No Water, No Food: The Younger Dryas, Then and Now

About 12,800 years ago, the global climate suddenly cooled. Here in the Levant, the change also resulted in dry conditions that lasted for about 1,300 years.

I was reminded of this by two headlines today in one of the Levant’s leading newspapers: Israel Faces 350 Million Cubic Meter Shortage In Water Supply; The World Food Price Crisis Comes to Israel: Prices Rose 9% In The Past Year (that one’s only in the Hebrew edition, for some reason).

The cold, dry spell of the twelfth and thirteenth millennia BCE is called the Younger Dryas. Because the first evidence of human farming appears in the archaeological record at the same time (see my earlier post, Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution), some scholars have hypothesized that, because of the drought of the Younger Dryas, the people living in the area stretching from present-day Israel up through southern Turkey could no longer obtain sufficient food by hunting and gathering and, as a result, had to turn to farming, and then to the establishment of settled, larger communities in order to ensure a more stable and abundant food supply.

Today’s water shortage in Israel may be caused in part by climate change. We’ve had more erratic rains and more drought years in the last decade than in previous ones on record. However, caution is called for: detailed precipitation records don’t go that far back, and short-term changes in rainfall patterns can have a variety of local and regional causes, not just global ones.

What’s certain is that one big cause of today’s water shortage is bad planning. For years, Israeli farmers have been encouraged to grow thirsty crops and have benefited from low water prices that encouraged waste. The country’s water tables have been over-exploited and are in danger of collapse. Investments in desalination and water recycling facilities have been inadequate, stymied in many cases by budget planners in the Ministry of Finance who, in doing their job of keeping Israel’s national budget deficit in check, have ignored the advice of experts and maintained that one drought year after another has been an exception, and that the rains will certainly come next year. (The Younger Dryas was also temporary, but it lasted a long time.)

Food prices are rising mostly because of global changes. The burgeoning populations of China and India are consuming more grain, so demand is rising. But there’s a local element as well—here in Israel we benefited for many years from artificially low prices as a result of government subsidies and cheap labor from the occupied territories.

The advent of farming was not necessarily a blessing. Hunter-gatherer bands are forced to limit their population because they are on the move all the time and small children cannot be easily transported. Farming requires lots of working hands, so populations grew rapidly during the Neolithic period. That created more pressure on the food supply, requiring more sophisticated forms of social organization that could build public works like irrigation systems, and form armies to fight for scarce resources against other communities.

Not all scholars think farming resulted directly from the advent of new climactic challenges. An intriguing (and controversial) recent book by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods argues that farming and settled communities were a by-product of a change in human consciousness that produced a new understanding of the relationship between the self and the world, and the first concept of a relationship between the human and the divine.

Whatever theory is correct, it’s clear that the climate change of the Younger Dryas coincided with the construction of a new kind of identity that was based both on belonging to a larger community—what we call today a nation—and on a set of shared beliefs—what we call today religion.

Most scholars agree that, while the Neolithic transition jump-started much of what we today call civilization—art, dance, literature (oral at first), architecture—it did not create happier people. Farmers had to work harder to produce enough food for their larger families, and had to hand much of it over to a non-farming class that saw to defense, public works, worship, and public culture.

That happened when the population of the Middle East probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now it numbers in the hundreds of millions.

For all our focus on the specific grievances and historical processes that produced the current Israel-Arab conflict, the looming water and food crises far outweigh them in importance. Given the huge population affected by these crises, they can only be addressed if the peoples of the region find a way to work together to solve them. Otherwise, war over historic justice and injustice will turn into wars over natural resources, and in those wars there will be no quarter.

Today’s headlines, and the precedent of the thirteenth millennium BCE, should give everyone in the region pause. If we don’t get a little perspective, we’ll head straight into another major transition into greater human misery.

1 thought on “No Water, No Food: The Younger Dryas, Then and Now”

  1. I came across this interesting site in looking for information about the timing for the start of the Younger Dryas in and around southern Turkey, and the information here sets that date at around 12,800 years ago. The earliest known temple complex (Gobekli Tepe, and it covers 25 acres) has an initial carbon dating at about 12,400. There is an informative blog article at
    My speculation is that this complex dates to just prior to the Younger Dryas at a time when the vegetation was lush and wild life pletiful — sort of a paleolithic version of the Garden of Eden. The Younger Dryas forced it to be abandoned, but not before it was covered with earth (to protect it for the return of the group?). Anyway, in my mind this sequence sort of parallels Genesis. The Early Ones were living in a warm climate in a garden like setting, and then they displeased the gods and were turned out into a cold, barren wilderness. Could have been the basis for a long-lasting cultural memory of sorts.

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