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Ancient Cataclysms: 9 Catastrophes That Rocked the World

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Ancient cultures around the world have passed down their tales of devastating natural disasters in oral traditions, folklore, historical accounts, pictorial representations, and through myths. Catastrophic natural phenomena like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods are obviously nothing new, but the ways people have interpreted these events have changed drastically over time.

Read on to find out more about some of the cataclysms our ancestors faced and how they dealt with natural disasters .

A Global Climatic Cataclysm of the 6th Century

Observations of comet C/1532 R1 seen in October and November 1532. ( Public Domain )

Between the years 535 and 536, a series of major global climatic events took place that could easily be described as a global cataclysm with catastrophic consequences. Numerous accounts from all over the world from that period describe the sun as getting dimmer and losing its light. Many also described it as having a bluish color.

The effects were also observed with the moon – it wasn’t as bright anymore. The reduction of the light resulted in the reduction of heat on the planet, no rain, and a very long winter which resulted in crop failures and for birds and other wildlife to perish. Famine and plagues struck many areas and there were a huge number of deaths.

In China and Japan, the event was recorded in great detail and often referred to massive droughts and thousands of deaths. The water wasn’t enough for the people and the land. Hundreds of thousands of square miles became infertile.

The catastrophic event struck Korea, the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Australia. While written records do not exist for all countries, archaeological and geological data revealed evidence of the climatic changes . Studies done on the trunks of trees, for example, showed that 536 AD had been the coldest in 1,500 years.

There are no definite answers why it happened though one theory is a gigantic volcanic eruption – the dust thrown up into the atmosphere could have caused the dimming of the light. One candidate is Krakatoa, located between the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia.

The Catastrophic End of the Mycenaean Bronze Age

Mycanae lions

Mycanae lions. (Konstantin Malanchev/ CC BY 2.0 )

Theories of the impact of natural disasters on the downfall of the Mycenaean culture abound; similar events occurring in contemporary Mediterranean cultures, which furthers the likelihood of these events. Specifically, Anatolia (modern day Turkey), Egypt, and the Levant (modern day Iraq, etc.) were damaged by a chain of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that also rocked the Aegean.

This seismic activity appears to have caused a fiery domino effect due to the centralization of each community—oil-burning lights were common in Mycenaean-Minoan Greece, Anatolia, etc., and the consistent earthquakes that rocked the Mediterranean, quite simply, could have enabled these elevated flames to tip over and set fire to the settlements.

Having the type of communities in which politics, economics, and religion were all focused around singular sites made it far too easy for these fires to almost instantaneously devastate order. One of the most significant instances in which fire is believed to have caused such destruction is the situation at Knossos in Crete.

The destruction of whole societies does not happen overnight; it is likely that if the fall of the Mycenaeans is linked to a natural disaster, this disaster was the starting point of a foreseeable, dangerous chain of events. Weakened environments could lead to weakened economies and thus created political unrest.

Neapolis: Sunk by a Tsunami

Underwater archaeologists off the coast of Nabeul in northeastern Tunisia at the site of the ancient Roman city of Neapolis

Underwater archaeologists off the coast of Nabeul in northeastern Tunisia at the site of the ancient Roman city of Neapolis. ( Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari )

After almost a decade of searching, the ruins of the city of Neapolis have finally been located off the coast of Nabeul, in northeast Tunisia. The submerged city stretches over 20 hectares (almost 50 acres). The researchers have discovered monuments, streets, and about 100 tanks that were used in the production of a popular Roman fermented fish condiment known as garum.

As some of Neapolis’ ruins remain aboveground, underwater archaeologists had been searching the region for seven years in hope of finding the underwater counterpart. Based on their finds so far, researchers have confirmed that Neapolis was partially submerged by a tsunami on July 21 in 365 AD, a natural disaster that also damaged Alexandria in Egypt and Greece’s island of Crete. This confirms an account recorded by the Roman soldier and historian Ammien Marcellin.

Chinese Cave Inscriptions Reveal Records of Ancient Droughts

An inscription from 1891 found in Dayu Cave

An inscription from 1891 found in Dayu Cave. (L. Tan)

Researchers discovered unique inscriptions on the wall of Dayu Cave in the Qinling Mountains of central China recording the effects of droughts on the local population over the course of 500 years. When there was a drought, people from the local area would go to the cave to collect water and to pray for rain. Some of them recorded the impacts of the drought by writing a graffiti-type scrawl on the yellow rock wall. Seven such droughts occurring between 1520 and 1920 were recorded in this way.

The area receives around 70 percent of its rainfall from the summer monsoon in which torrential rain is the dominant weather pattern over the course of a few months. Changes in the timing of the monsoon as well as its duration have major effects on the local ecosystem, and it is clear that at times this in turn led to severe starvation and social instability.

In 1900, this also led to fierce conflict between the local population and the Chinese government, while in 1528 the drought was so severe that it may have led to incidences of cannibalism. The discovery of the inscriptions is an important reminder that sudden changes in rainfall patterns can very quickly affect large populations.

Casts of Pompeii Reveal Last Moments of Volcano Victims

Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them

Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them. (Bigstock photo)

Pompeii was a flourishing Roman city from the 6th century BC until it became frozen in time, preserved by the layers of ash that spewed out from the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the 1st century AD.

Archaeologists found the city almost entirely intact – loaves of bread still sat in the oven, bodies of men, women, children, and pets were found frozen in their last moments, the expressions of fear still etched on their faces, and the remains of meals remained discarded on the pavement. The astounding discovery meant that researchers could piece together exactly what life was like for the ancient Romans of Pompeii – the food they ate, the jobs they performed and the houses they lived in.

People of Pompeii were in their death throes when a cloud of gas from the volcano enveloped them, killing them. The gas was 300 degrees centigrade (572 degrees F). Clearly, from the expressions of their faces and their bodily contortions they were caught by surprise when the ash cloud finally consumed them. Archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli found the bodies in 1863 and came up with a way to detect and extract the bodies intact from their resting places in Pompeii.

Akrotiri, Obliterated in an Eruption

Elaborate and colorful fresco revealed at Akrotiri.

Elaborate and colorful fresco revealed at Akrotiri. ( Public Domain )

Pompeii is not entirely unique, as at least one other site it the ancient world has been destroyed by a volcanic eruption - the settlement of Akrotiri. Unlike Pompeii, however, no literary evidence for the destruction of Akrotiri is available. As a matter of fact, the city was only discovered by an archaeological excavation conducted in 1967.

Akrotiri was a Bronze Age settlement located on the south west of the island of Santorini (Thera) in the Greek Cyclades. This settlement is believed to be associated with the Minoan civilization. By the end of the 3rd millennia, Akrotiri developed and expanded significantly and its prosperity continued for about another 500 years.

This all came to an end, however, by the middle of the 2nd century BC with the volcanic eruption of Thera. Although the powerful eruption destroyed Akrotiri, it also managed to preserve the city. Akrotiri’s frescoes and negatives of disintegrated wooden objects, have been preserved by ash for example. The inhabitants of Akrotiri were evacuated before the volcanic dust reached the site.

Some researchers have even claimed that the effects of the volcanic eruption were felt as far away as China. This is based on records detailing the collapse of the Xia Dynasty at the end of the 17th century BC, and the accompanying meteorological phenomena.

The Greek myth of the Titanomachy in Hesiod’s Theogony may have been inspired by this volcanic eruption and perhaps Plato’s myth of Atlantis too. Thus, Akrotiri and the eruption of Thera serve to show that even in ancient times, a catastrophe in one part of the world can have repercussions on a global scale.

Prehistoric Inhabitants of North Sea Islands were Wiped Out by a Tsunami

The Mesolithic people of Doggerland

The Mesolithic people of Doggerland. ( Alexander Maleev )

An ancient civilization located on a group of islands between Britain and Europe was wiped out by a tsunami about 8,200 years ago. Described as a prehistoric ‘garden of Eden’, the islands, known as ‘ Doggerland’, were occupied by Mesolithic tribes, as evidenced by the discovery of a number of artifacts including flint tools and fishing nets.

Doggerland was an area of land between Northern Scotland, Denmark, and the Channel Islands. It was believed to have been home to tens of thousands of people before it disappeared underwater. Beginning around 20,000 years ago, a massive release of meltwater from a giant glacial lake in North America, called Lake Agassiz, caused sea levels to jump by more than two feet. Doggerland gradually become submerged by water, leaving behind a number of islands.

Then a catastrophic landslide near Norway, which was an enormous 3,000 cubic kilometres, created a tsunami which covered the islands in water and wiped out the human inhabitants – the massive wave would have been comparable to the Japanese tsunami of 2011.

Severe Drought and the Downfall of the Maya Civilization

Maya ruins surrounded by lush green vegetation of the current climate

Maya ruins surrounded by lush green vegetation of the current climate. ( Public Domain )

The severity of drought conditions during the demise of the Maya civilization about 1000 years ago has been quantified, representing another piece of evidence that could be used to solve the longstanding mystery of what caused the civilization’s downfall.

During the 9th century there was a major political collapse in the central Maya region: their famous limestone cities were abandoned and dynasties ended. And while the Maya people survived beyond this period, their political and economic power was depleted.

There are multiple theories as to what caused the collapse, such as invasion, war, environmental degradation and collapsing trade routes. In the 1990s, however, researchers were able to piece together climate records for the period of the Maya collapse , and found that it correlated with an extended period of extreme drought.

And more recently, researchers developed a method to measure the different isotopes of water trapped in gypsum, a mineral that forms during times of drought when the water level is lowered, in Lake Chichancanab in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula where the Maya were based. They found that annual precipitation decreased between 41% and 54% during the period of the Maya civilization's collapse, with periods of up to 70% rainfall reduction during peak drought conditions, and that relative humidity declined by 2% to 7% compared to today.

The Comet That Sparked a Worldwide Flood ‘Myth’

‘The Deluge’ (1805) by J.M.W. Turner

‘The Deluge’ (1805) by J.M.W. Turner. ( Public Domain )

Between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago a comet entered the earth’s atmosphere and broke up into thousands of pieces. Those fragments rained down fire and brimstone on the earth. Some of the fragments landed all over the world, including Europe and the Far East.

The craters and impressions left behind by the bombardments are now called Carolina Bays . They are found in North America along the Eastern Seaboard. The comet fragments that landed in the oceans caused worldwide flooding. This included all the shores and islands of both oceans.

Tsunami waves backed up all the rivers, leading to the oceans including those in the Americas, Africa, and Europe, destroying everyone in the area. These waves would have destroyed everything in the low-lying areas, including people on shorelines, in marshes, around bays, and in near shore valleys. This would explain why all cultures all over the world have a flood (myth) story to tell.

The fragments that hit the Atlantic Ocean would have created a continuous wall of water going across the ocean. All the islands in the Atlantic Ocean would have been covered with water. Both The Canary Islands and Great Britain would have been under water, except for their mountains.

Tsunami waves also forced their way through the Strait of Gibraltar and flooded the Mediterranean Basin. As the basin overflowed, the water flooded towns, villages, and seaports. Sea-levels in the Mediterranean Basin got higher and higher until the runoff went out into the desert.

The flood covered everything; including Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo, Egypt, Italy, and Jerusalem. When the floodwaters began to recede from the land, tons of trees, boats, ships, lumber, buildings, and bridges were carried back into the sea. This floating debris converged at the strait and clogged the opening with floating ships, boats, lumber, and trees. Floodwaters would have carried dead bodies, grass, mud, and silt to the dam and sealed it to prevent the flow of water back into the ocean.

Top Image: Large asteroid hitting Earth. Source: Mopic /Adobe

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