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The Secrets of an Empire Hiding in a Tree

The Secrets of an Empire Hiding in a Tree

The ruins of Hattusa, the Hittite capital city. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)

Written records of history can be lost or faulty, leaving historians without clues to the past. Where the written word fails us though, we can look to the natural world and find ancient stories told by the planet itself. The collapse of the Hittites was one such mystery... until a recent study suggested an answer hidden in the trees.

At their apex, the Hittite empire controlled much of Anatolia, their influence stretching far across the Mediterranean world. Then, around 1200 BCE, their empire imploded, gone the way of the other ruling states of their day in the Bronze Age Collapse. Many theories have been proposed to explain why these states collapsed as dramatically and quickly as they did: political crises, the marauding Sea Peoples, but it’s increasingly accepted that all these disasters owe themselves to one underlying factor: a massive climate disruption that crippled agricultural practices.

A recent study has pinpointed the Hittite collapse to a three centuries-long climate shift to a colder, drier environment. Moreover, it identifies 1198-1196 BCE as a potential tipping point in the collapse. Such crises are notoriously difficult to define exactly, for the simple reason that as such a disaster intensifies, written records become less likely to be kept. What records that do survive are unlikely to be able to give an exact date to something as ephemeral as a centuries-long climate shift. Instead, researchers used rings from Juniper tree fragments in Anatolia to nail down the collapse to a three year window.

A tree cut to expose its rings. Researchers used Juniper trees to pinpoint the Hittite collapse. (Source: NASA)

Researchers made use of 23 samples from 18 Juniperus excelsa and Juniperus foetidissima trees, stretching across a timeframe from 1775 to 1200 BCE. Tree rings form annually, preserving within them a snapshot of the climate from each year. Juniper trees in particular are very susceptible to a decrease in precipitation, thus indicating which years faced the harshest droughts. In a small window of three years at the end of the Bronze Age, conditions were ripe for a widespread agricultural collapse that would have menaced the entire empire.

These were the conditions the other Bronze Age states had to endure, leading to the widespread political crises and military conflict that precipitated the collapse. The climate shift is not simply one disaster among many, but the scaffolding that held up all the other problems. That still leaves us with an obvious question: if the Hittite collapse was a drawn-out whimper and not a deadly bang, why were the Hitties not able to adapt? Part of the problem has to do with their farming practices. The Hittites' cereal agriculture required widespread landscape clearing, which in turn resulted in soil erosion, making them vulnerable to drought.

Recent archeological findings suggest that the destruction of the Hittites’ capital city Hattusa was not the work of outside invaders as had been thought, but that the city was abandoned by its leaders as the climate crisis worsened. From there the empire splintered into a number of different Hittite fiefdoms that never regained the power of the empire. The Hittites had for years adapted to the shifting climate as well as they could, but as with any such crisis, there reaches a tipping point that can’t be surmounted.

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