Book Review: 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed; Eric Cline

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you have an interest in retracing our human social story to its ancient, pre-classical roots, or in contemplating the imminent future of our tightly networked little world, this book may well engage you. It tells a scholarly story in a fairly conversational (for archaeologists talking about work) tone. Cline gives us clear, detailed pictures of a distant but familiar-looking age. This is the Late Bronze Age, five centuries before early classical Greece first glimmers, a thousand years before the rise of ancient Rome.

This is where the murky beginnings of our historical record are being recovered, fragment by fragment, from the rubble, erosion, and erasures of the prehistoric world. Cline examines and explains the latest findings and theories, as more and more materials and messages continue to emerge from lower and lower levels of ancient sites around the Near and Middle East, in what we now think of as the birthplace of Western civilization. Strangely enough, the buildings, bones, and clay documents freshly dug out of the ground appear to tell stories as recent as tomorrow’s headlines.

The latest evidence populates these first known cities with individual names and well-foliated family trees. They represent the real-politik source of pre-Homeric legends, our political ancestors from before the Trojan wars of the the Iliad, from the ancient tribes of the oldest books of the Bible. Newly deciphered documents and languages combine with recently excavated architecture, art, and commercial remnants to reveal a vibrant social and cultural flowering among ancient Eurasian tribal states, connected in a web of increasing prosperity and stability.

In this golden age of Bronze, tribal empires navigated coastal waterways and Mediterranean sea-roads to exchange a wide array of cultural and trade goods, consumer wares and commodities, weapons and alliances, wives and husbands, and political tribute and ceremonial monuments. They trafficked in international commerce, trading up and down the Mediterranean basin and overland into the Mesopotamian plains and mountainous border regions. These early tribal-state polities, situated nearer the beginnings of the human social-evolution continuum between our earliest farming communities and the mega-farm urban conglomerates that comprise our food chain now, somehow still function as a mirror in which, looking closely, we can easily see our modern selves reflected.

Cline’s story follows a disturbing arc, as the improved archaeological record shows that this well-balanced world order comes under assault on a variety of different fronts around the middle of the Second Millennium BCE. In a period over about three centuries, culminating in the year 1177 BC (give or take a few decades), this assault leads to the complete collapse of the internationalism and global commerce that produced such great achievements of civilization among these earliest sovereign states. One by one, the individual kingdoms themselves were reduced to kernels of their former wealth and power. Centuries would pass before the world of classical Mediterranean civilization emerges to bring forth a new golden age of human progress and collective achievement.

In a comprehensive overview of existing theories and new interpretations, Cline examines the main forces of destruction, including climate change, drought and famine; earthquakes; and foreign invasions, internal rebellions and the loss of international trade. He makes a convincing case for the conclusion that the ultimate downfall of these flourishing civilizations was the result of no single negative factor, every one of which had occurred previously without fatal consequences on a societal scale. It was, rather, the combined effect of all of these forces together, or linked in close succession, that proved unsurvivable.

As for so much historical storytelling, there is no possible spoiler effect in this review. We don’t read this history to find out how it ends; we read to see how well it is told this time. Rest assured, Cline is up to his task. The story unfolds clearly and in compelling fashion, the evidence is judiciously weighed, and the findings seem fairly represented.

In the end, it must be difficult for Cline to wax stoical about how this research potentially leads to the conclusion that it foreshadows a calamitous wave of disasters about to devastate our global civilization. If this proves true, each and every country and all the powers that be, like rows of carefully aligned dominoes, will fall. But stoical we must be because, to invoke the warm comfort of a familiar metaphor, “…it takes a large-scale wildfire to help renew the ecosystem of an old-growth forest and allow it to thrive afresh.”

If history’s any guide, maybe we’ll all be better off (if anyone survives), once the smoke clears.

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