Back in the Late Bronze Age, the world’s largest superpower realized something was off with the climate.
That superpower was ancient Egypt, and Israeli archaeologists believe they have uncovered some of the measures the pharaohs took more than 3,000 years ago to deal with the protracted drought that wracked the Middle East in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E., causing famine, wars and mass migrations.
At the time, Egypt firmly controlled Canaan as well as Lebanon and southwestern Syria. The pharaohs apparently ordered a massive increase in grain production in the fertile areas of ancient Israel, and took the food produced there for the more vulnerable provinces of the empire.
The Egyptians also bred cattle variants to create a breed more resistant to the dry conditions, according to a study published in January in the journal Egypt and the Levant by researchers from Tel Aviv University.
There were multiple indicators that the Egyptian colonial administration stepped up grain cultivation in Canaan to resolve hunger in the fringes of the empire, says Israel Finkelstein, a top Israeli archaeologist and the lead researcher on the Tel Aviv University team.
These conclusions are based on evidence that has emerged in archaeological digs throughout Israel, particularly in the ancient settlement of Megiddo and the Sea of Galilee.
The pollen anomaly
Archaeologists have long known that the Middle East underwent a prolonged drought, between 1250 and 1100 B.C.E. It was likely a major contributor to the so-called Bronze Age Collapse, the sudden destruction or disappearance of major empires and prosperous city states that preceded the start of the Iron Age.
Knowledge of this dry period came, in part, from a 2013 study of preserved pollen retrieved from the sediment at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. When Tel Aviv University archaeobotantist Dafna Langgut, who spearheaded that research, took a second look at the results, she noticed something strange.
“While we see the Mediterranean forest shrinking as a result of lower precipitation, we also see higher percentages of cereal pollen,” Langgut explains.
Ergo, although there was less rain in Canaan too because of the regional drought, there was still enough – probably augmented by irrigation – to not only continue to grow cereal, but to increase production.
Because it is hard to distinguish between the pollen of cultivated and wild grain, the data from the Sea of Galilee did not suffice to conclude that the increase was the result of a deliberate hike in cereal farming, Langgut cautions. The rest of this story comes from Megiddo, the multi-layered site in the Jezreel valley also known to Christians as Armageddon.
The clue of the aging cattle
It is there that archaeologists mapped and dated a mix of animal bones left behind by the ancient inhabitants.
At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, in the 16th-15th centuries B.C.E., the people in ancient Megiddo kept mainly sheep and goats, with cattle contributing just around 12 percent, says archaeozoologist Lidar Sapir-Hen.
As the collapse approached, the proportion of cattle increased, reaching about 28 percent by the 13th-12th centuries B.C.E.
“In that period you also see an increase in the average age of the cattle, which indicates they were exploited on the plow for a longer time before being slaughtered for meat,” Sapir-Hen tells Haaretz.
The rising percentage of cattle and the increase in the animals’ age, as well as an increase in the frequency of flint harvesting tools, all point to intensifying agricultural activity around Megiddo.
Analysis of DNA from the animal bones at Megiddo also showed that the Egyptian overlords, or their local underlings, engaged in a bit of old-style genetic engineering.
One sample found at the site belonged to a hybrid. Its mitochondrial DNA (which passes on only from the mother) originated in a breed of cattle typically found in Egypt and Africa. But its Y chromosome (which passes on only from the father) came from a zebu, a humped cow that originated in India and at that time was common in Syria and the northern Levant.
“There was a big advantage to hybridizing local cattle with zebus because they are more resistant to heat, drought and parasites,” says paleogeneticist Meirav Meiri. She believes that this was no accidental mating under the Mideast moon: the hybrid was probably bred on purpose to obtain a stronger animal better suited to the new environmental conditions. Probably the local beast also had some characteristics that were worth preserving, hence the cross with the zebu.
It bears stressing that Canaan itself didn't seem to need any increase in food production.
There is no sign that the local population had significantly increased at the time, requiring more food. Over in Egypt, the heartland of the empire would not have needed grain imports either: it was largely shielded from the effects of the drought by the regular flooding of the Nile, says Finkelstein.
So why would the Egyptian colonial bureaucracy push Canaan into becoming a regional breadbasket?
When crops fail
The most likely explanation is that the surplus grain was destined for export to more far-flung reaches of the empire south and north of Canaan, where there is documentary evidence of dire famine.
Already in the 13th century B.C.E., a Hittite queen wrote to Ramses II that: “I have no grain in my land.” Ramses’ successor, the Pharaoh Merneptah, records that “he caused grain to be taken in ships, to keep alive the land of Hatti” (in Anatolia). Letters found in Ugarit, a port on the Syrian coast, speak of grain shipments as “a matter of life and death” and describe widespread hunger. Egyptian inscriptions found in the semi-arid regions of southern Canaan – from Gaza to Beer Sheva – hint that the situation there was equally dire.
The Egyptians did not necessarily send aid out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they feared the chaos that drought and famine could wreak by causing mass migrations and sparking raids and conflicts over more fertile areas, Finkelstein says.
“They understood the danger and reacted to try to pacify the situation in the fringe areas before it undermined their control over the entire region,” he says.
Today, the archaeologist notes, there is plenty of research suggesting that drought exacerbated by climate change was a major trigger to the ongoing Syrian civil war.
“You cannot fully compare the 21st century to the 13th or 12th centuries B.C.E., but it gives you an understanding of what happens when drought strikes and crops fail,” he says.
Ultimately, the Egyptians failed to stem the tide of unrest they had feared so much. The Hittite empire in Anatolia, the Mycenaean civilization in Greece, the great trading posts of Cyprus and Ugarit all fell in the Bronze Age Collapse. Egypt itself survived, but with its empire in tatters, it withdrew from Canaan. In the vacuum it left, a new world emerged, that of the local polities that any reader of the Bible is familiar with: the powerful city states of the Philistines, the Arameans, the Moabites, and, of course, the Israelite kingdoms of Judah and Israel.