With an interdisciplinary approach using paleoclimatology and historical analysis, researchers at Yale, in conjunction with other institutions, have reshaped understanding of the ways climate change impacted early societies.
The team of researchers examined the hydroclimatic and societal impacts in Egypt of a sequence of tropical and high-latitude volcanic eruptions spanning the past 2,500 years, as known from modern ice-core records. The team focused on the Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt (305-30 B.C.E.) — a state formed in the aftermath of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and famed for rulers such as Cleopatra — as well as material and cultural achievements including the great Library and Lighthouse of Alexandria.
The location and time period were chosen for the significance of the Nile and detailed documentation of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
“Egypt and the Nile are very sensitive instruments for climate change, and Egypt provides a unique historical laboratory in which to study social vulnerability and response to abrupt volcanic shocks,” says [Joseph] Manning [lead author of the paper]. “Nile flood suppression from historical eruptions has been little studied, despite well documented Nile failures with severe social impacts coinciding with eruptions in 939, in 1783-1784 in Iceland, and 1912 in Alaska,” he adds.
Staring down climate change dangers today, the researches say this new information and understanding is not only significant but timely:
According to Manning, this research not only alters the perception of climatic changes on various scales, from short-term shocks to slower-moving, long-term changes, but it is also revolutionizing the understanding of human societies and how the forces of nature shaped them in the past. “The study is of particular importance for the current debate about climate change,” says Manning.