Before continuing our study, I would like to bring to your attention Dr. Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D. of Franklin & Marshall University, where she teaches ancient history, archaeology, and Greek. With the Teaching Company, she has produced “Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia.” I am currently watching this with son David, and highly recommend it to anyone who likes to learn in a classroom environment with a lively speaker who exudes gravitas. She brings a unique viewpoint to the work. The first six (of 36) lectures lead up to my novels’ setting. I have entered her 6-disk Teaching Company work in the Bibliography.
Now, back to our study of the Middle East in 5,203 BP.
Once temperatures averaged above freezing and brought ample melt water and rain, the forests, savannahs, and steppes grew while the deserts, dunes, and (high altitude) glaciers shrunk in the Middle East. By the time of our story, 5,203 BP, the Sahara is again beginning to dry out on what scientist tell us is a cyclic phenomenon, similar to the ice ages and global warming. As Sahara drying advanced, so did drying across Egypt, the Sinai, southern Mesopotamia and Iran, Pakistan and India. Our characters are aware of the desertification, but only as a multi-generational observation, distorted by rationalization, misperception, myth, and memory without the aid of literacy. But the Cornucopia map is only beginning its gradual desiccation.
At this point, let us summarize the achievements and paleoclimatic events that occurred during the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and dawn of the Bronze Age—the end of the Neolithic Subpluvial— when drying returns to reduce the Middle Eastern Cornucopia ever-so-gradually back into the desert it is today, 5,000 years later. As I see it, man emerged from the last ice age as a tribal hunter-gatherer eking out a hand-to-mouth subsistence, with high infant mortality constraining population growth to near zero. With the improvement in weather, man took advantage of the sudden Cornucopia and began systematic agriculture and animal husbandry, inventing technology that fostered greater productivity, and built increasingly robust permanent dwellings. Experiencing prosperity, man’s numbers increased rapidly. He formed ever-larger cities surrounded by stout walls (30-50,000 in Uruk in the late 4th millennia BC). Pursuing comfort, his occupations became more specialized, leading to much better quality in all realms of endeavor. But, with large population, concentration, specialization, and scale came unforeseen vulnerabilities, which will first emerge later in this post.
Assuming you would like a broad overview of the Holocene, and some facts from further afield, I refer you to the following: Timeline of Holocene Environmental History and recommend you study it. Don’t overlook that they use BC exclusively (BP = BC + 2,014 years).
The end of the wet period overshadows the time of our novels (5,203 BP) and coincides with a 40% drop in population, as measured in the graph below which is based upon data across Europe, and is likely directionally indicative of what happened 1,400 miles east in the Levant. The authors don’t claim to correlate the 40% decrease in population with a single weather event.
Regional population collapse followed initial agriculture booms in mid-Holocene Europe
Source: Shennan, Stephen et al. Op. cit. in Bibliography
Having walked the ruins of cities in the deserts of the Negev (e.g. Shivta) and pondered the recurring impact of plague—the big one hitting the Levant at Shivta’s collapse was the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) which wiped out 25% of the population of the eastern Mediterranean—plague in the 6th millennia BP Middle East would seem as good an hypothesis as climate change.
However, the above noted drop in population coincides with a desiccation event well documented in the Roberts et al article mentioned in the last post and cited in our Bibliography. You can see below a major drying event in the period 5,300 to 5,000 BP, in the Middle East, which is based upon seven lake sediment studies of proxies measuring dryness.
Source: Roberts, Neil et al. Op. cit. in Bibliography
In summary, we have data implying a huge drop in population in the midst of a substantial drying event with inescapable crop failures. The population had been growing exponentially due to a superabundant food supply, available through agriculture, hunting, and gathering. The food supply dropped precipitously, and the population naturally downsized to a supportable level.
Thus, we have the setting for our story. The good weather has continued for longer than recent generational memory, but something is happening. Once habitable places where grandpa had grown wheat are now arid, no longer worth planting—just barely sustaining goats. Sand dunes are forming in places where legend has it that kings once hunted lions and antelope. Caravans tell us of crumbling dwellings in the desert.