The International Commission on Stratigraphy recently announced the creation of a new unit in the scale of geological time, the Meghalayan Age, from 4200 years before present, or 2200 BCE, to the present. The Commission explains that this period began with a two-centuries-long megadrought that caused the collapse of civilizations in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley (1). However, there is little archaeological evidence for such sudden, widespread civilizational collapse.
Since at least 1971, scientists have repeatedly argued that a major drought caused civilizational collapse at numerous locations at this time (2). Some scholars have amassed impressive amounts of data to demonstrate the existence of a megadrought and have linked this causally with civilizational collapse (3). However, detailed archaeological and historical analysis, including recent investigations of chronology and paleoclimate, suggests that rather than simultaneous civilizational collapse, different kinds of changes occurred in different parts of the world at different times, all of them less abrupt than once thought (4–9). The environmental and climatic determinism behind the megadroughtcollapse narrative fails to account for specific historical circumstances, the power of human agency to drive substantial change, and the translation of environmental factors into cultural and sociopolitical contexts. Current evidence, therefore, casts doubt on the utility of 2200 BCE as a meaningful beginning to a new age in human terms, whether there was a megadrought or not.
To understand in more detail what happened around 4200 years ago, consider the situation in several of the locations for which collapse has been suggested. In Egypt, there is evidence that the centralized power of the pharaoh in the Old Kingdom fragmented slowly into the hands of local potentates in the First Intermediate Period (2181 to 2055 BCE). However, there was no disruption to Egyptian civilization, no dark age, and no mass starvation and death (10). Contemporary tomb inscriptions such as that of the governor Ankhtifi note military exploits, demonstrating that the land could produce enough food to feed armies; non-elite tombs became more common and richer at this time. The Dialogue of Ipuwer, read by some as a factual account of drought, famine, and chaos around 2200 BCE, belongs to a class of later Middle Kingdom “pessimistic” or “lamentation” literature. Written from a rigidly aristocratic perspective, it uses the themes of chaos and disorder—really, social fluidity and mobility—as a counterpoint to an ideology that proclaimed the rightness of centralized pharaonic power and order (11). […]
Overall, the archaeological and historical evidence suggests that 2200 BCE was not a threshold date and that there was no sudden, universal civilizational collapse. If there was a megadrought around 2200 BCE and after, it may be more instructive to look at how societies survived—their resilience—rather than suggesting an ancient apocalypse…