Drought in Tell Leilan

Climate records reconstructed from ice and sediment cores around the world paint a less benign weather history. While the temperature and rainfall swings haven’t been as wild as some periods in Earth’s history, they do appear enough to topple nations.

Excavations of Tell Leilan, a town in what is now northeast Syria, tell such a story. In 2,280 B.C., a civilization called the Akkadians absorbed Tell Leilan. A century later, the town had emptied out and remained unpopulated for three centuries. The entire Akkadian civilization collapsed and disappeared.

“There is a depopulation, desertion of northern Mesopotamian region,” says Harvey Weiss, professor of prehistorical archaeology at Yale University, who led excavations at Tell Leilan, “and Tell Leilan’s abandonment is simply typical of that process.”

Long Drought Climate records show rainfall dried up in the Middle East around 2200 B.C., which would have deprived farmers of needed winter rains. In cores dug up in the Gulf of Oman to the south, sediments deposited during this time show very different minerals, indicating different wind patterns. Other archaeological sites show that cities to the south, surrounded by irrigated fields, swelled in population at the same time. When the climate connection to the Akkadian collapse was first presented a few years ago, some wondered whether farmers had inadvertantly caused their own ruin by overfarming. Data from other researchers gleaned from lake sediments around the world indicate the 2200 B.C. climate shift was a global event. “This has now put a lot more details together for it,” Weiss says.

(Harvey Weiss/Yale University)
By Kenneth Chang