The Tomb of Khentkaus III: A Cautionary Tale of Climate Change?
The reign and remains of a recently discovered “Queen Mother” of ancient Egypt will provide vital new information about the civilization’s distant past, and may provide cautionary information for modern times too.
Queen Khentkaus III, who had graffiti on her looted tomb calling her the Queen Mother, lived around 2450 BC—a couple of hundred years before the Egyptian civilization failed because drought caused the Nile River to stop flooding. Her skull was smashed in, experts believe by grave robbers.
Czech archaeologists found the tomb of Khentkaus III, wife of Pharaoh Neferefre or Reneferef, in November 2015 in the necropolis at Abusir (Abu-sir) southwest of Cairo. The leader of the expedition, Miroslav Barta, says the striking similarities between ancient Egypt’s climate problems and our modern ones mean people of the 21 st century could be facing similar disasters.
A view from above of the chapel of the tomb of Khentkaus III. ( Martin Frouz, ČEgÚ FF UK )
Also around the time of the Nile River failure, civilizations in Western Europe and the Middle East collapsed. According to Barta, these past occurrences should provide hints to the modern world:
“If we accept collapse as a fact, we will understand collapses as being a part of the natural course of things, and one of the needed steps in the process leading towards ‘resurrection.’ Then, we shall be able to do something about it.”
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While no modern states have failed because of climate change and drought yet, vast parts of the world face water shortages, soil erosion, mass die-offs of wildlife, deforestation, and other habitat loss.
Barta told CNN he believes that rich modern states could be brought low by climate change.
"You can find many paths to our modern world, which is also facing many internal and external challenges," he argues. "By studying the past you can learn much more about the present. We're not different [from them]. People always think 'this time it's different,' and that 'we're different'. We are not."
Queen Khentkaus III’s tomb was found with woodwork, copper, pottery, and animal bones, which Barta told CNN was “her funerary repast” or meal. These artifacts plus the state of her bones could give clues about her life. He called the scientific potential of the finds huge and said it will take years to analyze her tomb, but that the information for Egyptologists will be rich.
Travertine model vessels unearthed at the tomb of Khentkaus III, Abusir, Egypt. (Martin Frouz, ČEgÚ FF UK )
Carbon dating can estimate her age at death and help tell if she had any ailments. Also, by the condition of the pelvis they may be able to say how many children she bore, CNN said.
The Old Kingdom of Khentkaus III and Neferefre’s time was already under strain by the rise of democracy, the impact of nepotism and influence by interest groups, Barta told CNN.
The tomb of Khentkaus III from south, in the background the pyramid of Neferirkara and unfinished pyramid of Reneferef. ( Jaromír Krejčí, ČEgÚ FF UK )
A couple of hundred years after the queen’s death, the Nile stopped flooding and there were other impacts on the kingdom from drought.
“(This) contributed to the disintegration of the era of the pyramid builders,” Barta told CNN. “Without reasonable floods, there were no reasonable harvests and therefore very bad taxes; without appropriate taxes there were no sufficient means to finance the state apparatus and maintain the ideology and integrity of the state.”
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Research in recent years has shown that human civilizations were wracked by problems caused by climate change both before and after the collapse of the Egyptian kingdom of 4,250 years ago.
For example, in 2013, research published in the journal Plos One showed that climate change occurring towards the end of the 13th century BC may have caused the collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean civilizations.
Ancient civilizations flourished in regions of the Eastern Mediterranean such as Greece, Syria and neighboring areas, but suffered severe crises that led to their collapse during the late Bronze Age. Researchers have described the collapse as violent, sudden, and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean Region and Anatolia which characterized the Late Bronze Age was replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages.
Between 1206 and 1150 BC, the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy.
An artist’s representation of the city of Argos, once a significant Mycenaean center in Greece. ( Jeff Brown Graphics )
Research in 2015 , also revealed that some of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent may have been affected by abrupt climate change. These findings show that while socio-economic factors were traditionally considered to shape ancient human societies in this region, the influence of abrupt climate change should not be underestimated.
A team of international scientists led by researchers from the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science found that during the first half of the last interglacial period known as the Holocene epoch, which began about 12,000 years ago and continues today, the Middle East most likely experienced wetter conditions in comparison with the last 6,000 years, when the conditions were drier and dustier. Arash Sharifi, Ph.D. candidate at the department of marine geosciences and the lead author of the study, said:
“The high-resolution nature of this record afforded us the rare opportunity to examine the influence of abrupt climate change on early human societies. We see that transitions in several major civilizations across this region, as evidenced by the available historical and archeological records, coincided with episodes of high atmospheric dust; higher fluxes of dust are attributed to drier conditions across the region over the last 5,000 years.”
All of these examples suggest that more difficulties may arise as climate change continues. The question is, what will humanity learn from the past?
Featured image: Panorama of the tomb of Khentkaus III. Source: Martin Frouz, ČEgÚ FF UK
By Mark Miller