Climate change in antiquity: mass emigration due to water scarcity
The absence of monsoon rains at the source of the Nile was the cause of migrations and the demise of entire settlements in the late Roman province of Egypt. This demographic development has been compared with environmental data for the first time by professor of ancient history, Sabine Huebner of the University of Basel – leading to a discovery of climate change and its consequences.
A powerful tropical volcanic eruption around 266 CE, which in the following year brought a below-average flood of the Nile, presumably also played a role. Major eruptions are known from sulfuric acid deposits in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, and can be dated to within three years. Particles hurled up into the stratosphere lead to a cooling of the climate, disrupting the local monsoon system.
New insights into climate, environment, and society
In the third century CE, the entire Roman Empire was hit by crises that are relatively well documented in the province of Egypt by more than 26,000 preserved papyri (documents written on sheets of papyrus). In the Faiyum region, these include records of inhabitants who switched to growing vines instead of grain or to sheep farming due to the scarcity of water. Others accused their neighbors of water theft or turned to the Roman authorities for tax relief. These and other adaptive strategies of the population delayed the death of their villages for several decades.
“Like today, the consequences of climate change were not the same everywhere,” says Huebner. Although regions at the edge of the desert faced the harshness of the drought, others actually benefited from the influx of people moving from the abandoned villages. “New knowledge about the interaction of climate, environmental changes and social developments is very topical.” The climate change of late antiquity was not, however – unlike today – caused mainly by humans, but was based on natural fluctuations.
Sabine R. Huebner
Climate Change in the Breadbasket of the Roman Empire – Explaining the Decline of the Fayum Villages in the Third Century CE
Studies in Late Antiquity (2020), doi: 10.1525/sla.2020.4.4.486
Reconstructing the flooding of the Nile with wooden tablets
A new project run by Professor Sabine R. Huebner's team and funded by the SNSF takes a look at climate change and pandemics during the crisis of the Roman Empire. National and international specialists in climate science, archaeology and historical research are gathering new, high-resolution climate data from Egypt. The goal is to obtain a year-on-year reconstruction of the flooding of the Nile during the Roman period. The researchers want to concentrate primarily on tree-ring data from wooden Roman mummy labels, in addition to papyrological and archaeological sources.