Rating: ★★★★★

Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (1999) by David Keys

During the last few years, there has been an upsurge of interest in theories about Catastrophism. A natural disaster like a large meteor impact or the eruption of a super-volcano would have the capability to wreck the modern world. Even the recent economic cost of one small Icelandic eruption should give pause for thought. There are at least two good reasons for concern. Firstly, the growing recognition that man has a responsibility to recognize the threats to our planet, in this respect, a similar argument to the Green environmentalists, but secondly, with computer and other technologies, we can analyse both fresh and long-held historical data in a way that clarifies the underlying issue.  David Keys’ Catastrophe argues that a massive volcanic eruption in the sixth century precipitated the collapse of the ancient world.

He suggests that an eruption of Krakatoa in 535 A.D. was the primary cause of a global climatic catastrophe that caused widespread famine, pestilence, and extinction of many civilizations around the globe. Keys reasons that a huge volcanic eruption, near the equator, sent volcanic emissions high into the stratosphere where air currents distributed them around the globe, creating a veil through which sunlight struggled to penetrate. As a result, the earth sustained flooding and cooling over the next century, which caused the failure of crops. People and animals scattered and either starved to death, or died from  pestilences  that swept the civilized world in the sixth century.

Keys provides many lines of evidence, tree ring data, the building of crannogs, extant writings from people living at the time, volcanic sulphates in 1,000-meter-deep columns of ice from Greenland in the north and from the Antarctic in the south, and carbon-dated charcoal in layers surrounding a buried layer of Krakatoa lava.

Irish dendro-chronologist (tree ring expert) Mike Baillie fed specific tree measurements into a database. Each ring sequence could be matched with rings of previously felled trees and precisely dated. A bigger climatic picture began to emerge… Baillie noticed his mid-6th century oak rings went abnormally narrow–a sign that something very powerful was slowing the trees’ growth. Baillie said: “the years 539, 540, 541, 542 show extremely narrow rings indicative of cold conditions”. Dendro-chronogists in Finland, California, Chile, Sweden and Siberia noted the same slow growth pattern.

Many accounts of bizarre weather exist in Roman accounts. For example, one eyewitness, a Syrian bishop named John of Ephesus, describes the extraordinary events during the years 535 and 536 AD as follows: “There was a sign from the sun, the like of which had never been seen or reported before. The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for 18 months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its full light again.” Another historian remarked: “Writers of the 6th century Byzantine empire do not usually record climatic events unless they are something really extraordinary, a natural event like a comet will get mentioned, now in the 530s the fact that John mentions a two year dimming of the sun indicates that it was significant. Cassiodorus writing in Italy, too refers to a dimming of the sun: “We have had a spring without mildness and a summer without heat … The months which should have been maturing the crops have been chilled by north winds. Rain is denied and the reaper fears new frosts.”

In Java, the ‘Book of Kings’, described a huge explosion in the middle of the sixth century AD: “A mighty thunder which was answered by a furious shaking of the earth, pitch darkness, thunder and lightning and then came forth a furious gale together with a hard rain, a deadly storm darkening the entire world, in no time there came a great flood. When the water subsided it could be seen that the island of Java had been split in two, thus creating the island of Sumatra.”

The Avars

Around 557AD a fierce Asiatic people, the Avars, arrived on the eastern fringes of Europe, concentrated on Greece and the Balkans. What lay behind the Avar migrations? All we really know is that by 545AD, after being the dominant ruling tribe in Mongolia, the Avars were challenged by their former vassals, the Mongolian Turks. By 552 the Turks were the new masters of Mongolia. Those Avar that survived, trekked west toward Europe.

The Central Asian steppes, always prone to small scale drought and famine, were particularly struck in the mid-530’s, possibly the worst for 2000 years. For several reasons it is reasonable to believe that the Turks suffered less than the Avars. The Avars depended on the horse, nearly the entire basis of their economy and military supremacy. Horses find it considerably more difficult than cattle to survive drought. Horses will excrete up to 75% of the protein they consume, as they absorb very little protein through the small intestine. As dried grass has only 25% of the protein of live grass, the high protein absorption rate of cattle is the key to their success in resisting droughts.

It is reasonable to assume that with several successive poor years, the horse dependent Avars faced great hardship. Even if the drought subsided during the period, the economic and political damage had been done. It is believed the ousted Avars took a relatively northerly route west, north of the Caspian Sea, coalescing with other displaced allies, and vassal peoples, notably the Slavs. Carving out a new empire covering parts of what is now Hungary, Romania, Bohemia and the Ukraine, others in turn, were displaced. This domino effect pushed the Germanic Lombards into Italy, and the Slavs into Greece. The ground was set for the decline of Byzantium. Over in Britain, the population was equally decimated, with refugees crossing to Gaul (Brittany). This Arthurian period in British history has been much confused over the years. Keys sheds light on the mythical events, the ‘wasteland’, and the rise of the Saxon.

There are many implications to this theory. One of the most fascinating is the birth of the prophet Mohammed and the spread of Islam, at exactly the time that earth’s population of humans is being killed off by severe climate changes. Keys notes that the prophet Muhammad preached a “creed ideally suited to its time—a new religion which emerged directly out of the apocalyptic atmosphere of the period” until his death in 632 AD. Furthermore, “the Muslim advance was one of the most rapid in human history.” (p. 100) The Islamic armies in 150 years subjugated most of the Roman Empire (excluding what is today Turkey) and the Persian Empire. It spread like wildfire across the African, European, and Asian continents. The ancient world was giving way to the modern.

For Dendro-chronology see:  Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets  (1999) by Mike Baillie 

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