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El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations

by Brian Fagan

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-465-01120-9
Publisher: Basic

Fagan (Time Detectives, 1995, etc.) draws on his archaeology background to intriguingly explore the correlation between unusual climatic shifts and unusual historical events. El Ni§o is a blooming of warm Pacific water, pushing eastward along the tropics, bucking the northeast trade winds. For years it was thought to be a localized anomaly particular to the northern Peruvian coast. Now it is appreciated as a colossal climatic happening that interacts with other climatic systems as part of a global weather machine. Fagan traces El Ni§o from its first reckonings to the large-scale weather predictions made today when satellites detect its upwelling appearance. He then goes on to speculate on how El Ni§o’s hell spawn—catastrophic extended drought and biblical storms—may have contributed to the demise of ancient civilizations. Drawing examples from pharaonic Egypt, early Mesopotamia, the Anasazi of North America, the Moche world of northern Peru, and the flamboyant classic Mayans, Fagan describes how these peoples responded to the curveballs (50-year droughts that robbed their artful irrigation works of water, rain that washed away their guano, currents that stole their anchovies) thrown at them by El Ni§o. Some moved; some muddled through, diminished; some had the flexibility to find ways to make the land more productive; others collapsed, their already stressed environment caving in before the climatic assault that additionally undermined the peoples’ faith in their divinities and in the omnipotence of their rulers. Lastly, Fagan points to El Ni§o’s savagings today of people who are the least equipped to face it: the delta dwellers in their ramshackle huts, the farmers and others at the mercy of landowners and political bosses who thrive on the manipulation of relief aid. It is to Fagan’s credit that he doesn’t attribute to El Ni§o sole responsibility for the march of history but rather neatly fits its cruel weather into the matrix of circumstances that pushed great civilizations to—and some over—the brink. (20 maps and drawings, not seen) (Radio satellite tour)