Rise and Fall: What causes the strongest civilisations to collapse?

The Easter Island statues
After inhabiting Easter Island the Rapa Nui people cut down nearly every tree and caused an ecological catastrophe | Shutterstock

Curse of the Ancients with Alice Roberts explores how cataclysmic events from history have affected the modern world and how our ancient ancestors dealt with the consequences.

Never has the saying ‘nothing lasts forever’ been as relevant as when applied to the lifespan of civilisations. Practically every great civilisation in the history of mankind has suffered a societal collapse in one form or another. Some faced complete catastrophe whilst others transformed and rose from the ashes of the old.

Collapse is most often quick and no civilisation, however big or small, old or young, is immune once the wheels of disaster begin to turn.

Thanks to archaeological evidence and historical analysis, we’re able to better understand what triggered the collapse in the first place. With that in mind, here are some key contributing factors behind societal collapse.

It should be noted that whilst some societies may fall neatly into one of these categories, you’ll find that most suffer from a combination that ultimately culminates in bringing about change.

Climate change / Natural disaster

It is one of the biggest threats facing humanity in the 21st century. Climate change will lead to a myriad of disasters from more frequent heatwaves and droughts to warming oceans and rising sea levels. History is not on our side either as it warns us of the disastrous changes brought about by climate change and it’s not too over the top to think we might be on the precipice of global catastrophe.

It is believed that both the ancient Asian civilisations of the Akkadian Empire and the Indus Valley Civilisation declined due to drought brought about by extreme environmental changes. Agriculture is so dependent on the state of the climate that should regional patterns alter, the likelihood of crop failure is vastly increased. This, in turn, leads to widespread food shortages and the onset of famine.

In fact, researchers and historians investigating societal collapse have identified significant climate change occurring during periods of historical unrest and upheaval. It seems that whenever civilisations begin to buckle, it often coincides with changes to the climate.

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, can pile pressure on a society already struggling with the changing environment, as was the case for the Indus people and the Mycenaean civilisation in Ancient Greece.

Environmental degradation

Human beings are inextricably linked to the environmental landscape surrounding them. When the environment is over-exploited and impoverished, life-sustaining natural resources that people and societies depend on are less abundant. The eventual strain leads to either widespread chaos or mass migration as people leave in search of resources. Either way, societal collapse is almost certain.

The Maya of South America was the most sophisticated and highly developed civilisation in pre-Columbian Americas, reaching its peak around the sixth century AD. However, by 900 AD most of the great Maya cities had been mysteriously abandoned. A multitude of theories have been presented by historians as to why the Maya ceased to exist so abruptly. One is deforestation and soil erosion caused by intensive agriculture. The decimation of the countryside resulted in diminishing resources, which coupled with the pressures of war and climate change led to mass desertion of the large cities.

Suffering a similar fate were the Rapa Nui people who inhabited the Polynesian island of Easter Island. Located some 2,300 miles west of Chile, the seafaring Rapa Nui not only settled on the island but erected hundreds of impressive giant stone statues called moai. However, the Rapa Nui cut down nearly every tree on the island creating an ecological catastrophe.

Without trees, the residents could no longer build their canoes, significantly limiting their fishing capabilities. Deforestation also caused soil erosion that led to a decline in agricultural production. By the 1800s, hundreds of years after the island was initially settled, the population had crashed.

Disease

The coronavirus pandemic means the dangers of disease need no introduction to a modern audience. History tells us that the dawn of agriculture was the turning point in the rise of contagious diseases. As humans and cattle began living in close proximity, coupled with poor hygiene, outbreaks of infectious diseases became unavoidable. The consequences of these outbreaks were often catastrophic. An example includes the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas and causing high mortality rates amongst the indigenous populations.

The Aztecs ruled a large empire during the 15th and 16th centuries in what is now modern-day Mexico. They were brought to their knees by war with the Spanish and by European diseases, such as smallpox, that decimated the local populations.

War / Economic collapse

Almost as prevalent as climate change, war is another common denominator in the history of collapsed societies. It played a role in the demise of the Maya, the Aztecs, the Khmer Empire, and the Roman Empire, which was brought to its knees when it was sacked by the Visigoths and Vandals in the fifth century AD.

The territorial expansion of the infamous Mongol warlord Genghis Khan during the 13th and 14th centuries decimated the populations of China, Russia, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Local civilisations across that range were depleted and transformed forever.

Of course, a side effect of war is economic disruption which itself is another catalyst to societal decline. When trading routes are lost or compromised, the economic downturn caused can put a society under severe pressure and even lead to famine.

A Viking colony was settled on Greenland around 985 AD, but around 400 years later it was abandoned for reasons seemingly unknown. Historians and scientists initially blamed the Little Ice Age, a period of regional cooling from the 14th to the 19th centuries, with the North Atlantic region being particularly affected. However, recent studies have now shown that climate change was only partly to blame for their demise.

It has been argued that the market collapse for walrus ivory in 1400 AD, the islander's main export, alongside the cooling climate, made living on Greenland just too difficult, demonstrating the importance of economic prosperity for societal success.