What Happened After Civilization Collapsed : Throughline What happens after everything falls apart? The end of the Bronze Age was a moment when an entire network of ancient civilizations collapsed, leaving behind only clues to what happened. Today, scholars have pieced together a story where everything from climate change to mass migration to natural disasters played a role. What the end of the Bronze Age can teach us about avoiding catastrophe and what comes after collapse.

What Happened After Civilization Collapsed

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Hey, just dropping in before we start to remind you that THROUGHLINE Trivia is back next week. This time, we're celebrating Black History Month with three rounds of trivia inspired by some of our favorite THROUGHLINE episodes.


Come throw down with us and our trusty co-host, Terri Simon, on Thursday, February 11, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. RSVP and find all the info you need at nprpresents.org.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks to the History Channel's "The Food That Built America" for their support of this event. OK, on with the show.


ARABLOUEI: There's a story of a people who lived thousands of years ago, back in the era when King Tut walked the earth, when the legendary city of Troy was thriving and when Hammurabi was creating his code.


ARABLOUEI: No one knows exactly who they were or where they came from. They're only known as to Sea Peoples.

ABDELFATAH: It is said that wherever the Sea Peoples went, they brought with them war and destruction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They came from the sea on the warships. And none could stand against them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth. Their hearts were confident and trusting as they said, our plans will succeed.

ABDELFATAH: Not long after the Sea Peoples arrived, the empires they encountered from Greece to Egypt to Afghanistan began to crumble. An entire civilization nearly as complex as ours, connected by trade, intermarriage and a thriving economic system, broke down seemingly overnight.

ARABLOUEI: And as time passed and their bones had long faded to dust, the Sea Peoples were blamed entirely for the sudden collapse of these civilizations in the year 1177 B.C.

ABDELFATAH: But for thousands of years after, a question lingered. Where did the Sea Peoples come from? And were they actually the big bad wolf that blew the whole house down?


ARABLOUEI: As we start 2021, we've been thinking a lot about this moment that happened 3,000 years ago, which we know is a long time ago. And if you're thinking, how does this have anything to do with our world today? That's a totally fair question.

ABDELFATAH: There's been so much going on in the past few weeks - and really, the past year - that it's often felt like we're teetering on the edge of chaos, even collapse. And maybe the hardest thing to grapple with is the uncertainty of it all, not knowing what comes next. So our team's been reflecting a lot on how humans managed to survive in the face of challenges and what happens when they don't. Like, what does it actually look like for an entire society, an entire civilization to collapse? Does it really happen all at once or is it more of a slow burn? And what happens long after the collapse is over?

ARABLOUEI: That's where 1177 B.C. and the Sea Peoples come in.

ERIC CLINE: You know, they're like the boogeyman, you know. Archaeologists scare their kids. You know, go to sleep now or the Sea Peoples are going to get you. The people are going to get you.

ARABLOUEI: This is Eric Cline.

CLINE: I'm a professor of archaeology and classics at George Washington University.

ARABLOUEI: Eric spends a lot of his time thinking about the ancient world.

CLINE: There really is nothing new under the sun. People back then are just like us today. We are all - are at the base of things. We are human. And we have the same reactions.

ARABLOUEI: You might be wondering, how does he know this? Well, there are places scattered all around the world hiding beneath our feet where the past and present collide - dig sites, mounds of dirt where archaeologists like Eric go to unearth the mysteries of the past.

CLINE: We wash the pottery. We separate the bones. We take a look at those. Our specialists are able to tell us, oh, this was sheep. This is goat. This is lion.

ABDELFATAH: Day after day, archaeologists chip away at the earth, meticulously peeling back the layers of time.

ARABLOUEI: It sounds like it's a grind. And it takes patience.

CLINE: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You have to do it very, very carefully. It's very painstaking.

ABDELFATAH: Imagine putting together a thousand-piece puzzle with only 200 of the pieces to work with. How do you know what you're seeing? How do you know what's missing?

CLINE: And it is kind of like being a detective on a case. You're looking for evidence. You're looking for clues. You have a hypothesis. You're trying to figure it out.

ARABLOUEI: Eric actually knew he wanted to be an ancient detective from a really early age.

CLINE: It was all my mother's fault.

ARABLOUEI: When he was 7, his mom gave him a book about an archaeologist's journey to excavate the city of Troy.

CLINE: So I read the book, put it down, announced to my parents I was going to be an archaeologist. And my mother looked very proud. And my father said, no, you should be a doctor like me. And I'm like, no, I'm going to be an archaeologist and, sure enough, declared my major in college as archaeology.

ARABLOUEI: And he decided to focus on the world he'd read about as a kid - the Bronze Age.

ABDELFATAH: The Bronze Age lasted roughly between 3000 B.C. and 1150 B.C. And as you might have guessed, it revolved around the use of bronze. And towards the end of this period, when everything seemingly broke down, reports of the Sea Peoples start showing up in ancient accounts. And for people like Eric, a question that came up over and over again was...

CLINE: Why and how did the Bronze Age in the Aegean come to an end?

ABDELFATAH: Experts threw around various theories, but...

CLINE: The main one that they were saying is the Sea Peoples, they did it.

ARABLOUEI: In the back of his mind, Eric wondered if the answer was really that simple. And it stayed there right in the back of his mind until one day he got an email from a book publisher.

CLINE: And he said, look. Can you write a book on the collapse of the late Bronze Age? And I said, well, you know, writing about the collapse, OK. It's interesting. But I'm actually as interested, if not more interested, in what collapsed. What did we lose? How advanced were they? Was it interconnected? Was it, you know, globalized for that time period? And he looked at me, said, fine, if you can make it work, that's great. I said, all right. You got a deal. And I went back home and started writing. And so what resulted was the book "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed."


ABDELFATAH: The year that civilization collapsed using archaeological records and writings of that time, Eric pieced together a portrait of life then - a complex, interconnected web of societies across the Mediterranean that were living in relative peace. And then he set out to answer the biggest question, why did it all come crashing down?

I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: In this episode, we're going all the way back to 1177 B.C. to uncover the mysterious tale of how a civilization blossomed, fell apart and what happened next.

LISA REED: This is Lisa Reed (ph) from Orange County, Calif. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: Part 1 - how heaven was born.


ARABLOUEI: A man makes his way home for dinner after a long day selling his wares.


ARABLOUEI: He pulls up to see his cattle lazily grazing, his kids rolling around with the family dog and his wife finishing a wool cape made from sheep's fleece. There's a wheat and nettle stew boiling over the fire that already smells good. And a neighbor's chopping more wood for the fires to last through the night. He goes into his hut and sits on a thick piece of hide, whittling at a tool made of bones. He dreams of replacing those tools with a bronze set someday soon.


ARABLOUEI: The sun is setting over the crops as families nearby settle in for the night. It's 3000 B.C., and it's beautiful.


CLINE: So 5,000 years ago, which was the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean.

ARABLOUEI: The Bronze Age, aka the ancient glory days for the Near East.

CLINE: Say, from Italy on the west, all the way over to what would today be Afghanistan, Iran, that region, and from the north, what would today be Turkey down to Egypt.

ABDELFATAH: You probably already know a little bit about the Bronze Age, whether it's coming to you right now or not. King Tut lived during this period. The Trojan War is said to have happened during this time. The potter's wheel was widely used. And the chariot was invented. But of course, those people and those events, they all happened before the end. Before we discover how this 2,000-year period came to a screeching halt, we first have to see how it flourished, how the Bronze Age became the Bronze Age.

CLINE: Early Bronze Age is when some of the earliest kingdoms and empires begin. It's when writing begins, right? You've got hieroglyphics in Egypt. You've got cuneiform starting up in Mesopotamia. So you've got a lot of things that start in about 3000 B.C.E., including the invention of bronze.


CLINE: So the way you make bronze - I don't know if you've made it recently in your backyard or anywhere...


CLINE: ...But if you ever felt like you wanted to, you need 90% copper and 10% tin. That will get you bronze.

ABDELFATAH: And so back in 3000 B.C., 5,000 years ago, everybody was trying to get their hands on some. It was the new thing because...

CLINE: They had been using stone tools up until then and copper.

ABDELFATAH: Which was quickly becoming old news.

CLINE: Bronze is much stronger, keeps a better edge than copper, which is pretty soft. So, you know, and adding in tin, you made it a much better metal, not just for weapons, but also for tools, so you can make a better plow, things like that.

ARABLOUEI: They're like flip phones. They're like the flip phones of...

CLINE: Yeah. Yeah, kind of.

ARABLOUEI: Like that bronze is the iPhone and the - some people still use...

CLINE: That would be a pretty good parallel. Exactly. Yeah. And some people still have the flip phone. Yeah. Right? And they're like, why should I change? Yeah. Right. So basically, bronze takes over.

ABDELFATAH: Stone and copper were out. Bronze was in. And remember - to make this hot new tech, you needed tin.

CLINE: Tin is like oil.

CLINE: Carol Bell, a colleague and friend of mine in England, has made that analogy. She says, tin for the ancient pharaoh and the ancient kings in the Bronze Age was like oil is for us today. That is, the heads of our states are so concerned with getting petroleum, they had the same thing with getting tin. So it's a pretty good equivalent.

ABDELFATAH: And just like oil, tin wasn't so easy to come by because it was mostly concentrated in one place - Afghanistan.

CLINE: So that means that you have to have trade routes that are hundreds, if not thousands of miles long to get the tin from what is today Afghanistan into the site of Mari in Syria. We know they're handling it. And then from there, we know they shipped it to Crete.

ABDELFATAH: And so this need to transport tin and other goods throughout the Mediterranean meant an expanded trade network, deepening connections between civilizations like Egypt and Syria.

CLINE: And we know all this because there are ancient texts that tell us that. They even tell us that there is an interpreter at the site of Ugarit...


CLINE: ...Who can talk with both the people there in Ugarit and the and the Minoans from Crete. And he gets a chunk of the tin as payment.

ABDELFATAH: Yep - 5,000 years ago, there were middlemen. But tin and other raw materials weren't the only goods traveling across international trade routes.

CLINE: They're also trading in finished goods. So, for instance, they talked about a solid gold dagger inlaid with lapis lazuli in the handle, which personally is something I would love to own. I wouldn't use it for anything but opening letters, you know. It'd be a great letter opener. But wow, solid gold with lapis? OK.

ABDELFATAH: Eric getting a little fancy with his bronze life wish list over here.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, but he's also a sucker for the simple pleasures, too.

CLINE: My favorite is a pair of sandals that are sent from Crete that are taken to Hammurabi and Babylon and it says, he returned them. And I'm like, oh, wait a minute. These are these are sandals all the way from Crete and you returned them? I mean, haven't you ever heard at least of regifting? Why did Hammurabi return these? Were they too small? Were they too last millennium? I don't know. Anyway, so, for me, this gives a window into the world at that time. It is cosmopolitan, much more so than you would think. It is more internationalized. It is more globalized. They are trading just like we do today. They had the same desires, the same hopes, the same fears.

ARABLOUEI: And the same global hierarchies.

CLINE: These are what I would call the G-8 or the G-9 of the ancient world.

ARABLOUEI: Just like our roster of world powers today, the Bronze Age had its own list of hot shots.

CLINE: If I count them off on my figures, you've got my Mycenaeans on mainland Greece. You've got Minoans on Crete. You've got Cypriots...

ARABLOUEI: On Cyprus, obviously.

CLINE: You've got the Hittites in Anatolia, which will later become Asia Minor and now is Turkey. You've got the Canaanites.

ARABLOUEI: Who are living in today's Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. You've got Egyptians in Egypt.

CLINE: You've got the Assyrians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia, which today would be Iraq, maybe a little bit of Syria, maybe a little bit of Iran. And then you've got a group that a lot of people have never heard about unless you're an archaeologist called the Mitani.

ARABLOUEI: And there's a few other deep cuts like that. But some of the biggest players in the game are the Egyptians and Hittites, kind of like the U.S. and China today. And these multiple civilizations were no longer either just completely isolated from one another or invading each other's lands and fighting to the death. They were now kind of getting along on a number of different levels. First, you've got the royal level, the kings.

CLINE: Well, they talked about treaties and embassies and embargoes.

ARABLOUEI: Diplomacy stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My brother, look. I and you, we are brothers, son of a single man. We are brothers. Why should we not be on good terms with each other? Whatever desire you will write to me, I will satisfy it. And you will satisfy my desires.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We form a unit.

CLINE: A number of the other kings send their daughters to marry the Egyptian pharaoh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It is all of these wedding gifts of every sort that Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, give to Nimmureya, the King of Egypt, at the same time that he give Tadu-Hepa, his daughter, to Egypt and to Nimmureya to be his wife.

CLINE: And so they come with tremendous dowries. Like, dowries that take three clay tablets to list all the goods that were in the dowry.

ARABLOUEI: Definitely more than my mom's dowry...

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: ...Than my mom and dad, their marriage...

CLINE: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Maybe one tablets' worth?


CLINE: Yeah, just barely a tablet - right.

ARABLOUEI: Dowries aside, these ruling families from different and probably former competing civilizations were intermarrying, signing peace treaties and exchanging gifts.

CLINE: They always couch it in terms of, and for my greeting gift, I give you the following. And then there's, like, a tablet or two of what they're giving.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I herewith send you one chariot, two horses, one male attendant, one female attendant from the booty from the land of Hatti. As the greeting gift of my brother...

CLINE: And then some of them are pretty blatant. Some of them say, I know you're going to send me stuff back, but what I really need - what I really, really need is gold.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Gold is like dust in your land.

CLINE: They keep saying to the Egyptians, send me gold.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

CLINE: So it's kind of like today, when somebody's got a birthday coming up, and they're like, what do you want for your birthday? Like, oh, you know, whatever you feel like giving me...

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

CLINE: ...But a Nintendo or a PlayStation would be really good, right?


CLINE: So that's kind of what they did back then as well.

ABDELFATAH: Of course, like in any society, there's a pecking order. Among those at the top, you've got the king of Egypt and the king of the Hittites. And then, you have the lower-level kings who basically report to those higher-ups. And by report, I mean complain.

CLINE: What's funny is the little guys are busy fighting among themselves or interacting and trading. And then they're, like, tattling on each other to mommy and daddy.


CLINE: So we get these letters to the Egyptian pharaohs that say, you know, Labayu is picking on me. He's invaded and he's raided my - can you do something? Send me 50 archers. And (laughter) so we're sitting there reading these and going, yeah, you know, nothing has changed.

ABDELFATAH: And then underneath those little-guy kings, you've got the merchant class.

CLINE: You've got the craftsman that are making the textiles and the ivories.

ABDELFATAH: You've got the farmers...

CLINE: ...Who are raising the crops that you're actually eating.


CLINE: Grain.


CLINE: Grapes.


CLINE: And on an occasional day, like a feast day or a religious holiday, maybe some sheep or goat.

ABDELFATAH: Along with wine and beer, which they drink like water since they couldn't really drink the water...

CLINE: ...'Cause you never knew what was in it.

ABDELFATAH: So more wine and more beer. Then after the peasant farmers, you've got enslaved people.

CLINE: And the slaves are usually, like, prisoners of war or tossed in there because they can't pay their debt or something like that. Nothing on, you know, race, creed, color, anything like that. But slaves - if you were born a slave, you were a slave. If you're captured in a war, you could be a king one day and a slave the next, which is usually not good. But so you've got all these levels of society from the lowest to the highest, which I would say is pretty much what you would expect.


CLINE: You know, similar to today, not that different.

ARABLOUEI: You know, you described the society. How was it better than what was around before for the average person? Was life more peaceful because of this interconnectivity facilitated by, you know, bronze, in a sense?

CLINE: Right. So the late Bronze Age seems to have been a pretty good period all around for most people. In fact, it looks like they were raising crops and animals and all that. And life was not bad for everyone at all levels of society - population seems to be increasing, the weather's not bad and then you've got the international trade.

ARABLOUEI: The late Bronze Age had a well-functioning globalized economy that seemed to allow many people to live pretty decent lives. Now, let's not overstate it here. There were still people who were not living decent lives at all, like the imprisoned, the enslaved and the poor. A golden age is never a golden age for everyone. We know that well now. Still, it was an evolving, advancing, modernizing world that seems a lot like ours does today.

CLINE: They're developing what I would say are all the trappings and hallmarks of civilization. You know, we get law codes now. We got Hittite law codes. There's a (laughter) penalty for biting off somebody's nose, you know. I know that's crazy.

ABDELFATAH: As there should be (laughter).

CLINE: (Laughter) And there should - yeah. So if you bite off somebody's nose, it'll cost you, like, 40 shekels if they pin it on you. So but you've also got...

ABDELFATAH: Is that a lot? Is 40...

CLINE: Yes, that's an awful lot.


CLINE: You don't want - yeah. You don't want to bite off someone's nose.


CLINE: But you've got Hammurabi's law code by about 1800 BCE with, you know, laws and regulations from everything for if your ox gores another guy or if he breaks down a barrier and ruins your field to what happens if you pay a builder to build a house for you and it collapses and kills your son, what do you get to do to that builder. And there's, you know, there's a penalty for it. There's a penalty for murder. There's a penalty for false accusation. So they've got law codes going on. They've got the government. And then what we would consider today, stories. They've got the legends. They've got the myths. They've got the history. And then, of course, they've got the religious beliefs.

ARABLOUEI: And remember - this is also a period where people are writing everything down, the laws, the legends, the religions, the poetry, everything. There were even common languages, so different societies could communicate with one another.

CLINE: That's why, you know, oh, people say this is prehistory. It's - I'm like, no, it's history because history, the definition, is writing this stuff down. And in this period, from 3,000 B.C.E. onward, you've got everything. You've got, you know, everything from love poetry to laws to myths of the gods and goddesses. So we're in a historical period starting about 5,000 years ago.

ARABLOUEI: A historical period that grew and grew in populations, art, math, astronomy. And people were learning from each other, sharing their talents and goods, everything from lapis lazuli to bananas to how to meld copper with tin. It was a golden age, a renaissance period in its own right.

CLINE: In fact, it might have been, at least temporarily, so good that they might have overextended themselves. On the whole, late Bronze Age is very good until suddenly it wasn't. And it looks like it happened not quite overnight, but, boy, when things turned and went south, they went south really fast.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, a thriving civilization implodes. And we search for what and who to blame.


JOSHUA: This is Joshua from Wichita, Calif. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE. I learned a lot of history from my grandfather. And after his passing in 2019, I started listening to THROUGHLINE. And after hearing your show, it's like hearing my grandfather's voice all over again. Thank you guys so much.


ABDELFATAH: Part 2 - How Heaven Burned.

ARABLOUEI: So I first learned about this story during a journey through an Internet wormhole when I accidentally landed on a video recording of one of Eric's lectures online. I couldn't get enough. First, I was fascinated by how similar the lives were of these people 3,000 years ago to our lives today. And not to mention that some of these people were probably my ancestors. Then came the morbid curiosity about how it all just ended. So I had to learn more about all the details. I just kept clicking away and clicking away, looking for more of Eric's lectures.


CLINE: Thank you very much. And you can all hear me? Well, welcome. My topic today, I'm going to talk about 1177 B.C.

Thank you, Jack (ph). And thank you all for coming out on a snowy night.

Thank you all for coming. I'm presuming you're out there. It's hard for me to see. But what I would like to do tonight...

ARABLOUEI: And in each telling of his story, he's very clear about what happened.


CLINE: Everything gets destroyed - everything that had been good, everything that had been ticking along merrily suddenly goes out as if somebody had just snapped their fingers.

ARABLOUEI: OK, but why?


CLINE: Now, the question is, what caused it? What really happened? What brought this down? Why did the Bronze Age come to an end?

ABDELFATAH: How did this happen? How does such an advanced world with international trade networks, bustling port cities and diplomatic ties suddenly just poof, disappear?

CLINE: This is one of what I would call history's great mysteries.

ABDELFATAH: And solving this mystery became Eric's obsession. He wanted to know what might have caused the collapse, including one of the theories that had been around for a long time.

CLINE: The Sea Peoples - they did it.

ABDELFATAH: The Sea Peoples, remember?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They came from the sea in their warships, and none could stand against them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They laid their hands upon the lands until as far as the circuit of the earth. Their hearts were confident and trusting as they said, our plans will succeed.

ABDELFATAH: This mystifying group who showed up during the late Bronze Age and raised hell, toppling every empire in their wake - or so the story goes.

CLINE: So the Sea Peoples, wow, they are mysterious. We know that the groups that we call the Sea Peoples attack Egypt twice.

ABDELFATAH: OK, so they were attackers.

CLINE: They do it in what we would call the year 1207 B.C.E. And then they come again 30 years later in what we would 1177 B.C.E., hence the title of the book. It's named after the second invasion.

ABDELFATAH: OK. And they did attack the most powerful civilization the year everything collapsed, so there's that. But all of this comes from Egyptian records, from the Egyptian point of view, of course.

CLINE: Those records from the Egyptians are like 90% of what we've got in terms of the written records. There are a couple of tablets, letters here and there that mention them. But really, we know about them from those two sets of inscriptions 30 years apart.

ARABLOUEI: So historians have pored over these records to learn as much as possible about this group, who they were, where they came from and what they wanted. One thing they gathered is that the Sea People weren't just one people but more like a confederation of multiple groups of people.

CLINE: Right. It's like a united federation, right. They're all working together. So there are nine different groups whose names we know.

ARABLOUEI: Groups like...

CLINE: The Sherden (ph).

ARABLOUEI: People who were perhaps originally from Sardinia. I say perhaps because a lot of the work of archaeologists like Eric is looking for clues and making educated guesses.

CLINE: And that's where the detective work comes in, because we have to piece this back together. And we may be right. We may be wrong. And that's where, you know, just like a missing puzzle piece in a jigsaw puzzle, that one last one can complete the picture for you.

ARABLOUEI: Which is how you go from Sardegna (ph) to Sardinia.

CLINE: So there's another group called the Shekelesh. That sounds a bit like Sicily. In one of the invasions there's a group called the Danuna.

ARABLOUEI: And then another group.

CLINE: Called the Eqwesh. And so people have said, oh, the Eqwesh. That sounds like a Akiia (ph) or Ahiaya (ph), which are names for mainland Greece.

ARABLOUEI: This is how history is made, people. No, I'm just kidding. But also, it's kind of true.

CLINE: You can see we're just - this is hypothesizing, right? It's just a guess. Yeah. So all of them are like that. We're not sure. So that's why I say the Sea Peoples are one of history's mysteries is we've never found a site where we can definitively say that's where they came from. It's never been found. One of these days, somebody gives me a million dollars, I want to go to Sicily and Sardinia and dig and look for the origins of the Sea Peoples.

ABDELFATAH: We're going, Ramtin. We'll like, hold his tools or whatever.

ARABLOUEI: I'll go if I get a cut of that mill (ph).

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, I'd like some of that, too.

ARABLOUEI: Jokes aside though, there's clearly so much we still don't know about the Sea Peoples. But many scholars now believe that all these groups swept across the Mediterranean from the west to the east during the late Bronze Age, moving through Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, until they ultimately arrived in Egypt. And maybe they came through to destroy each empire and achieve world domination, but Eric doesn't think so.

CLINE: So, you know, long story short, I can't tell you where the Sea Peoples come, and I can't really tell you where they go. But I also don't think that they did all the destruction that is attributed to them.

ARABLOUEI: What Eric thinks is much more likely is that the Sea Peoples weren't running towards something in order to create chaos, but rather they were running from something, trying to escape whatever chaos was occurring back home.

CLINE: I would actually look at them more as refugees, more as migrants. One of my colleagues, Ossoff Orlando (ph), said that they are as much victims as they are oppressors. And I would agree with that.

ARABLOUEI: Because the fact is, in the late Bronze Age, things were starting to unravel, whether everyone could see that or not.

CLINE: And what has happened is that by, I would say, the end of the 13th century, by 1,200 B.C.E., this globalized international civilization set, right? You've got nine civilizations or societies all interacting. Part of the problem is - and I don't want to point fingers at them - but I think they got, I wouldn't say complacent, but they were no longer each self-sufficient. They were dependent on the others. You wanted to make bronze? You needed tin. It comes from Afghanistan. You wanted silver? Much of that comes from Greece. You wanted gold? That's coming from Egypt 'cause they controlled Nubia and the Sudan and so on. They are not self-sufficient.

Had they been self-sufficient, they might have survived what was about to come. Instead, when one went down, the others all followed. It's like this row of dominoes. You tilt the first one and they all go down. And I think that that's kind of what happened back then because you have what I would call a perfect storm of catastrophic things that happened. My kids, when they were younger, they would talk about "A Series Of Unfortunate Events." And that's pretty much exactly what you've got here.

ARABLOUEI: A series of unfortunate events that brought the whole house down, one being drought - and not just any drought.

CLINE: But what we would call a mega drought. It lasts at least 150 years in this region, and in some areas, maybe as much as 300 years, which means you don't give people time to recuperate, right? If you've got a drought that's a year or two, OK, it'll be hard, but you can come back. Ten years - wow. But 200, 300 years? No way. You're dead before you can start to recuperate.

ABDELFATAH: This mega drought wasn't just devastating in the hundreds of years it lasted but in how much land it swallowed whole.

CLINE: We now have evidence for it in northern Syria, in Israel, in Cyprus, even Egypt.

ABDELFATAH: On top of all that, there's also evidence of massive earthquakes hitting different parts of the Middle East in just five decades. You know how everyone's worried about the big one hitting the West Coast some day? Imagine that happening many times for 50 years.

CLINE: So you've got this climate change - that's really the only name for it - causing these droughts. And from that, we get famine.


CLINE: And famine, of course, can be very hard to find, archaeologically, unless you've got, you know, dead bodies in a pit. But what we've got are the texts.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There is famine in your house. We will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.

CLINE: There's a Hittite queen who writes down to Ramesses II in Egypt, and she says, I have no grain in my lands, right? They're starving up there. We've got a letter that says...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Do you not know that there was a famine in the midst of my lands?

CLINE: And one Hittite king says...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) It's a matter of life and death.

CLINE: Egypt actually sends, I guess, what today we would call a mission, a rescue mission, a relief mission. So what had been enemies, the Egyptians and the Hittites, they're now doing relief missions because they're all suffering.


ARABLOUEI: The droughts led to crop failure, which led to food shortages, which led to the famine, which led to mass migration of people trying to survive. All of this puts a big kibosh on trade - a huge kibosh

CLINE: The simple fact of the matter is that all the international trade basically grinds to a halt almost overnight. They're trading with everybody - Egypt and the Hittites and all that - right up until the end. And all of a sudden, they aren't.

ABDELFATAH: When the trading suddenly stopped, societies along the routes, now stretching across this entire region of the world, were thrown into even more chaos and destruction.

CLINE: Say you have a port city, port city like Ugarit or Byblos or somewhere else. And all of the sudden, where you had 50 or 100 ships from six or seven different places, now you've got nobody. Now you've got maybe three ships rotting and a tanker.

ARABLOUEI: And it wasn't just one port city in one region; it was ports in multiple cities, in multiple empires, cut off at the same time, turning these once-bustling coasts and urban centers into ghost towns.

CLINE: Who's going to make textiles? And who's going to buy textiles? Who's going to buy all the dried fish? Who's going to go fishing?

ABDELFATAH: No more trading likely meant no more tin, and no more tin meant no more bronze. I mean, imagine the supply chain for the No. 1 product in the world going dark almost overnight.

ARABLOUEI: It would be as if, like, the Persian Gulf completely started to shut down, right? And the U.S. could no longer gain access to oil. That would put our civilization in a really bad place, given that we're so - still so reliant on oil. Or if the Texas oil fields all blew up or something.

CLINE: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, yeah, something happens in the Persian Gulf, it's going to affect the harbors - New York City, Long Beach, California, anything like that. And then all of the sudden, you're going to have, you know, toilet paper shortages, bottled water shortages. You're going to have things where you didn't expect. Oh, my word - I can't get this; I can't get that. I think that is to a certain extent what it might have been like back then. All of the sudden, you would have been much more on your own. You would have been self-sufficient, and you either survived or you didn't. But life as they had known it for a couple of hundred years, that was now the good old days.

ARABLOUEI: Not only because they were cut off from arguably their most powerful resource, but because they were, in effect, cut off from each other.

CLINE: Life as they knew it in terms of connections with everybody else ends.


ABDELFATAH: Systems were failing, and people were fleeing. Some theories say that many of those who couldn't flee might have revolted, that as the peasants and the farmers starved, the ruling classes hid inside their opulent palaces, shielding themselves from the suffering outside. And that suffering was making people desperate, and desperation breeds violence and rebellions.

CLINE: So we know there's drought. We know there's famine. And hard on the heels, there are invaders.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) My father, now the ships of the enemy have come. They have been setting fires to my cities and have done harm to the land. Doesn't my father know that all of my infantry and chariotry are stationed in Khatte and that all of my ships are stationed in the land of Lukka? They have not arrived back yet, so the land is thus prostrate.

CLINE: Now, we know that the Egyptians talk about the sea peoples. We now have texts that talk about unnamed invaders. They don't tell us who they are. They're probably the sea peoples, but we don't know.

ARABLOUEI: There were invasions happening in many cities, some led by the sea peoples, and others most likely from other groups, including from people in these various kingdoms. There were so many internal uprisings taking place at this point, which makes it that much harder to pin all the violence and upheaval on the sea peoples alone. As Eric said, there's just no definitive evidence that sea people were behind it all. It almost seems impossible that they could have caused so much widespread destruction. It would have been really impressive, actually, considering the fact that everything was on fire.

CLINE: There are arrowheads in the walls. There are bodies in the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt, and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our cities sacked - may you know it. May you know it.


CLINE: So, you know, when I say a perfect storm of calamities, I mean it, right? Drought, famine, invaders.

ARABLOUEI: By the end of the Bronze Age, Syria, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Cyprus and Greece were all burning - not because of one group of people or multiple groups of people, but because of the destabilization of a globalized world, a coming-undone.

CLINE: Life as you knew it basically ended.


ARABLOUEI: With the collapse of these kingdoms, their royalty, their peasants, their markets, their trade, also went things like pottery, tools, architecture and, for some, like the Mycenaeans, even their languages.

CLINE: I mean, they forget how to write, which means the 1% that could read or write, they're dead.

ARABLOUEI: The interconnected world as they knew it was gone.

CLINE: Life as they knew it in 1200 changes. It's different - and 1100. And by 1000, it's totally different.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, a collapsed world, a transformation and a new dawn.


SARAH BOWLER: Hi. This is Sarah Bowler (ph), and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. I love this podcast so much. I'm a law studies teacher at a high school level, and I use your episodes often in my classroom. I always love getting the notifications when there's a new episode. And please keep doing this. It is wonderful, and I love it. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Part three - the phoenix rises.


ABDELFATAH: As the rivers ran dry and the crops ceased to grow and the ground rumbled with fury and invaders landed upon the shores, the end of days must have seemed near.

CLINE: You've got all the four horsemen of the apocalypse, if you will.


ABDELFATAH: But while the world as they knew it had ended, the world itself didn't end.


ABDELFATAH: If there's any constant in life, it's that nothing is constant - even collapse.

ARABLOUEI: And after the dust settled, the question became...

CLINE: What's next? What do you do after your civilization's collapsed? Well...

ARABLOUEI: Well, lucky for us, that's where Eric's next book picks up.

CLINE: The sequel is simply called "After 1177."


ABDELFATAH: That's - you know what? That feels more straightforward than having to figure out the date and all that.

CLINE: It's - exactly, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: OK - simple title, not so simple though.

CLINE: Because remember - we're talking about seven, eight, nine different societies, each of them hit with different stressors to different degrees and each of them responding in different ways. There is no one-size-fits-all here. The way that I've been telling myself - in terms of the collapse, it's as if everybody's at the same starting point of a race that starts in 1200 B.C., as they're all collapsing. Everybody eventually finishes the race, except for those who don't, but some finish the race in 80 years, some in 100, some in 300. And like I say, some don't finish at all.


ARABLOUEI: Eric says that from what he can tell, the biggest thing that seems to separate the societies that survived from the ones that didn't was their ability to adapt.

ABDELFATAH: You've got no more access to bronze? Start using iron instead.

CLINE: End of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age.

ABDELFATAH: All your trade networks have shut down? Find new lifelines.

CLINE: Reaching out - international cooperation - you help me, I'll help you.

ABDELFATAH: Your home is a hot mess, with no food or water around? Move to a new place.

CLINE: You know, start picking up the pieces and bit by bit, literally reinventing themselves.

ARABLOUEI: In fact, some people didn't just survive after the collapse, they thrived, finding new opportunities where there weren't any before.

CLINE: You've got people that had not been players or even existed back in the Bronze Age are now the main players in the Iron Age. It is sometimes called antifragile. That is, not only don't you go down, but you take advantage of chaos.

ABDELFATAH: Think about it. Hierarchies, power structures, economic systems that had been so fixed in place were now gone. This was a chance to reset the rules, to spread the wealth. And Eric found that one group was especially good at taking advantage of the collapse - the Phoenicians.

CLINE: It looks like the Phoenicians, who are the survivors of the Canaanites in really what is now Lebanon, going up into southern Syria and down into northern Israel, they take advantage of Ugarit having been destroyed. The Mediterranean becomes their private lake. And so they start sailing over to Greece, over to Italy, over to Spain. And they're not only bringing their purple dye, which they're known for, but they are bringing the alphabet.

ABDELFATAH: That alphabet, by the way, would become the Greek alphabet and the Latin alphabet, which we're still using today.

CLINE: And they are going to lead to things like democracy in Greece and monotheism and a lot of what we still have today. So part of me wishes the collapse had never happened. And imagining a kind of a contrapositive future, what would have happened if the Babylonians and Assyrians were still around? And part of me is glad that they did collapse because they allowed a new set of societies, civilizations, to emerge. And we are the direct descendants of some of those. So in some ways, seems a little strange to say it, but if that collapse hadn't happened, we would be living in a very different world today.


ABDELFATAH: One of the things we talked with Eric about a lot was whether collapse is even the right word for what happened in 1177 B.C. That maybe, since things didn't end permanently and instead morphed into something new, a better word might be transformation.

CLINE: A couple of scholars have said collapse and transformation are two sides of the same coin, which they are. But I think for sure that the world that I've been describing to you of the late Bronze Age, that collapsed, that is gone. The world in 1200 was very different from the world 200 years later in 1000 BCE. But did it collapse overnight? Was it, you know, here today, gone tomorrow? No.

ARABLOUEI: So the average person probably didn't have a clue what was really happening.

CLINE: When they were in the middle of the collapse, did they know they were collapsing? Did somebody run around? Was there, you know, (laughter) was there somebody going, oh, my God, the sky is falling? You know, is there a Chicken Little? Yeah, I don't see that. I don't see any indication that they knew their whole system was collapsing.

ARABLOUEI: Eric says while 1177 B.C. is a convenient shorthand, most people probably experienced it as a series of disastrous events over an extended period of time, which required radical changes to how they lived their lives.

CLINE: It's a frog in the boiling water, right? They just transformed or they didn't. And then they went away. So do you call that a collapse or a transformation? I call it a collapse. I also call it a transformation.

ABDELFATAH: If you live through either a collapse or a transformation, I don't know that you care what it's called. At a certain point, you're like, it's massive change. And the growing pains are hard either way...


ABDELFATAH: ...I guess.


ABDELFATAH: And so I guess I'm just thinking, like, for people listening today, given our world and given the stressors on us right now, what do we take away from both the kind of collapse slash transformation and also the resilience that followed, the rebirth?

CLINE: One thing that I might take away is we're talking here about the late Bronze Age collapse. What we're not talking about is all the other times when we did not collapse, when people got to the brink and were able to fix it and not collapse. One could argue that the times when we did not collapse greatly outnumber the times when we did collapse. And if you go that route, then you could argue that we as a society, as a civilization, as a group, we are much more resilient than we might think we are - times when we got to the brink and we were able to pull back. So we may be heading towards the brink, but it's not too late to pull back. I am optimistic that we have the technology, the intelligence, and that we have read our ancient history and can learn from it enough that we can say no, not again, not us.

ARABLOUEI: It's not clear what comes next. Are we the frog in the water? Are we on the brink of collapse, of transformation? It's a strange thing to feel like the world is at a standstill yet changing nearly every moment. But that's kind of what this past year has felt like. A sense of fragility, of vulnerability hangs over everything, especially when it comes to our democracy. And we're not used to having these conversations in the U.S. with words like insurrection, siege, chaos, collapse, which is why we're hearing so many people say, well, this happens in other places, not here.

ABDELFATAH: But when I think about where our parents came from, Ramtin, where they began their lives and where they are now, it's humbling. They know all too well how quickly things can change, how forces beyond their control can throw their lives and the societies they live in totally off course, forcing them to flee, to become refugees, to reinvent themselves in a new place. No society is totally immune from that possibility.


ABDELFATAH: So to paraphrase "Game Of Thrones," what do we say to collapse? Not today.


ARABLOUEI: Before we go, we're super excited to tell you about our next series.

ABDELFATAH: For the next three weeks, we're going to bring you profiles of Black visionaries who imagine new worlds for the Black diaspora.


MARCUS GARVEY: We want to unite the Negro race in this country.

ARABLOUEI: Visionaries like Marcus Garvey, who electrified his followers with the idea of Black self-sufficiency and self-determination and a return to Africa.


GARVEY: We want every Negro to work for one common object, that of building a nation of his own on the great continent of Africa.

ABDELFATAH: Visionaries like Octavia Butler, who melded past, present and future to create alternative realities in her writing.


OCTAVIA BUTLER: These novels are not prophetic. These novels are cautionary tales. These novels are - if we are not careful, you know, if we carry on as we have been, this is what we might wind up with.

ABDELFATAH: Visionaries like Bayard Rustin, who decades before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech, strategized about what was possible if you combined Gandhi's nonviolence with the civil rights movement in the U.S.


OSSIE DAVIS: The executive director of the March on Washington, the man who organized this whole thing, Mr. Bayard Rustin.


BAYARD RUSTIN: Ladies and gentlemen, the first demand is that we have effective civil rights legislation - no compromise, no filibuster.

ABDELFATAH: Imagining New Worlds - our first episode drops next week.


RUSTIN: What do you say?


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me...

ABDELFATAH: ...And me and...







ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you to Saif-ur-Rehman Khan, Homam Albaroudi, Shimon Dotan, Jamil Zreikat and Sumaia Abdelfatah - aka Rund's amazing mom - for their voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Yolanda Sangweni, Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann. Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Michael Levy, whose recording of "Hurrian Hymn To Nikkal" was heard in this episode. You can hear the whole track on Michael's album that came out last year called "Echoes Of Ancient Mesopotamia And Canaan."

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to our guest, Eric Cline. His book is called "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed." A revised and updated edition of the book is coming out in February.

ARABLOUEI: And we have some exciting news to share. THROUGHLINE is launching as a radio show. If you're a fan of the show and want to hear it on your local NPR station, reach out and let them know that you want to hear THROUGHLINE on your local airwaves.

ABDELFATAH: And, as always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, email us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter - @throughlinenpr. Thanks for listening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A special thanks to the estate of Samir Naguib for helping to support this podcast.

ABDELFATAH: Before we go, we just want to mention one last thing. NPR is releasing a photo book called "Pictures On The Radio," a collection of photographs taken by the late David Gilkey.

ARABLOUEI: He was an incredible photographer who was killed on assignment for NPR in Afghanistan in 2016. You can buy the book at your local bookstore, on Amazon or shop at npr.org.

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