Near Eastern Society, Climate, and Environment

Climate and Society1

Past climate and environmental changes are much discussed topics in archaeology, especially in relation to their potential effects on societies. While topical globally, the issue is very relevant to the Near East, with its semi-arid to arid climate and strong climatic gradients within short distances. Consequently, many past socio-economic changes as observed in the Near Eastern archaeological record have been ascribed to climatic changes, such as the start of agriculture in the Early Holocene, and the 'collapse' of empires such as the Akkadian one around 4.2 ka BP and the Hittite empire around 3.2 ka BP. On the other hand, the notion that communities may have been resilient at times of marked climate change has become more accepted recently.

The current debate on the presence or absence of an effect of climate change on past societies in the Near East suffers from a lack of high-resolved and precisely dated climate and environmental records covering the entire region. Furthermore, chronological uncertainties of archaeological records are an additional obstacle to establish firm links between climatic and societal changes. In addition, there is still a contrast in interpretation between 'scientific' and 'social' researchers, i.e. climate-determinism versus social explanations for socio-economic changes. In order to combine expertise to further the debate, this research group brings together researchers from different disciplines to assess the complex interrelationships between society, climate, and environment in the Near East. We aim to re-assess existing and provide new, high-resolution climate reconstructions, and to re-assess and provide new archaeological records and to compare them with environmental data.

collecting speleothems in a cave in Turkey - DFSpecifically, members of our group are focusing on re-assessing the impact of rapid climate events on Near Eastern societies, such as in the Neolithic (9.2 ka and 8.2 ka BP events; Dr Pascal Flohr, see Flohr et al. 2016 in Quaternary Science Reviews) and in the Bronze Age (4.2 ka BP event and Bronze Age-Iron Age transition; Sarah Jones). At the same time research continues by the Central Zagros Archaeological Project, co-directed by Professor Roger Matthews and Dr Wendy Matthews, at Neolithic sites in different environments in the Iraqi and Iranian Zagros, while high-resolution climate data is being derived from speleothem archives from Turkey, Iraq, Yemen and Oman (Professor Dominik Fleitmann, Dr Pascal Flohr, , and Sarah Jones ).

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Key time periods and events

The Epipalaeolithic

After the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, temperatures started to rise globally, albeit with strong fluctuations. In the Near East, the Levantine Early Natufian has been correlated to a more favourable climate period, while apparent increased mobility in the Late Natufian has been correlated to a cooler and more arid climatic period, but a more precise chronology is needed to securely link these.

The Early Holocene / Neolithic

The beginning of the Holocene is characterized by an increasingly warm and wet climate in most of the Near East, during which Neolithic societies developed, potentially as a result of fairly stable and favourable climatic conditions. It has also been argued that the Neolithic had roots in cold and arid conditions of the preceding Younger Dryas. Within the Department of Archaeology, the Central Zagros Archaeological Project and the WF16 project focus on the Early Neolithic period.

9.2 and 8.2 ka BP events

Early Holocene abrupt climate events: Superimposed on the generally warm and wet Early Holocene climate are relatively abrupt cold and arid events, such as occurring around 9.3/9.2 ka and 8.2 ka BP. Especially the latter event has been correlated to socio-economic changes observed in the archaeological record, such as the spread of the Neolithic to the west (into Western Anatolia and beyond) and east (Weeks 2013; Weninger et al. 2009), and changes within long-lived sites like Sabi Abyad in Syria (Akkermans et al. 2010; van der Plicht et al. 2011). Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if these events had a large climatic and environmental impact in the Near East. Dr Pascal Flohr is currently focusing on re-assessing the archaeological chronology to establish if socio-economic changes occurred at the same time as these relatively short-lived climatic events. See our new paper in Quaternary Science Reviews for the latest results of this research.

Mid Holocene

In the Near East the mid Holocene is characterized by increasing social complexity and the development of the earliest (city) states and 'empires'. During this period, the climate gradually became more arid, although it is likely that it was still slightly wetter than today. More research is needed to resolve and determine the timing and nature of climatic fluctuations during this period on a regional scale, and to identify and date contemporaneous archaeological changes.

End of the Early Bronze Age

Around 4.2 ka BP, potentially a global arid event took place, which has in the Near East been linked to the fall of the Akkadian empire, the abandonment of sites in Northeast Syria, and a decline of urban societies in the Southern Levant (deMenocal 2001; Migowski et al. 2006; Weiss et al. 1993). PhD student Sarah Jones is currently re-assessing evidence for this event in the Near East, while also collecting new speleothem evidence.

Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition

Around 1200 BC / 3200 BP, societies in the Near East appear to have experienced a period of stress and decline. The Hittite empire ended, the territory of the Assyrian kingdom decreased, Egyptian influence in the Levant came to an end, and a considerable number of archaeological sites (e.g. Ugarit, Emar) show destruction levels. While political and social influences should certainly not be discounted, and while it is also clear that several sites continued to exist, it is interesting that there appears to have been an arid period around this time, either as a 'sudden' event, or the start of the generally more arid period we are still in today. PhD student Sarah Jones is currently reviewing climatic evidence for the Near East for this time.HA-1

The last two thousand years

The last two thousand years are a relatively unexplored territory for the effects of climate on society in the Near East. Yet, with the increased availability of literary resources, this period is extremely interesting for the study of effects of climate. While generally as arid as today, there are several warmer/wetter and colder/more arid episodes, such as the Roman Warm Period, the 535AD drought, the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age. Professor Dominik Fleitmann is part of the PAGES 2K Initiative and research by him and other members of the group aims to get high resolution climatic archives to document climatic changes during this period more precisely. Dr Pascal Flohr and colleagues have recently analysed a speleothem from Gejkar Cave in the KRD region of Iraq which dates to the last 2500 years (publication in preparation).


Akkermans, P. M. M. G., et al. (2010), 'Weathering climate change in the Near East: dating and Neolithic adaptations 8200 years ago', Antiquity Project Gallery, 325.
deMenocal, Peter B. (2001), 'Cultural Responses to Climate Change During the Late Holocene', Science, 292, 667-73.
Flohr, P., D. Fleitmann, R. Matthews, W. Matthews, S. Black. 2016. Evidence of resilience to past climate change in Southwest Asia: Early farming communities and the 9.2 and 8.2 ka BP events. Quaternary Science Reviews 136, 23-39, 10.1016/ j.quascirev.2015.06.022. Supplementary information includes the Reading Middle East Radiocarbon Database.
Migowski, Claudia, et al. (2006), 'Holocene climate variability and cultural evolution in the Near East from the Dead Sea sedimentary record', Quaternary Research, 66, 421-31.
van der Plicht, J., et al. (2011), 'Tell Sabi Abyad, Syria: Radiocarbon chronology, cultural change, and the 8.2 ka event', Radiocarbon, 53 (2), 229-43.
Weeks, Lloyd (2013), 'The Neolithisation of Fars, Iran', in Roger Matthews and Hassan Fazeli Nashli (eds.), The Neolithisation of Iran (Oxford: Oxbow Books), 97-107.
Weiss, H., et al. (1993), 'The Genesis and Collapse of Third Millennium North Mesopotamian Civilization', Science, 261, 995-1004.
Weninger, B., et al. (2009), 'The Impact of Rapid Climate Change on prehistoric societies during the Holocene in the Eastern Mediterranean', Documenta Praehistorica, Vol Xxxvi, 36, 7-59.

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News and upcoming events

April 2016

Several members of our group are presenting our research at theEGU 2016and 10th ICAANEconferences in Vienna.


Seminar series

Our next seminars will be organised as part of the Landscape, Climate, and Lived Environment cluster, and will take place in the autumn term of 2016.


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