Megadrought and Collapse: from early agriculture to Angkor
Harvey Weiss (ed.)
Oxford University Press, £53
Review by: Kyle Harper
In the study of the human past, the battle between those who believe in the primacy of environmental causes in the rise and fall of civilisations, those who believe in the pre-eminence of social causes, and those who stand somewhere in between never ends. But the debate is productive, and the evidence continues to improve.
This volume presents state-of-the-art case studies of societal ‘collapse’ from across Eurasia and the Americas, spanning from the dawn of the Neolithic to the early modern demise of Angkor. Climate change is the broad theme, with drought at various scales the leitmotif. Harvey Weiss is a proponent of climate causation in its strongest form, and his introduction is a full-throated defence of his position. The chapters represent a broader spectrum of views, many foregrounding the continuing need for greater chronological and spatial resolution. They are based on impressive syntheses of archaeological and palaeoclimate evidence, but the lack of examples where written sources could meaningfully contribute to more complex models with both environmental and social factors leaves one wishing that historians had been included. Even if those of us who believe in models combining environmental stress and social resilience are unlikely to be totally convinced, we can be grateful for this expert and stimulating volume.