Cold Winters and Strong Winds Contributed to Akkadian Empire Collapse, Study Suggests

by johnsmith

The Akkadian Empire, the first united empire in Mesopotamia, was established around 2300 BCE and abruptly collapsed two centuries later. According to a Hokkaido University-led study, anomalously strong northwesterly winds (known locally as shamals) and prolonged cold winter seasons contributed to the collapse of the ancient empire.

The Akkadians (left) and the Gutians (right). Illustration by H.L. Bacon.

Mesopotamian civilizations thrived following the development of irrigation and rain-fed agriculture between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

The first united empire in the Mesopotamian region, the Akkadian Empire, was established around the metropolis Tell-Leilan under the rule of Sargon of Akkad about 4,300 years ago.

The empire linked the remote rain-fed agricultural lands of northern Mesopotamia with the irrigation-based southern Mesopotamian city-states.

Archaeological ruins dated by radiocarbon isotopes show that the Akkadian Empire abruptly collapsed 4,100 years ago and its settlements were abandoned.

Three centuries after the collapse, new populations resettled in the region of the former Akkadian Empire.

“Studies show that the Akkadian Empire likely collapsed due to abrupt drought and civil turmoil,” said lead author Dr. Takaaki Watanabe, a researcher in the Department of Natural History Sciences at Hokkaido University, and his colleagues Japan and Germany.

“However, climatic dynamics that caused widespread agricultural failures and the end of an era remain explored.”

“We made paleoclimatic reconstructions of the temperature and hydrological changes of the areas around the archaeological site of Tell Leilan, the center of the Akkadian Empire.”

For the study, the scientists collected and geochemically analyzed 4,600- to 3,000-year-old fossil Porites corals from coastal tsunami deposits on the northeastern coast of Oman.

They then compared the coral data to modern coral samples and meteorological information.

“The fossil evidence shows that there was a prolonged winter shamal season accompanied by frequent shamal days,” they said.

“The impact of the dust storms and the lack of rainfall would have caused major agricultural problems possibly leading to social instability and famine, both factors which have been previously associated with the collapse of the empire.”

“Although the official mark of the collapse of the Akkadian Empire is the invasion of Mesopotamia by other populations, our fossil samples are windows in time showing that variations in climate significantly contributed to the empire’s decline,” said study co-author Dr. Tsuyoshi Watanabe, a scientist in the KIKAI Institute for Coral Reef Sciences and the Department of Natural History Sciences at Hokkaido University.

“Further interdisciplinary research will help improve our understanding of connections between climate changes and human societies in the past.”

The study is published in the journal Geology.


Takaaki K. Watanabe et al. Oman corals suggest that a stronger winter shamal season caused the Akkadian Empire (Mesopotamia) collapse. Geology, published online Ocober 2, 2019; doi: 10.1130/G46604.1

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