Bronze Age Collapse

Where did the cities go? What happen to written language? Is there any other time in history where such a dramatic change in civilization took place? Writing disappeared for centuries (approx 1200 BCE - 800 BCE) so we are unable to know for sure why pervasive devastation around the Mediterranean Sea took place.

There are as many theories as to why the civilization crumbled during this tame as there are craters on the moon. The final analysis, however, gives us pause and allows us to avoid similar consequences - if we act appropriately. These theories include: earthquakes, volcanoes, draught, pirates, “the Sea People”, fragile infrastructure, dependence of relatively rare tin for turning copper into bronze, the development of iron… who knows for sure. Valuable time should should be spent on the fragile infrastructure.

I am confident that Nassim Taleb would have much to say about this and his insights would be very enlightening. He wrote the “Black Swan” and “Anti-fragile”. The man has genius running through his veins. His grasp of how the more efficient we build our systems the greater the risk becomes and by extrapolation the more fragile society becomes. This all came so apparent with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. All the risk analysis data prior to this nightmare missed the terrible consequence of what happened on March 11, 2011. Read his books and his papers; they are brilliant discussions of risk analysis and unexpected consequences.

The Bronze Age was amazingly successful in that cities (Polis) began to shine with palaces and wealth. Bronze needed copper, and tin to make this strong alloy. Agriculture now had sturdy plows, complex irrigation systems, aqueducts, military prowess, strong government hierarchies, control of the sea, great trading ships, and maybe most importantly, writing. All of this depended on smooth trade, slaves, and wealth. As long as crop yields allowed excess harvests, trade for copper, and the much needed but rare tin could continue. Problems slowly crept into this delicate intersection of systems. Crops were repeatedly planted and replanted in the same soil (crop rotation was not at play yet) so yields imperceptibly dropped each successive year so trade also dropped. There is evidence that a series of earthquakes took place during that period and this would place strain of the treasuries and governments to maintain order and avoid chaos. Draught may have occurred (possibly amplified by volcanoes) as well further driving yields down. People began to migrate away to find more fruitful lands. Slaves were needed to maintain the irrigation ditches. Slaves during the early and middle Bronze Age were probably treated relatively well but as treasuries and silos were drained the slaves were probably the first to suffered as well. Revolts were inevitable further challenging stretched governments. Pirates were no longer vigorously controlled so the ever important sea trade routes began to crumble. All these interdependent successful systems were cracking under the pressures of external forces. All of this trade required accounting skills, writing. Scribes were the only people skilled in writing and they predominantly existed in the royal palaces. As the governments failed the pool of scribes and the needed education to teach them to write also suffered. No scribes, no accounting; no accounting, no trade; no trade, no wealth; no wealth, well…., you get the picture.

The consequence of efficient trade routes, efficient governments, efficient agriculture, efficient military strength, all dependent on each other resulted in a house of cards just waiting for the first pillar to fall. Nassim Taleb would be shaking his head.

Today’s world compounds all the above with fragile international banking systems fueled by loose monetary policies and international deregulation. Money as a result has no definitive collateral. Just-In-Time efforts to bring inventories to a fragile minimum without regard to risk or flexibility further drives the exponential consequences. I hope we learn from these fragile institutionalized or structured interdependent systems. These all need complicated and deep layered study to avoid the consequences of disruptions (singular as well as multiple).

Geoff McNamara

"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” J.R.R Tolkien

Elizabeth City, NC