Early Empire’s Fall Offers Modern Parable : History: A sudden drought may have led to the collapse of the Akkadian civilization. Scientists say today’s conditions could lead to a similar downfall.


The first human empire was also the first to collapse as a result of abrupt climatic change, and its demise serves as a parable for what could happen to modern society in times of environmental upheaval and rural migration to urban areas, researchers reported today.

The Akkadian Empire of southern Mesopotamia, nestled in the lush valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Syria and Iraq, ruled a vast area of the Middle East for 100 years before disappearing about 2200 B.C. for reasons that have long mystified archeologists.

New soil evidence reported today in the journal Science indicates that the rich farmlands of northern Mesopotamia were hit by a sudden drought that rendered the region uninhabitable for 300 years.


Driven off their lands by starvation, the farmers flocked to southern cities, overwhelming even the rich resources of the urban society. Written records show that city leaders erected walls to keep the immigrants out, precipitating violent clashes that led to the empire’s fall. “For the first time, we’ve identified abrupt climate change directly linked to the collapse of a thriving civilization,” said archeologist Harvey Weiss of Yale University.

Conventional explanations for the collapse of the Akkadian Empire include revolts by provincial governments in the empire and invasion by a “wild hill people” called the Guti. Mesopotamian tradition attributes the disastrous downfall to the “overweening pride” of later rulers, according to archeologist David B. Stronach of UC Berkeley.

“It’s high time we as archeologists looked for other, perhaps more sensible explanations for this unusual turn of events,” Stronach said.

Few researchers have seen the new data and many remain unconvinced. Archeologist Robert M. Adams, general secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, argues that Weiss needs much more evidence to prove his theory, but applauds his willingness “to stick his neck out. . . . It will demand of other people in the field to refute his work or to replicate it with their own work,” he said.

The first known civilizations arose concurrently about 3000 B.C. in Egypt and in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley, which is often referred to as “the cradle of civilization.”

Under the rule of Sargon of Akkad and his descendants, the Akkadians of southern Mesopotamia eventually took control of a region spanning 800 miles, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the headwaters of the Euphrates River in what is now Turkey. They created trade routes throughout the region and installed governors in the northern cities.


The empire flourished for 100 years before suddenly and dramatically crashing into ruins about 2200 B.C. in what is known as the Third Dynasty of Ur. The new results appear to provide the first logical explanation for that failure.

Weiss and his colleagues have been excavating for 14 years at Tell Leilan in northeastern Syria. A small village was present there from as early as 5500 B.C. to about 2600 B.C., when it suddenly expanded sixfold to become the city of Shekhna with 10,000 to 20,000 residents. The city was deserted about 2200 B.C. and remained uninhabited for 300 years until a new city was built by the Amorites, who created a new empire.

Tell Leilan was in the middle of a region graced with wet winters, dry summers and a long growing season, making it ideal for growing wheat and barley. The whole area was the breadbasket of the Akkadian Empire and the food grown there generated wealth that sustained the society. Then, suddenly it was abandoned.

Excavating the site, Weiss and his colleagues from the United States and France paid special attention to the soil covering Shekhna, using new techniques pioneered by Marie-Agnes Courty at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. The soil provided the key data.

Examining a layer of soil nearly two feet thick that corresponded to the period following Shekhna’s abandonment, Courty found that it was virtually devoid of earthworm holes and insect traces, indicators of a moist, fertile environment. Instead, it contained large amounts of windblown pellets and dust, indicating that the area was unusually arid.

Researchers previously had recognized the existence of a drought in other areas of the region. “But direct evidence (of a drought) within Mesopotamia had never been presented,” Weiss said.


The cause of the drought is a mystery. The team found evidence of a large volcanic eruption but it is unlikely that an eruption could have triggered such a long climatic change.

“The lesson is that this climate change was entirely natural. There were no man-made influences on the atmosphere,” said climatologist George Kukla “There is a danger that a natural event like that may reappear again and it would be greatly complicated by the pollution of the atmosphere.”