happened about 3,200 years ago to bring about the collapse of not just
one but a number of flourishing civilizations on the eastern shores of
A study of fossilized pollen particles taken from sediments at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee may have solved an intriguing historical mystery that has been troubling archaeologists for decades.
"In a short period of time, the entire world of the Bronze Age crumbled," says Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, who was one of the lead scientists in the study.
Hittite Empire, Egypt of the pharaohs, the Mycenaean culture in Greece,
the copper-producing kingdom located on the island of Cyprus, the great
trade emporium of Ugarit
on the Syrian coast, and the Canaanite city—states under Egyptian
hegemony—all disappeared and only after a while were replaced by the
territorial kingdoms of the Iron Age, including Israel and Judah."
pestilence, and sudden natural disasters have all been postulated as
possible causes, but now, thanks to sophisticated pollen-sampling
techniques and advances in radiocarbon dating, Finkelstein and his
colleagues believe they know the primary culprit: drought, or rather a
succession of severe droughts over a 150-year period from 1250 BCE to
about 1100 BCE.
These fairly precise dates come from
core samples drilled into the sediments at the bottom of the Sea of
Galilee. The drill cores extended 18 meters into the seabed and cut
across a range of sediments deposited over the past 9,000 years.
Pollen: "Fingerprints" of Plants
"We focused our study on the time interval between 3200 BCE and 500 BCE," says Dafna Langgut,
a University of Tel Aviv palynologist (one who studies ancient
pollens). She, along with Finkelstein and University of Bonn geology
professor Thomas Litt, authored the study, which appeared this week in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.
studying pollen samples taken at 40-year intervals, the scientists were
able to monitor changes in the vegetation. "Pollen grains are the
'fingerprints' of plants," says Langgut. "They are extremely helpful in
the reconstruction of ancient natural vegetation and past climate
The scientists noticed a sharp decline
around 1250 BCE in oaks, pines, and carob trees—the traditional flora of
the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age—and an increase in the types
of plants usually found in semiarid desert regions. There was also a
big drop in the number of olive trees, an indication that horticulture
was on the wane. All are signs, say the researchers, that the region was
in the grip of regular and sustained droughts.
Shortages and Unrest
most crucial years of the collapse were probably between 1185 and 1130
BCE, says Finkelstein, but the entire process extended over a longer
period of time.
"I think that climate change can be seen
as a sort of a 'prime mover' that initiated other processes," says
Finkelstein. "For example, groups of people in the northern regions were
uprooted from their homes because of destruction of the agricultural
output, and [they] started moving in search of food. They could have
pushed other groups to move by land and sea. And this in turn caused
destructions and disruption of the delicate trade system of the eastern
The dates the researchers came up with
via pollen analysis correspond nicely to the few remaining historical
records of the period, which mention shortages of grain, disruption of
trade routes, civil unrest, and pillaging of cities as people began to
fight over diminishing resources. The Late Bronze Age was also a period
when marauding bands known as the Sea Peoples raided coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean.
The tumultuous period ended only when rains returned and uprooted groups began to settle down again.