I originally wrote this on the list of historical apocalypses I wanted to research because it is one of the (or quite possibly the) oldest civilizations we can document. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, anthropologists have evidence of civilization in Mesopotamia dating back to 10,000 BC, right after the last ice age. It is monumental because of what its early dates can tell us about why humans gather and start tiered civilizations, as well as the importance of water sources for agriculture and supporting larger numbers of civilians.
What’s funny is that I discovered there was no grand collapse or apocalypse for Mesopotamia. The first lesson in the lack of theatre and drama in collapses. Perhaps our forefathers would see our current state as the apocalypse of our nation, spiraling out of control. Yet we have images of Resident Evil and Mad Max and the inability to tap into technology and resources our society provides for a cost. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start with Mesopotamia, where it all started.
Two paragraphs, from Wikipedia, are the perfect encapsulation of what we are looking at culturally:
Agriculture throughout the region has been supplemented by nomadic pastoralism, where tent-dwelling nomads herded sheep and goats (and later camels) from the river pastures in the dry summer months, out into seasonal grazing lands on the desert fringe in the wet winter season. The area is generally lacking in building stone, precious metals and timber, and so historically has relied upon long-distance trade of agricultural products to secure these items from outlying areas. In the marshlands to the south of the area, a complex water-borne fishing culture has existed since prehistoric times, and has added to the cultural mix.
Periodic breakdowns in the cultural system have occurred for a number of reasons. The demands for labor has from time to time led to population increases that push the limits of the ecological carrying capacity, and should a period of climatic instability ensue, collapsing central government and declining populations can occur. Alternatively, military vulnerability to invasion from marginal hill tribes or nomadic pastoralists has led to periods of trade collapse and neglect of irrigation systems. Equally, centripetal tendencies amongst city states has meant that central authority over the whole region, when imposed, has tended to be ephemeral, and localism has fragmented power into tribal or smaller regional units. These trends have continued to the present day in Iraq.
Through power struggle and warfare, Mesopotamia was eventually conquered by the Sumerians, a province of the Assyrian empire, and their city Babylon became a major city in Mesopotamia. Today, Mesopotamia is known as the Middle East and is not as fertile as it once was. But the people and its descendants live on, struggling with modern power houses like America.
Reasons for the Collapse
- Power Struggles. Vulnerability led to invasions from hill tribes and organized empires.
- Unstable labor division.
- Over population, which would lead to ecological instability.
What can we learn from Mesopotamia?
As one of the first civilizations and sources for writing and literature, a lot. But from the collapse? The larger your society becomes, the more unstable and vulnerable it can be. As population increases, the land and labor output must support the people. And if it can’t, someone else will take over.
You might transform into a different culture or city-state. The end isn’t always the end of everything, just that particular structure of society. And there is rarely a plan, you have to just roll with the punches.
What else can we learn from the end of Mesopotamia?