Anticipating societal collapse; Hints from the Stone Age


Scheffera M. Anticipating societal collapse; Hints from the Stone Age . PNAS [Internet]. 2016;113 (39) :10733–10735.


Few aspects of human history are as mindboggling as the sudden disintegration of advanced societies. It is tempting to seek common patterns or even draw some lessons for modern times from the many ancient cases of societal disintegration. In PNAS, Downey et al. (1) report that universal warning signals of reduced resilience systematically preceded the collapse of Stone Age societies. Might similar indicators of fragility be relevant in modern times? Of course, the nature of human societies has changed entirely. However, there are at times striking parallels between stories of collapse even if they happened in entirely different periods. Consider the abrupt abandonment of the iconic alcove sites in Mesa Verde by the ancestral Puebloan people: the greatest “vanishing act” in prehistoric America (2). Archaeological evidence now reveals that before Pueblo peoples massively migrated in the mid-to-late 1200s, there had actually been a slow build-up of tension (3, 4). Over a century of drought, violence, and political turmoil drove increasing numbers of people into the Mesa Verde region, which was relatively productive for farming, straining carrying capacity as well as cultural traditions and resulting in destabilizing conflicts. Portions of the northern Southwest began to empty out in the first decades of the 13th century and by the mid-1200s even the favored central Mesa Verde region was starting to lose population, well in advance of the “Great Drought” beginning in the late 1270s that seems to have given the final blow. Now, Syria is the scene of a sudden massive exodus, and some aspects of the complex situation do seem to echo the Pueblo story. The Fertile Crescent has likely been experiencing the worst drought in 900 y, making subsistence farming in the countryside extremely challenging and driving millions in Syria to the cities, where tensions increased …

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