Hiatus Post — Rethinking Collapse

The institute will be on hiatus for this week but we’ll return next week with a fresh batch of posts and podcast, all focused on the topic of meat. Until then, please enjoy excerpts from the recently published book Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail? (available for purchase on Routledge and Amazon).


Collapse has become a buzzword in archaeology, but the idea has become diluted with overuse: it can be political, demographic, economic, ecological, or some combination thereof. Archaeologists are hobbled by our overemphasis on elite contexts, but in our defense, we can only research what is funded, and neither museums nor the media are hounding after more excavations of commoner households. We can only analyze the data we have, and we must acknowledge that it skews towards a minority population. When we study collapse, we tend to extend the fall of a culture’s elites to include the rest of society, even though the historical trajectory of commoners requires independent study.

Outside of archaeology, concern over a changing climate is growing. Well-written accounts of collapse caused by a single culprit are popular because we believe we can deal with a finite problem. The idea of collapse has good and bad news for us. First the bad: the collapse of a large society occurs for many interconnected reasons. In our case, stopping climate change would only solve one problem, leaving us with conflict, disease, hunger, and inequality. We should address the warming of our planet because it will make dealing with the other issues easier, but it is not a panacea. The good news, though, is that what archaeologists see as collapse is usually just a transition to a different way of life. To be sure, war, famine, and death can accompany that change, but correlation should not be confused for causation. For the most part, elite and large-scale components of a society are the hardest hit, while ordinary citizens tend to muddle through transitions and adapt to a new normal.

The idea of a rapid failure of the systems on which a population depends is intriguing but not an accurate way to describe what happens to most complex societies. The historical trajectory of each culture is unique. This book examines societies on a case-by-case basis, explaining how the cyclical reorganization of Egypt’s Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms (chapter 10) is different from the Roman Empire’s transition to Byzantium (chapter 8) or the decline of divine kingship and rise of mercantilism among the Maya (chapter 4).

As we will see in our first case study, which focuses on the ancient Maya, the term “collapse” is a misnomer. It is not as if any of these societies ceased to be, but rather their way of life changed, and it is not as simple as saying that because the elites became less powerful and fewer monuments were built that the entire society was in decline. “Transition” is a neutral term that better conveys what happens in these situations. I use the term “collapse” in a general way, and in most cases, I will avoid ambiguity by qualifying what type of breakdown occurred, such as “a large-scale societal collapse,” “a political transition,” or “the disintegration of the existing social hierarchy.”


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