8 Ancient Civilizations That Were Destroyed by Climate Change

Tall tree with large roots growing around a temple made of stone in Angkor, Cambodia
Ta Prohm Temple, or Rajavihara, is a Buddhist temple originally built by the ancient Angkor civilization of Cambodia in the 12th century.

Kushch Dmitry / Shutterstock

The climate is changing, and many wonder how this will affect future civilizations. After all, rapid shifts in the weather have shaped human life before and they can do it again. Even ancient civilizations grappled with the effects of climate change.

For many years, researchers have studied ancient civilizations to understand why they collapsed. Some have uncovered evidence that climate change could have been the culprit. Even centuries ago, societies faced enormous pressures such as droughts, floods, and natural disasters. Many civilizations survived these, but some succumbed to them. There is much to learn from the stories of fallen civilizations. 

Here are eight ancient civilizations that may have been destroyed by climate change.

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Ancestral Pueblo Civilization

Ancient city of Mesa Verde built out of sandstone in the side of a cliff surrounded by forest

Alexey Kamenskiy / Shutterstock

The Ancestral Pueblo is one of the most well-known civilizations destroyed by climate change. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Colorado Plateau region from about 300 BCE. Most tribes settled around Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and the Rio Grande. They lived agricultural lifestyles and depended on their crops, especially maize, to survive. Those close enough used the river to irrigate their fields, but others relied on the rain. 

Over time, this civilization faced a challenge they created. The Ancestral Pueblo people cleared forests to make room for crops, and this led to unfavorable agricultural conditions and made the land less fertile. At the same time, the climate changed. The growing season shortened and precipitation rates declined, and crops became less productive as a result. Around 1225 CE, Ancestral Pueblo settlements started disappearing.

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Angkor Civilization

Sprawling temple next to the water built out of stacked rock

Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Angkor was a massive pre-industrial city in Cambodia built between 1100 and 1200 CE. This city, the pride and joy of the Khmer Empire, is known for its elaborate temples and water system. Being close to the sea, Angkor often experienced summer monsoons and stored water in an immense network of reservoirs.

Over time, monsoon seasons started to become less predictable. Angkor would face extreme monsoons followed abruptly by prolonged periods of drought or weak monsoons. Between 1300 and 1400 CE, the city had some of its most severe monsoons. Floods caused reservoirs and canals to collapse and droughts strained food production. Many scholars believe this civilization collapsed due to a water and food crisis.

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Norse Civilization

Lone orange hut with low round brick fence around it and water and mountains behind it

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Norse settlers migrated from northern Europe to western Greenland between 900 and 1000 CE. Their arrival coincided with the Medieval Warm Period. This period from about 800 to 1200 CE was categorized by above-average temperatures ideal for agriculture. The Norse people had great success in farming for many years. But in 1300 CE, the Little Ice Age began and temperatures dropped. The seas froze, the growing season shortened, and wild animals left the area in search of warmer conditions.

The Norse civilization of Greenland was not prepared for cold weather. Many researchers believe that frigid temperatures threatened their way of life, built on hunting, farming, and trading, and contributed to their demise. By around 1550 CE, all Norse settlements had been abandoned.

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Rapa Nui Civilization

Stone statues or moai built on grassy cliffside overlooking water in Easter Island

JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The civilization of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, began on an island of modern-day Chile between 400 and 700 CE. It thrived as a farming society for centuries. Then, many European populations colonized the region beginning in the 1700s. They committed mass genocide against Indigenous groups and brought more immigrants. At its largest, this civilization may have supported as many as 20,000 people. 

Many researchers speculate that climate change and overpopulation contributed to Rapa Nui's downfall. Around 1300 CE, the Little Ice Age began and caused prolonged droughts. Simultaneously, the land's once-fertile soil started showing signs of overuse. Crops became less productive at the same time demand for food increased. As a result, this civilization experienced a prolonged food shortage and collapsed before 1800. 

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Maya Civilization

Ruins of Mayan temple built on grassy hill with palm trees in foreground

DC_Aperture / Shutterstock

The Maya collapse of the 8th and 9th centuries has captivated researchers for years. Formed in 2600 BCE in the Yucatan Peninsula, this civilization stands out for its art, architecture, and sophisticated texts. The Maya civilization was a cultural hub of Mesoamerica until its devastating collapse.

Scholars remain curious about why the Mayans abandoned their pyramids and palaces. Many point to climate change. Namely, a "megadrought" that took place between 800 and 1000 CE. Researchers have studied fossils to determine that severe droughts took place during this time, and this sharp decline in annual rainfall strained food production. By 950 CE, the Mayan civilization had been all but abandoned.

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Indus Valley Civilization

Ruins of Indus Valley urban buildings built close together out of mud bricks

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Around 3000 BCE, a civilization emerged in the Indus Valley around present-day Pakistan. Also known as the Harappan Civilization, this society is notable for its urban settlements and water storage networks. The Indus Valley civilization was a heavily populated urban settlement dependent on trade and agriculture. After nearly a millennium, climate change threatened both.

Drought, researchers say, probably played a role in destroying this society. A decrease in monsoon rainfall correlated with a sharp population decline around 2000 BCE. At the same time, other Asian civilizations experienced climate-related stress and trading suffered as a result. After struggling for two centuries, most of the remaining inhabitants of Indus Valley likely migrated east.

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Cahokia Civilization

Aerial view of Cahokian earthen mound with two layers with path that goes from the bottom to the top layer of the mound

MattGush / Getty Images

If the Cahokia civilization still existed today, it would be found in Illinois. The Cahokians likely settled around the Mississippi River in about 700 CE. They erected massive earthen mounds used for religious ceremonies and were skilled artisans. The end of the first millennium gave the civilization of Cahokia heavy rainfall, which had many benefits. This agrarian society flourished and spread across the region during this time.

With the arrival of the second millennium, researchers speculate that this society began to feel the negative effects of climate change. The Cahokia civilization now experienced persistent droughts for 150 years. Settlements began to slowly disintegrate and the society fully collapsed by 1350 CE. Most scholars agree that although climate change was not the only cause, it was likely significant.

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Tiwanaku Civilization

Ruins of Tiwanaku civilization temple made of stone with stone statue at the entrance

Dbogger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the Andes of South America in 300 BCE, the Tiwanaku civilization formed. This civilization in the highlands was agrarian, as many were during this time, but their farming was more intensive. For example, the Tiwanaku people used raised fields to manage water and prevent soil erosion. This society's agricultural success was dependent on summer monsoons. 

Today, researchers believe that drought destroyed Tiwanaku. Starting in 500 CE, frequent precipitation and warm weather spurred rapid growth in this civilization. But around 1000 CE, climate conditions became unstable. For a century, Tiwanaku could did not receive steady rain. The lakes used for irrigation dried up and crops failed. By 1100 CE, most Tiwanku settlements and fields had been abandoned. 

View Article Sources
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