I’ve previously made an argument about the development of large-scale agriculture in the late Bronze Age. It may have helped cause a psychological transformation that preceded the societal collapse. The late Bronze Age empires became too large to be sustainable, specifically according to the social order that had developed (i.e., Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind).
Prior to this, the Bronze Age had been dominated by smaller city-states that were spread further apart. They had some agriculture but still with heavy reliance on hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. It would have been a low-carb, high-fat diet. But growing populations, as time went on, became ever more dependent upon agriculture. This meant a shift toward an increasingly high-carb diet that was much less nutrient-dense, along with a greater prevalence of addictive substances.
Agriculture may have had other impacts as well. The appearance of a more fully agricultural diet meant the need for vaster areas to farm. The only way to accomplish that was deforestation. Along with the destabilizing of psychological changes, there also would have been the destabilizing forces of erosion. Then a perfect storm of environmental stressors hit in a short period of time: volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, flooding, etc. With waves of refugees and marauders, the already weakened empires fell like dominoes.
Erosion probably had been making the farmland less fertile for centuries. This wasn’t too much of a problem until overpopulation reached a breaking point. Small yields for multiple years in a row no doubt left grain reserves depleted. Much starvation would have followed. And the already sickly agricultural populations would have fell prey to plagues.
This boom and bust cycle of agricultural civilizations would repeat throughout history. And it often would coincide with major changes in psychology and social order. Our own civilization appears to be coming near the end of a boom period. Erosion is now happening faster and at a larger scale than seen with any prior civilization. But like the archaic bicameral societies, we are trapped by our collective mentality and can’t imagine how to change.
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Trees, the ancient Macedonians, and the world’s first environmental disaster
by Anthony Dosseto and Alex Francke
Recently, we have studied sediments from Lake Dojran, straddling the border between Northern Macedonia and Greece. We looked at the past 12,000 years of sediment archive and found about 3,500 years ago, a massive erosion event happened.
Pollen trapped in the lake’s sediment suggests this is linked to deforestation and the introduction of agriculture in the region. Macedonian timber was highly praised for ship building at the time, which could explain the extent of deforestation.
A massive erosion event would have catastrophic consequences for agriculture and pasture. Interestingly, this event is followed by the onset of the so-called Greek “Dark Ages” (3,100 to 2,850 years ago) and the demise of the highly sophisticated Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation.