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TAU Study Links Empire Collapse, Climate Change

Tel Aviv researchers say Sea of Galilee find shows ancient empires died out because of cold to the north.
By Maayana Miskin
First Publish: 10/23/2013, 2:44 AM

Fossil grains yield new theory (illustrative)
Fossil grains yield new theory (illustrative)
Israel news photo: Flash 90

A study of fossil pollen particles in sediments extracted from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee has revealed evidence of a climate crisis that traumatized the Near East from the middle of the 13th to the late 12th century BCE, scientists say. The crisis brought about the collapse of the great empires of the Bronze Age.

The findings, by Dr. Dafna Langgut and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Thomas Litt of the Institute of Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn, Germany, are based on new discoveries from underneath the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret Lake).

The researchers drilled through 300 meters of water in the heart of the Sea of Galilee and retrieved a core of sediments 20 meters long from the bottom of the lake. The goal was to extract from the sediments fossil pollen grains.

"Pollen is the most enduring organic material in nature," explains palynologist Dr. Dafna Langgut, who carried out the actual work of sampling. "Pollen was driven to the Sea of Galilee by wind and river-streams, was deposited in the lake and was embedded in the under-water sediments. New sediments that are added annually create anaerobic conditions which help preserve the pollen particles. These particles tell us about the vegetation that grew in the vicinity of the lake in the past and therefore testify to the climatic conditions in the region."

The counting and the identification of the pollen grains revealed a period of severe droughts between ca. 1250 and 1100 BCE. A core of sediments from the western shore of the Dead Sea – also studied by the research group – provided similar results.

Professor Finkelstein noted that other researchers have also looked at pollen, but explained that this study has an “unprecedented” resolution of 40 years, compared to a norm of several hundred years.

The study is also the first to link pollen results to other historic records, particularly the destruction of Eastern Mediterranean cities, and reports of famine, in the same period. Langgut, Finkelstein and Litt propose that cold spells in the northern parts of the ancient Near East, coupled with low precipitation, led to reduced crop yield. The famine “spread” as large groups moved south in search of food, attacking cities and disrupting trade routes.

A wet period beginning in around 1100 BCE helped the uprooted groups settle down, particularly in the regions of ancient Canaan and Syria.

The full study will be published in the upcoming days. A press release noted that the study was made possible “thanks to a lavish research grant from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) – the largest ever single grant in the field of humanities in Israel.”