Azara Blog: An early European civilisation might have collapsed for ecological reasons

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Date published: 2007/11/15

The BBC says:

One of Western Europe's earliest known urban societies may have sown the seeds of its own downfall, a study suggests.

Mystery surrounded the fall of the Bronze Age Argaric people in south-east Spain - Europe's driest area.

Data suggests the early civilisation exhausted precious natural resources, helping bring about its own ruin.

The study provides early evidence for cultural collapse caused - at least in part - by humans meddling with the environment, say researchers.

It could also provide lessons for modern populations living in water-stressed regions.

The findings were based on pollen preserved in a peat deposit located in the mountains of eastern Andalucia, Spain.

The researchers drilled a sediment core from the Canada del Gitano basin high up in Andalucia's Sierra de Baza region.

By studying the abundances of different pollen types - along with other indicators - preserved in sedimentary deposits, researchers can reconstruct what kind of vegetation covered the area in ancient times.

They can compile a pollen sequence, which shows how vegetation changed over thousands of years. This can give them clues to how human settlement and climate affected ecosystems.

The Argaric culture emerged in south-eastern Spain 4,300 years ago. This civilisation, which inhabited small fortified towns, was one of the first in Western Europe to adopt bronze working.

But about 3,600 years ago, the culture mysteriously vanished from the archaeological record.

"Archaeologists are convinced that something happened in the ecological structure of the area just prior to the collapse of the Argaric culture," said Jose Carrion, from the University of Murcia, Spain.

There are no doubt plenty of civilisations that disappeared for "ecological" reasons (including because of disease, climate change, resource depletion, etc.). (The other real option for collapse being military conquest.) Unfortunately archaeologists in particular seem to be fond of constructing grand theories of the universe based on very little evidence. And whatever the truth is, it provides very few "lessons for modern populations living in water-stressed regions". Everybody already knows that you have to be careful with water in such regions, and that over-population is going to cause problems because it will stress the available resources. Tell us something we don't know.

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