The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age

Edited by:
  • Cynthia W. Shelmerdine
Cambridge University Press: 2008. 524 pp. $29.99, £18.99 9780521891271 | ISBN: 978-0-5218-9127-1

Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire

Edited by:
  • Patricia A. McAnany &
  • Norman Yoffee
Cambridge University Press: 2009. 392 pp. $29.99, £17.99 9780521733663 | ISBN: 978-0-5217-3366-3

Why have some societies thrived for millennia, whereas others have collapsed? That question is the subject of these two contrasting books. One details the rise and fall of Bronze Age civilization in Greece and Crete; the other argues that societies seldom collapse.

Chaco Canyon's huge buildings hint at the sophisticated society that existed there in the first century. Credit: D. H. COLLIER/GETTY

The region around the Aegean Sea spawned Europe's first complex societies, with the first writing, state governments, kings and palaces. Later, the region endured the biggest collapse of the past 10,000 years of European and Mediterranean history. In The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, archaeologist Cynthia Shelmerdine and her co-authors synthesize a huge specialized literature on the lands and islands of the Aegean between 3000 BC and 1070 BC. The book offers one of the best regional accounts of the origins of complex societies worldwide.

Within the Aegean, those hallmarks of civilization arose first on Crete because of its numerous geographic advantages. Its excellent harbours and position at the mouth of the Aegean Sea enabled islanders to trade widely with the nearby Greek and Anatolian mainlands and smaller Aegean islands, and with distant Cyprus, Egypt, the Black Sea, the Levant and Italy. Similar to Britain and Japan, Crete was close enough to mainlands to profit from them, but far enough away to be safe from invasion for many centuries.

Crete's soils, good for agriculture but poor in metals, nourished a large population that was motivated to trade. The mountainous landscape was dissected enough to spur state formation through competing polities, but not so dissected as to prevent unification. Crete was big enough to dominate the Aegean for a long time, but too small to avoid eventually being conquered by Greek mainlanders, the Myceneans, around 1450 BC.

Late Bronze Age civilization collapsed spectacularly throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the early twelfth century BC, for reasons that are still debated. All Mycenean palaces were burned, depopulation eliminated 90% of sites, Greece became illiterate for 400 years, state governments reverted to villages and great art forms vanished. One theory of the cause posits a domino-like collapse of the Mediterranean's interconnected states. If so, the manner of the Bronze Age's end could shed light on risks to today's world, such as the milder, domino-like collapse of the globally interconnected financial systems in 2008–09.

Some researchers query the interpretation of past societal demises, preferring a positive message about human nature. Questioning Collapse, a volume of essays edited by anthropologists Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, focuses on three questions: “Why do we portray ancient societies — especially those with indigenous descendants — as successes and failures? How do we characterize people who live today in the aftermath of empires? How are urgent climatic and environmental issues today similar to those faced by our ancestors?”

The book's thesis is that “human resilience is the rule rather than the exception” and that “'collapse' — in the sense of the end of a social order and its people — is a rare occurrence”. Past societies did the “best they could” to respond to crises that hit them, and were not driven to failure by man-made problems such as overpopulation or environmentally destructive behaviour, as is often argued by other authors, including myself. On the book's other theme of empire expansion, the authors seem uncomfortable with the glaring fact that it is Europeans, not Native Australians or Americans or Africans, who have expanded over the globe in the past 500 years. They dismiss as an “accident of geography” those explanations of this outcome that rest on environmental factors — such as continental differences in biogeographic endowments, shapes and locations — but they do not offer a substitute thesis. The essays often depict non-Western societies as virtuous and Western societies as evil-doers.

The editors state that each contributing author is “deeply concerned about the inaccuracies of popular portrayals [of history] and feels that students and laypersons alike deserve to read a better story”. This goal is laudable. However, in forcing all of history into their framework, they resort to errors and implausible extremes. For instance, one chapter claims that the Greenland Norse people emigrated rather than dying out, despite no evidence for that claim and despite graphic archaeological evidence of starvation — bones and debris in the topmost archaeological layer from the final winter of the Greenland Western Settlement's existence. Another chapter contends that the ancient people of the American southwest, the Anasazi, did not deforest Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, that “there was never a forest in the canyon” and that analysis of plant remains in ancient pack-rat middens there “reveal a climate and ecology almost exactly like that which exists today”. Yet the opposite is true: radiocarbon dating of middens revealed a former pinyon-juniper woodland that is now absent from the canyon.

The book promotes an absurd rewriting of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire: “Spain was a mess, whereas Inca Peru was a model of good government ... in effect, the conquistadors were adopted by their native Andean allies.” It argues that overpopulation did not contribute to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, relating it instead to local views of sacred kings. But a surviving Rwandan schoolteacher whose wife and four children were killed in the genocide gave a blunter explanation when he was interviewed: “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.” Another essay describes a New Guinean man named Yali, giving a lengthy reinterpretation of his views about the European colonization of New Guinea in the light of the experiences of another man with the same name — not realizing that the two Yalis were different people, 40 years apart in age and with dissimilar life stories and opinions.

Although the authors of Questioning Collapse may wish it were otherwise, students and laypersons alike know that Europeans did conquer the world. They will not be satisfied by being told that Andean peoples merely adopted Spanish conquistadors. The depopulations of the southern Maya lowlands and Chaco Canyon also cry out for explanation, even if one relabels them as something other than a collapse. Most readers of Shelmerdine's book will conclude that the end of the Aegean Bronze Age rates as a collapse.

It makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries. As Questioning Collapse shows, that naively optimistic redefinition inevitably forces one to distort history and to avoid trying to explain what really happened. Even when many people do survive and eventually reestablish a populous complex society, the initial decline is sufficiently important to warrant being honestly called a collapse and studied further. We today, who face similar problems and could face similar fates, will not be consoled by the thought that our grandchildren might exhibit resilience.

Modern peoples often fail spectacularly to respond to circumstances as well as they could, and the past offers abundant examples. Although Questioning Collapse aims “to shed light on the way forward”, readers seeking illumination should instead turn to Shelmerdine's volume and the many other books that are available on the fates of past societies.