Summary. Climate and culture revolve in a spiraling archaeology of regeneration and degeneration. Climate is agentic and entangled with culture in a dynamic relationship. I shift attention away from debates on the causes of culture collapse to inquire into conditions of cultural continuity after a climate change event. Why do some cultures regenerate and continue? A pattern of degeneration and regeneration emerged from my study of six climate change events from 6200 BCE to present. I hypothesize that a climate change event plunges a culture into a Dark Age – a period of degeneration marked by a) famine, b) disease, c) mass migrations, d) violent invasions, and e) intolerance. Just as spring follows winter in the cycle of seasons, so too a Dark Age ends when a new way of thinking emerges to catalyze a paradigm shift and the regeneration of cultures. Adaptive cultures that regenerate after a climate event indicate a) the enduring value of their cultural cosmology, b) renewed relationality with Land, c) respect for regenerative forces, and d) plurality.
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My purpose is to shift attention away from debates on the causes of culture collapse to focus on conditions of cultural continuity after a climate change event. I introduce the spiraling hypotheses of degeneration and regeneration. I claim that a climate change event plunges cultures into a Dark Age – a period of degeneration marked by famine, disease, mass migrations, violent invasions, and intolerance, and sometimes culture collapse. Just as spring follows winter in the cycle of seasons, so too a Dark Age ends when the Land begins to flourish again, and a paradigm shift catalyzes the regeneration of culture. Regeneration refers to forces, like mothers, plants and radical ideas, that animate and that make more life.
Adaptive cultures that regenerate after a climate event indicate
- the enduring value of their cultural cosmology,
- renewed affective relationality with Land,
- respect for regenerative forces, and
Spiraling Archaeology of Culture and Climate
In re-storying climate and culture, I pay attention to the voices that have been erased from histories and bring forward stories from the margins that are seldom heard. Indigenous cultures have longest histories of all cultures, and thus have much to teach us about cultural continuity if only settlers are able to listen. Most Indigenous cosmologies view time as cyclical or spiraling. The spiral symbolizes flux for it continuously expands and moves forwards and backwards.
Historical climatology uses a wide horizon in the study of climate and its effect on human history. I use the scientific chronology of historical climate events established by Henry Bond, based on oceanography and geological tracers of drift ice in the North Atlantic that are correlated to aridification events. I map Bond’s historical climate events on a spiral, with the onset of each climate event aligned on the vertical axis. Each revolution of the spiral represents a climate change cycle. This re-mapping allowed the pattern of degeneration and regeneration to become visible.
8.2 Kiloyear Event Climate Event
The Bond 5 climate event began circa 6200 BCE began abruptly.
This arid climate event reduced the availability of local food, and water. In Anatolia, Çatalhöyük was abandoned circa 5700 BCE after existing since 7500 BCE. The desertification of the Sahara compelled mass migrations to North Africa’s river valleys.
Cultures were polytheistic. The pantheon of most cultures featured an ancestral mother, for example, Tanit/Neith in North Africa is portrayed as a parthenogenetic creatrix – the eldest and mother of all the gods. The Neolithic transition to farming began to accelerate after coastlines stabilized to new levels. In Asia, theHarappan culture emerged in the Indus Valley as village farming communities. In West Asia, the Ubaid period (6500–3800 BCE) spans the entire Bond 5 cycle. The Sumerian city of Uruk flourished and grew to 50,000–80,000 inhabitants. The matricultural Danube culture of Old Europe was produced painted pottery decorated and female sculptures and invented the Vinča script, the oldest writing system found in Europe to date. In China, the Jiahu culture invented the earliest known Chinese script. In the Nubian desert, Nabta Playa’s megalithic calendar indicated advanced astronomical knowledge in a period when Nabta Playa was a flourishing agricultural community with domesticated cattle.
5.9 Kiloyear Climate Event
The Bond 4 climate event began circa 3900 BCE and involved intense aridification worldwide.
Severe droughts compelled mass migrations to river valleys. In North Africa, Nabta Playa was abandoned. In West Asia, the Ubaid period ended circa 3800. Food shortages may have driven the kurgan culture from the Pontic region to invade the Danube culture. From 2700 to 2500 BCE, a second wave of violent invasions from the kurgan culture disrupted the Danube culture in the area known today as Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Production of painted pottery and female sculptures stopped, shrines disappeared, and the Vinča script fell out of use. The invasions of kurgan culture into Old Europe imposed a new cosmology, as well as changes in language and social organization. The Kurgan culture introduced a warrior male sky god. The status of women declined as patriarchal social organization was imposed. Fortified villages and kurgan burials emerged where they had not existed before.
There was a cosmological shift to coupled deities, in which The Great Mother is paired with a male deity who is her lover, husband, and son according to the season. Systems for documenting knowledge emerged, i.e. Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, Sumerians cuneiform writing, and Myceneans invented Linear Script A. Knowledge of water engineering contributed to agriculture. In the Indus Valley, the Harappan culture practiced irrigation and built the great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Knowledge related to monumental architecture spread across continents. The mound builder culture in northern Louisiana constructed Watson Brake circa 3500 BCE. Archaic Egyptian culture emerged in the Nile delta region circa 3100 BCE and built the Djoser step pyramid circa 2600 BCE. The Kushite culture in the Nubian desert, known for its warrior queens, began building pyramids circa 2600 BCE. Knowledge of astronomy was embedded in the architecture of Malta’s megalithic temples built between 3600 and 2500 BCE. Megalithic structures at Maeshowe, Newgrange and Stonehenge combined megalithic construction with astronomical knowledge.
4.2 Kiloyear Climate event
The Bond 3 climate event was abrupt, cold, and arid. It began in 2200 BCE.
The Dark Age lasted from 2200 BCE to 1800 BCE. The drought may have begun earlier in the Pontic region to trigger the third wave of invasions from the kurgan culture which is dated 2300 BCE. The invasions extended north to the Rhine Valley and south into Anatolia and introduced metal tools and weapons that were not evident prior to the invasions. Prolonged drought and land degradation contributed to cultural degeneration in Mesopotamia, Aegean, Palestine, Egypt, and Harappa. The Akkadian empire collapsed in the 300-year drought. In northern Mesopotamia, the drought persisted for two centuries. The drought compelled de-urbanization. Mycenae abandoned its cities and dispersed to the countryside. In Harappa, all major urban sites in the Indus Valley went into sudden decline. Some cultures collapsed. Egypt’s Old Kingdom collapsed, marking the beginning of the first Egyptian Dark Age. There was social degradation, plundering, squalor, epidemics, and mass death. Malta’s megalithic culture disappeared. In Asia, China’s Liang Zhu culture disappeared suddenly.
In cosmology, the theme of matricide symbolized the end of matricultures and the violent imposition of patriarchy. Classicist Jane Harrison noted a stratum beneath Olympian mythology that venerated female earth deities and theorized that the Olympian pantheon replaced an earlier Titan pantheon by co-opting and demoting the earlier layer and adding Zeus as chief male deity.
Mayan culture adapted by diffusion to new regions. As the land regenerated, Mayan agriculturists developed new varieties of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers. After surviving the first Egyptian Dark Age, Egyptians regenerated their culture as the Middle Kingdom (2050-1800 BCE) and later reinvented themselves again as the New Kingdom (1550-1100 BCE). Their cosmology continued to provide effective knowledge for cultural continuity. There was a short-lived experiment with cosmological change when Pharaoh Akhenaten introduced Atenism, the first monotheism; however, his successors reinstated the traditional Egyptian cosmology that venerated the regenerative Maternal principle. T
Late Bronze Age Collapse Climate Event
An abrupt climate event identified as Bond 2 began around 1200 BCE and coincides with Late Bronze Age collapse. There were severe droughts.
The Dark Age lasted 400 years and is commonly known as The Greek Dark Age despite its global scope. Prolonged drought is indicated by low population, movement to rural settlements, and mass migrations. Egyptian records indicate that violent invasions by Sea People around 1215 destabilized the Levant and Aegean regions, destroying cities and settlements. Those invasions may have been triggered by climate change. Historians have not confirmed their identity; however, it is conjectured that the Sea People originated from the north because those cultures were the only ones with the capacity for weaponry and sea navigation. If it is proven that the Sea Peoples originated in the Pontic region, this event would be the 4th climate event involving invasion from the Pontic region. The city of Troy was destroyed. The sea invaders plundered most Mediterranean cities between Troy and Gaza, causing immense cultural disruption. Survivors dispersed to rural villages. The Minoan culture collapsed. The Egyptian New Kingdom collapsed. The Hittite Empire of Anatolia disappeared. There are numerous references to evidence of destruction by fire, but it is unclear if the fires were caused by wildfires or by the Sea Peoples.
The Canaanites were the first culture to recover from the Dark Age by building a trading network using innovations in shipbuilding and sea navigation. The Proto-Canaanite alphabet, invented ~1050, introduced a mode of literacy that was quickly adapted to many languages. The alphabet was the catalyst to a paradigm shift.
The fields of philosophy, medicine and science emerged. In Asia, academies of learning were established in India, China, Korea, and Japan. Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda Medicine systems were formalized. Architecture integrated knowledge of engineering and mathematics, as seen in Rome’s Pantheon to all gods and the Artemis temple at Ephesus. The Han dynasty enjoyed a golden age and made advances in science and technology. In the Mediterranean, Hellenistic culture is celebrated for its poets and philosophers.
New forms of governance emerged. Athens experimented with democracy. In India, the Gupta Empire built its base in the Ganges basin in India. The city of Rome grew into a republic and then expanded into an empire with a paid military and bureaucracy to manage far-flung provinces that supplied grain to urban populations.
The matricultural cosmology survived in North Africa, Malta, and parts of the Mediterranean. It was a time of cosmological innovation. Buddhism and Confucianism emerged as non-theistic philosophical religions. In Persia, Zarathustra founded the monotheistic Zoroastrianism. Christianity emerged out of Judaism. Cosmological plurality flourished. After the Greeks hellenized Kybele, her myth and ritual were augmented with Attis, a son and lover whose death and resurrection symbolized Kybele’s regenerative power over vegetation. Rome adopted Kybele as Cybele in 204 BCE when the city was threatened by the Carthaginians and a temple to Cybele as Magna Mater was built on the Palatine. Kybele’s enduring symbol was two lions who represented her role in maintaining harmony with the Land and the animals that co-habited Land with humans. The pluralistic Romans were also hospitable to Egyptian Isis and Persian Mithraism.
The Migration Period Climate Event
The begin date of this climate event is disputed. I use 360 CE as the begin date to correspond to the onset of the first of three megadroughts in Central Asia between 360 and 550. The megadrought that began in 360 CE was a one-in-2000-year drought and triggered mass migrations from the Pontic Region.
The Dark Age lasted 500 years and was marked by crop failures, mass migrations, violent invasions, religious intolerance, loss of literacy, and economic decline. The Roman Empire collapsed. Drought affected local food production as well as grain imports from the provinces; consequently Roman authorities were unable to provide the guaranteed distribution of food that had maintained domestic stability. There were mass migrations of Germanic, Hunnic, Slavic people into the Roman Empire. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, Europe was plunged into the chaotic Medieval Dark Age. Joseph Tainter developed a theory of complexity to explain collapse of the Roman Empire and many other cultures.
In my view, religious intolerance weakened the Roman Empire because the loss of a unifying cosmology damaged the coherence of the empire. Christianity, unlike Judaism, was committed to expansion through proselytization and competed with Cybele, Isis and Mithraism for the hearts and minds of the people in the Roman Empire. In 380, Nicene Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Shortly afterward, Emperor Theodosius authorized persecution of Rome’s old religion, including the destruction of temples dedicated to pagan deities. The temple of Cybele on the Palatine was destroyed in 394 CE on the orders of Emperor Theodosius I. Citizens rebelled at the imposed change in cosmology and the destruction of the temples where they venerated the Great Mother. To pacify the citizens, the Council of Ephesus elevated Mary with the title of “mother of God” and introduced Mariology to restore a limited worship of the Maternal. In Rome, basilicas dedicated to Mary were built on the sites of former temples to Cybele, Minerva, Isis, and Juno, thus creating a hybrid cosmology in which the ancient Maternal deities continued to be venerated underground. As Christianity struggled in the Dark Age, it lost its original inspiration of a radical movement based on principles of generosity, equality, and compassion, and became a conservative theocracy committed to patriarchal rule.
Population declined due to The Plague of Justinian – a pandemic of bubonic plague (yersinia pestis) that killed 30-50 million people – about 40% of the populations of Europe, West Asia, and Egypt between 541–542 CE. The Gothic Wars between 249 and 554 killed thousands. Knowledge written in Latin text became obsolete, except for religious texts used by the Catholic Church. Greek and Arabic had been the languages of science and mathematics, but there were few who could translate that knowledge into vernacular languages. The Gupta Empire collapsed and broke up into regional kingdoms after a series of weak rulers and invasions from the Huns. Far-flung centres of the Mayan culture collapsed, one by one, due to centuries of severe drought between 600 and 910 CE.
The catalyst for a paradigm shift appears to be the emergence Islam; it evolved quickly into the Muslim Golden Age, producing new knowledge in astronomy, math, chemistry, and medicine. The Sassanids developed intellectual centres that gave refuge to Greek philosophers and Nestorian Christian scholars fleeing religious persecution in the former Roman Empire. European cultures began to regenerate during the Medieval Warm Period (900-1300 CE). An engineering achievement of this period was Gothic architecture. Viking ship building skills led to cultural dispersion and Viking settlements were established on Greenland and Newfoundland.
The Mississippian culture of mound-builders flourished between 800 and 1600, developing urban settlements from the Great Lakes to lower Mississippi Valley, with the largest city and ceremonial centre at Cahokia (1050–1350 CE). The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacywas formed around 1100 when five nations developed a joint constitution, The Great Binding Law of Peace, which describes women’s leadership roles in political decision-making, including the authority to decide whether to declare a war. The Haudenosaunee are an matriculture that exist to current times, despite Canada’s colonial efforts to erase Indigenous matricultures.
Little Ice Age Climate Event
The Little Ice Age climate event began gradually and was a prolonged event. Baer & Singer suggest a 1250 start date based on the collapse of Norse communities on Greenland and Newfoundland. I use a 1300 start date based on growing ice pack in the Atlantic, radiocarbon dating of plants killed by glaciation, and The Great Famine. The cause of The Little Ice Age is usually attributed to the Maunder Minimum – a minimum in sunspots, indicating an inactive and possibly cooler sun. The northern hemisphere experienced two cold periods, separated by an interval of slight warming. The first cold period was from 1300 to 1400s. The second cold period from 1600 to 1850 was the colder phase with average winter temperatures 2°C lower than at present.
Degeneration into a Prolonged Dark Age 1300 – present
Most Dark Ages last 400 years; however, this prolonged climate event is followed by a prolonged Dark Age from which we have not yet emerged. The current Dark Age is the context for anthropogenic climate change. The markers of a Dark Age have become globalized issues: poverty, hunger, mass migrations, violent invasive wars, and intolerance. Populations declined due to famines and pandemics. The Black Death was deadly pandemic of bubonic plague (yersinia pestis) from 1348 to 1351 that killed one third of Europe’s population and 200 million globally. Capitalism developed four systems of domination: heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, Christian theocracy, and extractivism. In applying these systems of domination, Europe degenerated into barbarism. Colonization, as a project of capitalism, was a mass migration of humans, diseases, animals, and plants from Europe to other continents. It was experienced as a violent invasion with the aim of eliminating Indigenous populations. The period 1851 to 2020 is not normally associated with The Little Ice Age; however, I argue that capitalism’s structure of domination continues to operate on a global scale to normalize poverty, oppression, and destitution. There has been no period of regeneration that allows Earth and all beings to flourish again. In “The Prolonged Dark Age,” I discuss the Dark Age that has not yet ended and that is experienced today as the converging existential crises of anthropogenic climate change and the sixth mass extinction event.
I have shown that climate and culture are entangled in a spiraling relationship of degeneration and regeneration. A Dark Age coincides with a climate change event with five characteristics: famine, disease, mass migrations, violent invasions, and intolerance. I posit that culture continuity after a climate change event depends on cultural agency to make a paradigm shift and is indicated by a) cultural cosmology remains useful, b) renewed relationality with land, c) respect for generative forces, and d) plurality. I invite scholars to debate this hypothesis of cultural continuity.