How Civilisations Have Died

Some civilisations meet challenges and survive.

Hundreds more have failed. In Asia, Africa and America, ruins of great cities lie in deserts that they have often helped to make. Remnants of cultures cling to places that once were more fertile – eg the Dogon of Africa.

Some people are not worried about the crises ahead of us. They say that Science will save us, or God will save them. They say, humans are clever enough, they will think of a way out. That belief has often proved to be a vain trust.

Some people say we are doomed anyway


But we can learn from observing how other civilisations have self-destructed, and how others have survived, to avoid calamities ourselves.

Some have been destroyed by invaders, but hundreds of others have ‘done it themselves’ or climate has done it for them.

The ancient Greeks thought that civilisations rose and fell on a wheel of fortune, and that decline was marked by their own stupidity. ‘Whom the gods destroy they first drive mad’. There are signs of that today.

Examples to study range from Easter Island and the now deserted island of St. Kilda in the Atlantic, to Mayan, Nubian, Benin, the Olmecs in Meso-America, the series of civilisations from Sumer, Ur and possibly earlier, in the garden of the Middle-East, where now are deserts, and the now Gobi desert of central Asia.

The centuries of history of China are marked by dynasties which rose and fell in a cycle where low population pressure grew until there was overpopulation, causing population crises with great famines and wars as the people multiplied beyond the resources available. Then the series of spikes and collapses began again. Currently there is another up-rising spike, the greatest and most serious yet - and it is a question what sort of down-turn there may be.

History may be seen as a series of challenges and responses by civilisations which failed or succeed according to how they met those responses. (Arnold Toynbee’s massive survey). It can also be seen as a series of population cycles and crises, as in a short historical survey by Clair and WMS Russell (1990). They document how so many cultures have failed, or staggered through crises through populations that outgrew their resources or destroyed them, in all parts of the world. Climate changes may have assisted, or even been instigated by humans deforesting.

Hunter-gatherers have killed off the animals they relied on.common pre-history story is represented by the Clovis People of North America, around 10,000 years ago, who abruptly vanish from the archaeological record, replaced by a myriad of different local hunter-gatherer cultures. Why this happened no one knows but their disappearance coincides with the mass extinction of Ice Age big-game animals, leading to speculation that Clovis people either over hunted these mammals and drove them into extinction or over-hunting eliminated a "keystone species" (usually the mammoths or mastodon) and this led to environmental collapse and a more general extinction.

There is speculation that Australian aboriginals killed off the megafauna of the continent, and Eurasian hunters killed off the mammoths.

Swidden farmers who make and farm a clearing in forests or plains, and then move on to make another when that soil is exhausted, can survive as long as they do not become too populous so that the forests have no chance to revive. Farmers like the Mayan appear to have simply exhausted their soils, and the villages withered away.

Irrigation has enabled populations to increase dramatically, but then salination and increasing drought may leave them high and dry, as in civilisations of the Euphrates basin, and the Hohokam of North America.

In the past, a civilisation could collapse in one area, and the rest of the world was unaffected.

Today, we support our billions of population by globalising – resources are imported where they are short. Many countries today cannot grow their own food. But as the global resources run short, there may only be extreme and suicidal measures left – for example resorting to biofuels to make up for oil shortages will only deplete both food resources and the soils needed to grow them.

And even more self-destructive today are the wars over resources, as wars now destroy everything, not just soldiers.


The Admin dissertation 23/2/08 seems to me to be unsatisfying relative to BASIC drivers of these historic events . In my view it all starts at Genisis 1 . Day 5.... Adam Built (prototype 1) Day 6.... Eve Built (prototype 2) .... Prototypes (both) put in charge of it all and told to multiply themselves and dominate the whole enterprise . They are without training or experience . Day 7.... The constructor says he's taking the day off , and instead buggers off for 4000 years or so , (so Bishop Usher said) . THEN he "organises ??" for his little boy to sort it all out .... a BABY ??? By the time this poor little extra-marital even arrives it's all well out of hand .... but thirty years on he's got Buckley's .... he does his best .... it wasn't enough . The old patterns of human endeavour then continue much as established by Proto's 1 and 2 with an emphasis on the dominating bit . The beginnings of Civilization ??? Eve "No 10000" looks at these seeds she's got from under the bushes and thinks "I can put these in the ground near the cave and save the walking when I'm 'heavy with child' , and Adam "No 10000" , ( he's clever with his hands), can put put a bit of a fence around it to keep the goats away from it ". It wasn't the beginnings of civil technology of course, (she already had her digging stick and he had his spear ) , but it was a giant leap forward which paved the way for a much larger family in the valley....HOWEVER .... it WAS technologically dependent in an absolute way . (And it remains so for all subsequent populations). Because over-population then became endemic on farms and valleys , all but "eldest sons" were obliged to leave , (lest the Cain/Abel solution be resorted to) . And they wandered about until they realised that Valley1 had stuff that Valley2 didn't have .... you guessed ?!! And so they became able to build stables and docks a bit up-river .... and flash houses , and won all the prettyest first daughters , (and got themselves stood over by violent even-younger brothers ) . Probably about 10% of any population is , naturally , anywhere near technologically savvy .... in their heads AND hands .... in large cities these crucial skills and roles are 90% just not understood ; this is an essential precursor to 90% despising or fearing both the skills and the roles . In smaller near-farm communities they are accepted , at arms length , and as secondary to weather predicting skills . (Without US you would starve). And thus is the stage set for decline and collapse .... Gibbon didn't even begin to comprehend . The pressure on farms and food is not removed just by ejecting unnecessary offspring ; that action also overtaxes other vital resources ; everything is used UP , rather than just used . Some early "cultures" resolved the problem at its source in ways considered quite unholy by other groups who in their turn were prepared to slaughter whole city populations .... (excepting the cattle and the females who had not "been gone in unto") . They tallied it all too ! (Moses , Joshua) , and the mindset continues to this day . Copenhagen , not unexpectedly , was never going to be a success . And don't forget all those wifeless Chinamen , nor Ghengis Khan !