While the Egyptians were able to fight off the Sea Peoples, other civilizations weren’t so lucky. The entire Mediterranean and Near East is littered with archeological remains of cities burned to the ground during this time period, like Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittite Empire, and Meggido in Canaan. Some believe that the mythical destruction of Troy may have originated with the Sea Peoples invasion.
The true origins of the Sea Peoples is one of history’s great unsolved mysteries. One leading theory is that they emerged from the western Mediterranean—the Aegean Sea or as far as the Iberian Peninsula of modern Spain—and were driven East by drought and other climate disasters. Their ships invaded Mediterranean strongholds with women and children in tow, evidence that the Sea Peoples were both raiders and refugees.
A relief on the walls of Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu depicts the massive sea battle when Egypt defeated the Sea Peoples.
DEA / ICAS94 / Contributor/Getty Images
“The Sea Peoples are the big boogeymen of the Bronze Age collapse,” says Cline. “I do think they’re part of it, but not the sole reason. I believe they’re as much a symptom of the collapse as they were a cause.”
‘Megadrought’ and ‘Earthquake Storms’
In 2014, researchers from Israel and Germany analyzed core samples taken from the Sea of Galilee and determined, using radiocarbon dating, that the period from 1250 to 1100 B.C. was
the driest of the entire Bronze Age, what some scholars call a “megadrought.” “This was a huge drought event,” says Cline. “It looks like it lasted at least 150 years and up to 300 years in some places.”
Egyptians and Babylonians were spared the worst of the drought because of their proximity to mighty rivers like the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. But other civilizations weren’t so lucky. Where there’s drought, there’s famine. And Cline doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the worst famine years correspond with the invasion of the Sea Peoples, when desperate climate refugees would have been on the hunt for resources.
The megadrought wasn’t the only natural disaster that destabilized Late Bronze Age civilizations. Cline conducted research with the geophysicist Amos Nur which revealed that during the 50-year period from 1225 to 1175 B.C. the Mediterranean region was hit with
a rapid-fire series of major earthquakes known as an “earthquake storm.”
“If you look at all of these events individually: drought, famine, invaders, earthquakes, maybe disease—any one of them is probably not enough to bring down an entire civilization, let alone eight civilizations or more,” says Cline. “But if you get three or four of these catastrophes all happening in quick succession, that’s when you have a ‘perfect storm’ and there’s no time to recover.”
After the Collapse: Knowledge Lost
Ironically, the interconnectedness that had strengthened these Bronze Age kingdoms may have hastened their downfall. Once trade routes for tin and copper were disrupted and cities began to fall, Cline says it had a domino effect that resulted in a widespread “system collapse.”
Among the casualties of the Late Bronze Age collapse was large-scale monument building and an entire system of writing called Linear B, an archaic form of Greek used by Mycenaean scribes to record economic transactions.
“Since only the top 1 percent could read or write, they lost that ability after the collapse,” says Cline. “It took centuries for writing to return to Greece, only after the Phoenicians brought their alphabet.”
Not all civilizations were impacted equally. Some, like the
Mycenaeans and Minoans, suffered a complete collapse. Same with the Hittites, who simply ceased to exist as a civilization. The Assyrians and the Egyptians were largely unaffected, while others showed resilience and either transformed or redefined themselves.
One example is the rise of iron as the
new metal of choice. Once copper and tin were in short supply and demand for bronze dropped off in Greece, there was an opportunity for something to take its place.
“The Cypriots pivoted from being the masters of copper to suddenly being the masters of this new iron technology,” says Cline. “As it turned out, iron was a far better cutting edge for ploughs, and it made swords that were far better at killing your enemies.”