Climate change caused empire's fall, tree rings reveal

May 15, 2014 by Linda B. Glaser
Climate change caused empire's fall, tree rings reveal
A view of Ipi-ha-ishutef’s coffin when originally sampled in 1938.

( —A handful of tree ring samples stored in an old cigar box have shed unexpected light on the ancient world, thanks to research by archaeologist Sturt Manning and collaborators at Cornell, Arizona, Chicago, Oxford and Vienna, forthcoming in the June issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The samples were taken from an Egyptian coffin; Manning also examined wood from funeral boats buried near the pyramid of Sesostris III. He used a technique called "dendro radiocarbon wiggle matching," which calibrates radiocarbon isotopes found in the sample tree rings with patterns known from other places in the world that have already identified chronologies, such as the long European oak chronology or the bristle cone pine trees of North America.

Because the dating was so precise – plus or minus about 10 years – it helps confirm that the "higher" Egyptian chronology for the time period is correct, a question scholars have hotly debated.

But the samples also showed a small, unusual anomaly following the year 2200 B.C. Paleoclimate research has suggested a major short-term arid event about this time.

"This radiocarbon anomaly would be explained by a change in growing season, i.e., climate, dating to exactly this arid period of time," says Manning. "We're showing that and these archaeological objects can confirm and in some ways better date a key climate episode."

Climate change caused empire's fall, tree rings reveal
The coffin of Ipi-ha-ishutef showing details of the decorations on the walls. This is the coffin tree ring samples were taken from. Credit: S. Cristanetti, A. Whyte/University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute

That climate episode, says Manning, had major political implications. There was just enough change in the climate to upset food resources and other infrastructure, which is likely what led to the collapse of the Akkadian Empire and affected the Old Kingdom of Egypt and a number of other civilizations, he says.

"The tree rings show the kind of that we and policymakers fear," says Manning. "This record shows that change doesn't have to be as catastrophic as an Ice Age to wreak havoc. We're in exactly the same situation as the Akkadians: If something suddenly undid the standard food production model in large areas of the U.S. it would be a disaster."

Explore further: UK scientists to unearth Ice Age secrets from preserved tree rings

Related Stories

Tree rings reveal nightmare droughts in the West

May 1, 2014

If you think the 1930s drought that caused The Dust Bowl was rough, new research looking at tree rings in the Rocky Mountains has news for you: Things can get much worse in the West.

Recommended for you

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.6 / 5 (7) May 15, 2014
The tree rings show the kind of rapid climate change that we and policymakers fear. This record shows that climate change doesn't have to be as catastrophic as an Ice Age to wreak havoc. We're in exactly the same situation as the Akkadians: If something suddenly undid the standard food production model in large areas of the U.S. it would be a disaster.

Perhaps Sturt Manning is unaware of science outside his own area of expertise: dendrochronology. A perusal of the latest IPCC report shows there is currently no measured evidence of "rapid climate change"; just more of the same slow climate change that's been happening for some time.

Droughts are caused by persistent high pressure systems, not global warming. They can disrupt agriculture, but the U.S. imports food from all over the world and regional droughts aren't nearly as disruptive today as they were for the Akkadians.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.