Climate: the trap of the decline of the civilization

Photo: Cris Bouroncle Agence France-Presse
The Egyptians of the end of the pharaonic era, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, who subsequently assumed the political power in Egypt, realized that the dependence on the Nile river could be problematic.

Once per month, The Duty starts to enthusiasts of history the challenge to decrypt a topical theme from a comparison with an event or a historical figure.

Climate change, management of natural resources and our relationship to the environment are at the heart of the news. The citizens awake to the environmental issues that wish to do their part, if only by reducing their use of plastic or composting more. These concerns are echoed in the way in which the media and the public interpret the discoveries of the past.

For nearly forty years, historians and archaeologists interested in the relationships between people and their environment. Thanks to new technologies, they publish detailed analyses of ancient peoples confronted to environmental changes or natural disasters. If the work is published in scientific journals are usually accurate and nuanced, its dissemination in the newspapers, that the cap of eye-catching headlines, sometimes leaves an impression of revelation.


The most publicized of the moment is without a doubt one of the Maya, which have gradually abandoned their cities, between the years 800 and 1000. Recent research has highlighted a combination of factors to explain this exodus, including the over-exploitation and the impoverishment of the soil resulting from a large increase in population.

Climat: le piège du déclin des civilisations

Photo: Collège Mérici
Evelyne Ferron

Chemical analyses of stalagmites have shown that the deforestation aimed at expanding areas of cultivable and habitable land area has disrupted the local climate. As shown by the climatologist Benjamin Cook, the intensive cultivation of corn has reduced the level of humidity of the earth to the atmosphere, which has had the consequence of lowering the level of precipitation, leading to more periods of drought in central America.

If the Maya have had to face significant declines in agricultural productivity, causing conflicts, these environmental changes have not led to their disappearance or to their extinction. Instead, they were forced to leave the regions affected by the droughts that they have, in part, caused. By doing so, their political organization based on networks of cities, dominated politically and economically by large cities, has also eroded.


Rather than presenting the environmental changes on the people of the past with a vision alarmist, historians of the environment are trying to understand how our ancestors reacted and how they were able to adapt. The scientific research combined with the reading of texts of ancient authors, or of administrative reports on the papyrus allow you to realize that the man was conscienttrès early of its impact on its environment and was able to adjust. The phenomenon of desertification in ancient Egypt is a very good example.

If the Greek author Herodotus claimed, correctly, that Egypt was a gift of the Nile, this country has, however, been subject to the moods of the desert, just as damaging as the flood that cause a decrease in areas suitable for farming. This constant relationship between the Egyptians of the pharaonic era and their environment has been the subject of a seminal study by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt. In investigating the importance of various symbols of the imagery of egyptian as the lotus, papyrus, and even the Sphinx with its head of a lion, the egyptologist is able to demonstrate that the ancient Egyptians were aware of their interdependence with the moods of nature.

For example, the lotus, grows in muddy waters but blooms splendidly for six days, was the perfect symbol of the renaissance. In the imaging funeral, the deceased and the humaient in the hope of being reborn. With their sky and their columns plant, the temples themselves were representations of the universe in which the Egyptians lived.


If the process of desertification explains much of the concentration of nomads in the valley of the Nile before the pharaonic era, the analysis showed that the desertification has accelerated in the second half of the Third millennium before Jesus Christ. The research has highlighted various factors that may explain the end of the first great historical period of the pharaonic era, or the Old Empire (2686-2160 av J.-C.), and especially to counter what has long been presented as a form of collapse of the egyptian society directly related to climate change.

In light of the sources fragmentary that we have, the political system of egypt from the end of the period associated with the construction of the great pyramids seems to crumble. The people might then lost confidence in its own pharaohs, who were the incarnation of gods, able to communicate with divine forces and to intervene if the moods of nature threatened the egyptian society.

However, this ancient perception of historians comes from a thin corpus of sources papyrologiques, including a text known as the Lamentations of Ipouer, that has left us thinking that the end of the Old Empire, has given rise to a century of political and economic turmoil. This text and other sources indicate that problems of drought and agricultural productivity have been partly responsible for the popular revolts, to such an extent that people have started to consider that the authority of the priests was more important than that of the pharaohs, which they have not hesitated to plunder the tombs.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia, as Thomas Schneider wanted to nuance the impacts of this desertification at the end of the Old Empire. Thanks to the work of the archaeologists on the sites of old villages, we realize that many areas of the delta of the Nile have retained a good level of productivity in agriculture despite the drought period and that the vieculturelle remained very active at the end of the reign of the last pharaoh of the Old kingdom, Pepi II. Analyses of bones of individuals who lived during what has long been seen as a century of crisis before the reconsolidation of the system of the pharaohs, have shown that these people had not suffered from famines.

What conclusions are to be drawn from these new analyses ? The key word here is adaptation. If some sectors have been hard hit by the famine, other areas seem to have maintained a fairly good productivity and very probably have been able to help their fellow countrymen who lived during difficult times. If climate change has undoubtedly led to a form of criticism of the government at that time, they probably did not affect the daily life of the people as strongly as previously thought, a belief system based in part on sources very fragmentary. In this regard, the contribution of geological, climatic and archaeological information is changing our view of a fragment of the past.

Water management

The research conducted beyond the Nile, in areas most directly affected by the issues of desertification that are the Fayum and the oases of the Western desert, have demonstrated that the ancient Egyptians have learned from their experiences of drought and have sought to work with the necessary resources to the agricultural productivity : water.

The Egyptians of the end of the pharaonic era, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, who subsequently assumed the political power in Egypt, realized that the dependence on the Nile river could be problematic. They have, therefore, studied and worked with the ground water. By developing systems of artesian wells and canals, roman engineers were able to have some control on the watering and have made oases such as Kharga, Dakhleh and Siwa major centres of agricultural production, especially olives and its derivatives, as the precious oil. Olive oil, which even the author of the roman Pliny the Elder raved about the superiority in his natural History in the first century of our era !

The other advantage of having been able to develop an agriculture that is independent of the waters of the Nile, and the fluctuation of the flood according to the moods of the climate, has been able to provide a form of food bank in case of a drought, because groundwater reserves, they, did not reduce. Rather, it is the advance of the desert belt on the land, which was becoming a issue if the phenomenon persists a few years in these regions.

The history of the environment may therefore help us to address the relationship between humans and their environment without falling into the trap of the theories of decline and can above all become a tool to help us understand how the man has always adapted to the circumstances.

To propose a text or to make comments and suggestions, write to Dave Christmas,