Over Four thousand two hundred years ago, the first great civilization in Egypt collapsed.
The pharaohs of the Egyptian Old Kingdom built the pyramids at Giza, one of the greatest monuments of the ancient world. But after nearly a thousand years of stable government, central authority disintegrated and the country collapsed into chaos for more than a 100 years. Why this happened is a huge controversy for Egyptologists.
Professor Fekri Hassan, from University College London, decided to solve the mystery using scientific clues. His inspiration was the little known tomb in southern Egypt of a regional governor, Ankhtifi. The hieroglyphs there say that ?all of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger to such a degree that everyone had come to eating their children.?
This is dismissed as exaggeration by most Egyptologists, but Fekri was determined to prove the writings were accurate. He had to discover what happened and why. ?My hunch from the beginning was that it had to do with the environment in which the Egyptians lived,? he says. Fekri felt sure the Nile, the river that has always been at the heart of Egyptian life, was implicated.
He studied the meticulous records, kept since the 7th Century, of Nile floods. He was amazed to see that there was a huge variation in the size of the annual Nile floods, which were vital for irrigating the land. But no records existed for 2,200BC. Then a new discovery was made in the hills of Israel. Mira Bar-Matthews of the Geological Survey of Israel found a record of past climate change inside the stalactites and stalagmites of a cave near Tel Aviv.
What they show is a sudden and dramatic 20% drop in rainfall, the largest climate event in 5,000 years. And the date this occurred was 2,200 BC. Since Israel and Egypt are in different weather systems, Fekri needed evidence of some worldwide climate event to link this to the collapse of the Old Kingdom.
Geologist Gerard Bond, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in the U.S., looks for climate evidence in the icebergs of Iceland. As they melt on their journey south, they leave shards of volcanic ash on the ocean floor. How far they traveled before melting tells him how cold it was. Cores of mud from the ocean floor have revealed mini ice ages in Europe every 1,500 years, each one lasting 200 years. And one of these mini ice ages occurred in 2,200 BC.
Bond?s colleague, Peter deMenocal, looked at climate records for the rest of the world at exactly the same time. From pollen records to sand, the story was the same — a dramatic climate change from Indonesia to the Mediterranean, Greenland to North America. Scientists are confirming everything Fekri believes about severe climate change causing widespread human misery 4,200 years ago, misery we are only now learning about for the first time.
Back in Egypt, Fekri wanted direct evidence of this severe climate change in the Nile. He found it by drilling cores in a large lake that had been fed by a tributary of the Nile in ancient times. He discovered in the critical period, as the Old Kingdom collapsed, the lake had dried up completely — the only time in the whole history of the lake that this had happened. At last, Fekri feels he has proved that the writings on Ankhtifi?s tomb are true. Climate change drove people of a great culture to desperation.
Opinion: Egyptologists dismissed the texts claiming that people had eaten their children as the exaggerations of foolish primitives, and ignored them. Now it turns out that these texts were accurate, and the Euro-centered, modern-biased Egyptological community has once again been tripped up by its own arrogance.
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