latina on the western coast of Italy.

Archaeologists Excavate 1,600-Year-Old Burial Containing Ornate Treasures

Archaeologists excavating a burial ground have discovered a grave containing ornate grave goods from the 5th century AD, a period of instability during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

Archaeologists Discover Ancient Settlements Associated With “Polish Pyramids”

Archaeologists conducting a detailed study of the area near the Kujawy megalithic tombs, dubbed the “Polish Pyramids”, have identified the associated settlements of the tomb builders.

Rocky Planet Discovered in Virgo Constellation Could Change Search For Life in Universe

A newly discovered planet could be our best chance yet of studying rocky planet atmospheres outside the solar system, a new international study involving UNSW Sydney shows.

Sungbo’s Eredo – The “Queen of Sheba’s Embankment”

Sungbo’s Eredo is one of the largest man-made monuments in Africa, consisting of a giant system of ditches and embankments that surrounds the entire ljebu Kingdom in the rain forests of south-western Nigeria.

Woolly Mammoths May Have Shared the Landscape With First Humans in New England

Woolly mammoths may have walked the landscape at the same time as the earliest humans in what is now New England, according to a Dartmouth study published in Boreas.

Prehistoric killing machine exposed

Judging by its massive, bone-crushing teeth, gigantic skull and powerful jaw, there is no doubt that the Anteosaurus, a premammalian reptile that roamed the African continent 265 to 260 million years ago - during a period known as the middle Permian - was a ferocious carnivore.

Noushabad – The Hidden Underground City

Noushabed, also called Oeei or Ouyim is an ancient subterranean city, built beneath the small town of Nushabad in present-day Iran.

Popular stories

Noushabad – The Hidden Underground City

Noushabed, also called Oeei or Ouyim is an ancient subterranean city, built beneath the small town of Nushabad in present-day Iran.

Ani – The Abandoned Medieval City

Ani is a ruined medieval city, and the former capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom, located in the Eastern Anatolia region of the Kars province in present-day Turkey.

Interactive Map of Earth’s Asteroid and Meteor Impact Craters

Across the history of our planet, around 190 terrestrial impact craters have been identified that still survive the Earth’s geological processes, with the most recent event occurring in 1947 at the Sikhote-Alin Mountains of south-eastern Russia.

The Sunken Town of Pavlopetri

Pavlopetri, also called Paulopetri, is a submerged ancient town, located between the islet of Pavlopetri and the Pounta coast of Laconia, on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.