How Volcanoes Starved Ancient Egypt

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 17, 2017 4:05 pm
Mount Sinabung, Indonesia. (Credit: Yosh Ginsu/Unsplash)

Mount Sinabung, Indonesia. (Credit: Yosh Ginsu/Unsplash)

Ancient Egypt was the most powerful civilization in the world for a time. The monuments built by laborers to honor pharaohs stand to this day, testament to the vast resources at their command.

But the architectural excess hid a crippling weakness. Egypt sits in the middle of a vast desert. To support a population that numbered in the millions, large-scale agriculture was vital, and for that you need water, and therefore, the Nile. The river was so important to the Egyptians that they still celebrate a two-week long festival during the yearly floods. It was thought to be fed by the tears of Isis. Even small fluctuations in flood levels could bring famine or catastrophe.

Liquid Gold

Ancient Egyptian society saw its fair share of uprisings, revolts and conquests, but a new paper hints that a surprising force may have been meddling in the affairs of the time. The nefarious agent? Volcanoes, say researchers from Yale University in a new paper in Nature Communications. Large eruptions can cause small but critical changes in rainfall around the headwaters of the Nile, something they found lined up with periods of revolt and instability in ancient Egypt.

The researchers relied on a combination of ancient records and modern techniques to divine the weather thousands of years ago. Papyrus scrolls from the Ptolemaic era around 300 BC provided insights into periods of social unrest and drought, and they combined those with an analyses of ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica. The plumes of sulfur that volcanic eruptions spew into the air leave a distinct trace in the ice, forming a record of when major volcanic eruptions occurred.

A Nilometer in Cairo. (Credit: Baldiri/Wikimedia Commons)

A Nilometer in Cairo. (Credit: Baldiri/Wikimedia Commons)

The sulfur also serves to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight, and this likely starved the Nile of rainwater during the monsoon season by shifting weather patterns, leading to parched fields come summer. Readings from Nilometers, ancient observatories on the Nile that tracked yearly water levels, confirmed reduced flooding during these times, depriving the Egyptians of their main food source. The Egyptians relied on an elaborate system of dams and canals to inundate their fields, bringing in silt to serve as fertilizer and water to keep crops alive. If the waters failed to crest high enough, the fields remained dry and food production dwindled.

Volcanic Impact

This translated to real consequences. By tracking records of priestly decrees, revolts and land sales during these times, the researchers found a marked increase during years when the floods failed to deliver. A famous military campaign cut short line dup with unrest at home, as did a 20 year long uprising during the Ptolemaic era. This means famine and bloodshed, and the death and destruction they bring.

Eruptions may have even played a role in the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BC, they say, when a Roman invasion swept through the country.

Saying that volcanoes toppled the Egyptians is obviously untrue — we can blame Gaius Octavius for that. The vagaries of the climate can have very real effects on people’s lives however, especially when those people are part of a populous nation perched near the only fresh water source for hundreds of miles around. An ill-timed eruption could conceivably tip the scales.

The lesson remains meaningful today. Some 70 percent of the world’s population today depends in some way on monsoons. Shifting the pattern of rainfall that people have spent tens or hundreds of years living with and adapting to can cause real harm, whether you’re in Bangladesh or Houston. It needn’t be a massive eruption, either. Climate change is altering weather conditions all across the globe at a rate much quicker than many can adapt to.

When we assess how a changing planet could affect us, let’s take a lesson from the Egyptians.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Climate change is altering weather conditions all across the globe at a rate much quicker than many can adapt to. “Let’s geoengineer a more reflective stratosphere to save the Earth from Global Warming! Total drought will decrease humidity, water being the premiere terrestrial Greenhouse gas. What could go wrong?

    Earth’s gravitational potential has small volumes called resonance keyholes. A body in solar orbit threading a keyhole will return to smack Earth. 78 million tonne Class-B carbonaceous chondrite Bennu is a giant ball of loosely consolidated gravel mixed with garbage. Bennu threads a keyhole in 2135 AD. Imagine crushing civilization versus Klimate Kaos, finally achieving 2100 AD Dark Ages squalor, being doomed in 2135, and being 63,000+ mph impact, 1200 megaton exterminated by 2200 AD. Bummer.

  • OWilson

    “Climate change is altering weather conditions all across the globe at a rate much quicker than many can adapt to”

    Yesterday I adapted to a 40 degree shift in temperature, just in one day :)

    • FishOutofWater00 .

      Oh how clever you are.

      Unfortunately 3.4 million people cannot be evacuated from Puerto Rico in a day or a week or a month. All the edible vegetation will take weeks to many months to regrow. That’s just from the effects of hurricane Maria.

      • OWilson

        It’s really very simple. Preparation.

        And, good government and good management, which means good infrastructure and self sufficiency.

        Dominican Republic vs Haiti
        Antigua vs Barbuda
        South Korea vs North Korea.
        West Germany vs East Gerrmany
        India vs Bagladesh

        See any connections there? :)

        The very first Earthquake Shake out Drill across the U.S. is scheduled for this weekend.

        After all the expense, hype and speculation about the temperature a hundred years from now, what a novel idea! :)

        • JohnnyMorales

          Yet despite all that modern socialist policies have extended the human life to the late 70s and 80s in the most advanced, and socialism rich Developed nations.

          The fact that there are so many seniors in the USA today is due directly to the classic socialist program Social Security which takes from working people to pay seniors far beyond the amount they paid in. That and Medicare are classic hard core socialism albeit available only to those over 65 or 67.

          What’s really funny is how much more successful all these modern socialist policies are vs a vs the REALITY of the ancient world, where the lifespan of a typical ancient person was late 30s or early 40s, and they were the lucky ones.

          Though no doubt you know the first human generations of the bible lived centuries long lives, and Adam who lived to be over 900 years is proof you’re right.

          To get a lifespan so short requires a tremendous number dying much younger from all sorts of ancient fun things like rampant diseases due to germs or malnutrition or both.

          As for planning for war back then, lacking all but the slowest forms of communication meant planning for war successfully was due far more to luck like your enemy being struck by the plague and dying in great #s before your city and its people died of starvation as a result of their blockade.

          All too often their planning was useless, because many invaders failed to follow the rules and regularly betrayed agreements they made. Even today we are a long way from successfully planning for every war.

          As for your list of nations, they just make it clear you have no clue.

          Antigua and Barbuda is a single nation

          North Korea is a Communist dictatorship that laid to rest any claims of being a socialist state. In its place they ascribe to the philosophy of Juche or self-reliance. It’s an austere ask for no help, don’t accept help do it yourself belief system that should appeal to you.

          Regardless to confuse all the defunct communist dictatorships with socialist governments of today is ludicrous.

          It’s odd you mention West and East Germany. It was West Germany’s spend about a trillion dollars in today’s money in order to finance wholesale extreme socialist programs designed in an effort to make a success out of the merger with the very backward East German communists.

          And today many of those socialist policies remain. Germany is probably the most socialist nation in Europe.

          As far as India vs. Bangladesh. If you knew something about each nation’s modern history you’d realize your assumptions are utterly groundless. as both nations adopted the same type of communist inspired economic policies after independence that prevented them from achieving the same sort of rapid development we’ve seen in China.

          Finally Haiti, Haiti is in fact thanks to the near total failure of the ability of the central gubment to regulate anything is the closest of all of them to a pure capitalist economy. The problem is simultaneously it’s also a kleptocracy.

          Socialist however has NEVER described Haiti.

          The only modern governments in the world that are socialist in the way you use it are most of the EU. Almost all the nations combine a liberal economic model with direct government management to ensure the social and economic benefits are spread far and wide.

          And the USA with its Social Security and medicare programs for seniors is far closer to them than you probably realize.

          The reason why so many are so unaware is they believe they earned it, when the truth is few seniors ever paid in enough to match the money the US gubment pays to finance their socialist healthcare and SS check.

          The ones that can honestly claim they did died shortly after retiring.

          The rest exist in a purely socialist construction in which the young working people pay for their benefits while getting nothing in return other than the promise that when it’s time to retire, they’ll get to do the same thing.

          And just how silly is your belief that they prepared for famines are the historic documents from various civilizations detailing how this or that nation was facing famine and ruin.

          Despite all the ancient’s ability to plan, somehow famine was a common thing. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it was dealt with in the developed world, provided a major world war didn’t interrupt everything and cause famine.

          Of course, I realize your knowledge on this is limited to the biblical tale of how the pharaoh was saved by an interpretation of his dream that foretold 7 years famine was coming, and he needed to prepare when things were good giving you all the info you need to decide things were just peachy keen back then.

          • OWilson

            Things were never, “peachy keen” back then.

            Nor are they today.

            Warring tribes across the river were always coming to take your hard earned stuff!

            If you weren’t prepared to sacrifice your life and fight to the death for it you would lose it and become a slave. No different today./

            Even today, your “civilized” neighbors will invade your home and loot your neighborhood, if not for the gunslinging cops that patrol your street.

            In the past, only the strong survived to pass along their genes.

            Today a government can bribe it’s voters with ‘basic human rights”, which are ever expanding to include a decent income, food, shelter, clothing, child care, health care, transportation, education, college, Iphone and lord knows what next from Bernie. :)

            Then, when the money runs out and they are booted from office, they leave their Debt hanging over the generations yet unborn.

            That is the same looting, but this time of the future generations, and not only is it cowardly, it is UNconstitutional (Taxation without Representation, remember?) it is eminently selfish and criminal.

            Your Founding Fathers recognized that the biggest danger to their Constitution was an immoral government who would drain the Nation’s Treasury to bribe folks with their own money to get elected and stay in power.

            Their hopeful solution was to rely on a free and unbiased press to keep politicians honest, and an armed population to prevent these same carpetbaggers taking over by force of laws they made up, as they went along.

            If socialism worked, there would never be another conservative politician or party elected anywhere.

            There would be no need!

            The only Free Socialist lunch that exists for a while is in nations that have either an abundance of natural resources that they can basically sell to the world, till it runs out, or a population with a culture that values hard work.

            The argument that “They have it, so we should too”, is classic socialism.

            Nations that have more folks on the government rolls than are working to support it, rapidly go down the drain, as has the U.S. over the last 50 years.

            The cart will not move if there are more riders than pullers and pushers.

            Pay as you go and earn what you get, or you are guaranteed to run into serious trouble.

            If you are living on the milk from somebody else’s cow, make sure you don’t abuse the cow.

            Government, when it works, is a very fine balance!

            Nobody in history has managed to defy that basic logic! :)


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