IV. Environment and Conflict in History The database of conflict and environment cases shows a broad variety if issues but at a high level of inspection

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Time Period



Environmental Breadth


General Resources


Climate Change

The end of the Ice Age and the extraordinary period of global warming about 10,000 years ago produced social impacts in South Asia, as it had in other parts of the world. As in the Middle East, “the melting of ice from the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas began ten thousand years ago. The trickling flow of clean and pure water merged into streams and currents and turned into confluence of streams that turned into rivers flowing down the slopes into the plains of northwest India. The fertile area came to be other “edens” that emerged with early urban settlement patterns along the banks of lush and fertile rivers. This is especially true in South Asia where the Saraswati, Indus, Yamuna, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, and Ganges are a few rivers that can be named as having formed out of this melting of ice caps.”61 (This was also the case in the Middle East.) As the ice receded, humans advanced.

“With the ending of the Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, Himalayan glaciers melted and flowed into the rivers of South Asia. One recipient was the Saraswati River, now a lost river that at one time supported many early city-states. Due to earthquakes and great floods it changed its course over six times.” With the end of glacier melt and a drying climate the river began to dry up and no longer flowed into the Arabian Sea. The many cities that developed along the river eventually expired. The only cities to develop outside of this region were Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. 62

From 8,000 BC, the Mesolithic age began and spread into the Indian sub-continent around 4,000 BC. During this time, hunters used sharp and pointed tools for hunting and killing fast-moving animals. The beginning of plant cultivation appeared. The Chotanagpur Plateau, central India and south of the Krishna River are various Mesolithic sites on the sub-continent. Neolithic (New Stone Age) settlements date back to 4,000 BC. 63 These cultures evolved into the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization. These were the Dravidian people.

Urban settlements began in South Asia as they had in the Middle East, originating in river valleys. There was considerable technology transfer over a long period of time that included ideas of social organization. “Sometime around 6000 BCE a nomadic herding people settled into villages in the mountainous region just west of the Indus River. There they grew barley and wheat using sickles with flint blades, and they lived in small houses built with adobe bricks. After 5000 BCE [Before the Common Era], the climate in their region changed, bringing more rainfall, and apparently, they were able to grow more food, for they grew in population. They began domesticating sheep, goats and cows and then water buffalo. After 4000 BCE they began to trade beads and shells with distant areas in central Asia and areas west of the Khyber Pass and they began using bronze and working metals.”64

A wet period of climate followed and produced a myriad of environmental impacts. “The climate changed again, bringing still more rainfall, and on the nearby plains, through which ran the Indus River, grew jungles inhabited by crocodiles, rhinoceros, tigers, buffalo and elephants. By around 2600 B.C., a civilization as sophisticated as Mesopotamia and Egypt had begun on the Indus Plain and surrounding areas...Along the Indus and other major rivers in South Asia, there were seventy or more cities. The composition or peoples of cities varied with specialty.”65

The arrival of cities coincided with the arrival of new building techniques and the creation of houses (that replaced tents which had replaced caves). The invention of building technologies allowed humans to create their own personalized caves at locations nearby to food sources. “One of these cities was Mohenjo-Daro, on the Indus River some 250 miles north of the Arabian Sea, and another city was Harappa, 350 miles to the north on a tributary river, the Ravi. Each of these two cities had populations as high as around 40,000.”66 The infrastructure of the city used of the newest building technology – bricks. Most buildings in these early cities were constructed with manufactured, standardized, baked bricks. Over the centuries, the need for wood for brick making (for making a fire to bake the bricks) denuded the countryside and may have contributed to the downfall of the cities (through a declining energy supply). The Harappans used the same size bricks and standard weights as the people of Mohenjo-Daro, indicating some degree of technology transfer and standardization.”67

The technology of agricultural production that began along the Tigris-Euphrates River spread more rapidly to the east than the west. South Asian, Southeast Asian and East Asian cities arose and adopted similar subsistence production systems based on large, fertile river valleys that enjoyed seasonal fluctuations of flooding. Specialization led to surpluses and trade and thus the development of external relations. “Wheat, barley and the date palm were cultivated; animals were domesticated; and the cotton textiles, ivory and copper were exported to Mesopotamia, and possibly China and Burma in exchange for silver and other commodities. Production of several metals such as copper, bronze, lead and tin also began.” 68

The Aryan peoples began moving westward from their home in steppes of Eurasia sometime around 2000 BC. Their lifestyle was nomadic, based on raising cattle. Aryan peoples entered the Punjab about 1500 BC from the grasslands and steppes of central Asia and conquered the darker-skinned Dravidian peoples (and others). Over time, the Aryans drove further into the subcontinent and pushed the dark-skinned Dravidians to the south. The Aryans were illiterate, pastoral, spoke an Indo-European language. The Aryans created the basis for India’s caste system that favored them over the Dravidians.

Aryans were mostly herders of animals and had little in the way of settled city areas. The Aryans replaced or melded with the earlier Dravidian cultures and imposed a new society. Extensive excavations at the key cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro suggest that Dravidian culture was fully in place by 2500 BC. The Dravidians were among the first people to enter India in the Indus River valley and found huge forests. “Clearing the forests over the centuries was an epic project and one that is still preserved in Indian literature.”69

“Mohenjo-Daro was a city located on the south of Modern Pakistan in the Sind Province, on the right bank of the Indus River.” Meaning “mound of the dead”, it was one of the major cities of the Harappan civilization. The city was abandoned around 1700 BC around the time of the Aryan invasions. It is thought that the underlying cause was a change in the course of the Indus River.70 There is little indication to show an integration of the cultures but this fact is disputed. Some scholars believe “Harappa was more or less a dead end (at least as far as we know); the Aryans adopted almost nothing of Harappan culture.”71

Was there some catastrophic event that destroyed the city more suddenly? Geologists suggest that earthquakes in southern Pakistan, through rock slides, could have dammed the Indus River and prevented it from running down to the Indian Ocean. The Indus River would have broken its banks and flooded the surrounding plains, submerging many of the fields.” 72 It may have also drowned the city and people of Mohenjo-Daro.

Mahenjo-Daro was a key Dravidian center and built with conflict in mind. “Defensively Mohenjo-daro was a well fortified city. Though it did not have city walls it did have towers to the west of the main settlement, and defensive fortifications to the south.”73 The city was built to be a military and commercial center.

The early Rigvedic period last from roughly 1700 to 1000 BC and spawned the earliest literature in the region according to the Rig Veda poems. This period also initiated the caste systems. The Aryans started with only two classes, noble and common. After conquering the darker skinned Dravidians they “added a third: the Dasas, or “darks” and a fourth for the priests of the new religion.74 In the Later Vedic Period that lasted from 1000 to 500 BC, the Aryans cut through the forests and reached the Ganges River. During this time the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were written.

The Indus Valley civilization of the Dravidians lasted from about 2500 BC to 1700 BC and the invasion of the Aryans. The Aryans were aided by other factors. “It is possible that the periodic shifts in the courses of the major rivers of the valley may have deprived the cities of flood waters necessary for their surrounding agricultural lands.” The food shortage led to structural weakness and vulnerability to Aryans raiders.75 Perhaps the wound was self inflicted.

“People dammed the water along the lower portion of the Indus River without realizing the consequences: temporary but ruinous flooding up river, flooding that would explain the thick layers of silt thirty feet above the level of the river at the site of Mohenjo-Daro. Another suspected cause is a decline in rainfall and an accompanying drop off in the abundance of food. This could also indicate an insufficient military strength and will to secure food supplies from distant areas. Whatever the causes, people abandoned the city in search of food. Later, a few people of a different culture settled in some of the abandoned cities such as Mohenjo-Daro, in what archaeologists call a "squatter period." Then the squatters disappeared. Knowledge of the Mohenjo-Daro civilization died -- until archaeologists discovered the civilization in the twentieth century.”

The changing environmental periods produced substantial impacts on the society. “Nearing the end of the Indus Valley Civilization, the cities began to wither and the strong economy slowly deteriorated. Most likely the intermittent floods put an end to this civilization. Floods wiped out the irrigation system that supplied water to the crops, and many of the buildings were smothered.”76

Mohenjo-daro may have been a victim of its own success. “Another theory suggests that the decline was led by population boom. Houses became increasingly overcrowded; increasingly, buildings and even courtyards were sub-divided. Space available for occupation diminished due to the steadily rising levels of the Indus.”77

The domestication of the horse in Eurasia provided a critical step in both political and technological development in South Asia and may have been the force behind Aryan military power. Originating in the steppes of Asia, the horse with a stirrup provided a considerable economic and military advantage. Some scholars believe that the horse was the key to the Mongol’s ability to create the largest empire in human history around the 13th century. Much of the later military domination of the New World by the Old World is attributable to the differential natural endowments of the Middle Eastern and American eco-systems. This is especially true in the case of the horse. The extinction of potential animal domesticates among the Pleistocene mega fauna rendered the American Indians vulnerable to military conquest by European adventurers mounted on horseback.78

Drawing from rather mundane inventions such as the stirrup and the animal-driven plow, the chariot was the next great military invention. One factor in the fall of Mohenjo-Daro was the vast migrations of chariot peoples in the 2nd millennium BC. These people’s possessed superior military resources and technology compared to the Dravidians. This technology gradually spread through trade. For example, during King Solomon's reign over Israel (970-931 B.C.), chariots and horses were imported from Egypt and exported to Asia Minor.79

The Bharatiya Janata Part (BJP) became the opposition leader in India in 1991 and “took power in four key Indian states. The BJP-led opposition ordered the rewriting of history textbooks so that they refer to a glorious Hindi past and denigrate Muslim kings.”80 The BJP believe that it was the Dravidians who civilized the nomadic Aryans. “Hence, our alternative explanation is that Barbarians came to India from outside and established Aryan civilization by coming in contact with Indian or Hindu Aryans.”81

“The BJP contends Aryans were the original inhabitants of the entire country and they were the founders of the two main Hindu cultures, Vedic and Harappian.” Archaeological finds suggest that Aryans were related only to the Vedic culture. The BJP perspective intends to provide a unified history of all Indians, both north and south (generally Aryans versus Dravidian peoples). This is currently aimed at identifying Indian Muslims as foreigners and latter day invaders. This view would be diluted if their origins were from Aryans, who themselves were foreigners.82

The understanding of migration into the Indian sub-continent has a long history and a long period of debate. “British, Germans, Europeans as a whole, and interestingly Indian intellectuals in British ruled India as well, believed that about 1500 BC a nomadic people, called Aryans, invaded northwest frontiers of India, coming from the Central Asia or some part of Europe through the passes like Khyber in Hindu Kush range and defeated and drove away the local inferior Dravidians.”83 To some extent, the British saw themselves as the inheritors of the Aryan tradition.
b. The Decline of the Mayans




Social Type


Source Resources


Arable Land

Climates change and the societies that survive in them develop quite calibrated survival instruments. If the climate changes or if the society does, as in increases in population or technology, the system of balance is easily upset. Jared Diamond uses microclimate impacts on societal development in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel to illustrate the consequences.84 These microclimates may often represent desired ecotones. Diamond’s work is similar to that of archaeologist Carole Crumley’s. She finds that ecotones correspond to behavioral limits of certain cultural and ethnic groups. For example, Bantu groups in Southern Africa were able to thrive in areas with heavy summer rains, but further south with the Mediterranean-like climates, their agricultural techniques were quite ineffective. Technologies fit the climate. As climates change, these technologies and economic subsistence systems may fail or are forced to undergo change.

Several scholars have discussed the role of climate in history including Durant and Durant and Braudel.85 Climatic regimes or “ecotones” define not only environmental systems but also the cultural systems that accompany them, especially those based on agriculture. Crumley examined changes in Europe’s major ecotone regimes (oceanic, continental and Mediterranean) from 1200 to 500 BC. The oceanic climates favored the Celts and tribes of northern Europe while the Mediterranean climates regimes favored the Romans. Their cultural and agricultural systems could effectively operate in one regime but not the other. Crumley points out that change in political boundaries mirrored change in climate.

People moved to the Mayan lowlands about 8,000 BC and farming began around 2,000 BC. Researchers put the range of population from four to 14 million, rather large centers of civilization for that time in history. Around 800 AD, prolonged drought hit the region and within 100 years, the area was for the most part depopulated.86

The shift in climate that occurred over the last portion of the first millennium (700 to 1,000 A.D.) led to a warming trend especially in the Northern Hemisphere. This allowed the Vikings to move to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the New World. But the warming up north saw a parallel warming in the south. This warming was not beneficial to humans (and other beings that rely on water), and periods of heat and drought settled in across Central American. Due to the shift in climate to a drier pattern, there was an overexploitation of the rain-forest ecosystem, on which the Maya depended for food.

The changing temperature patterns during this period in the Yucatan were part of a widespread shift. The period 790-950 AD was characterized by “widespread cold throughout the Northern Hemisphere and drought in the Mayan lowlands. California tree rings from the White Mountains show a sharp drop in temperatures from AD 790 to 950.” 87 This evidence mirrors other findings in Sweden and Greenland. Thus, the climate changes produce entirely different kinds of behavior for Vikings and Mayans (see earlier Viking and later Anasazi case studies).

Hansen points to an earlier such collapse of civilizations in the area around 150-200 AD, and others such as Bruce Dahlin and Richard Adams support this view. Perhaps these long-term changes in climate, which alter ecotone types and boundaries resonate differently in different parts of the world, also resonate across time.

The Mayan civilization stretched though the Mexican Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, and into portions of El Salvador and Honduras. By the year 500 AD they had developed advanced writing, agricultural, astronomy, and other breakthroughs during a time when Europe was in the Dark Ages. But the civilization abruptly collapsed long before the Spaniards arrived in the Americas. The Mayan case is a classic example of overshoot and collapse, where the technology, size of population and intensity of agriculture overwhelmed the capacity of the land to hold its arability. Declining agricultural yields, coupled with dry climactic conditions, precipitated the collapse of the human system. It was not only a collapse of human but also of plants and animals in the system as it went through a transition phase. Richardson Gill believes that the “collapse occurred of external natural circumstances that the Mayans neither controlled nor caused.” 88

In both the priesthood and the ruling class, nepotism was apparently the prevailing system for institutional power of the Maya. Primogeniture (the choosing of a first born son as an heir) was the form for choosing new kings. After the birth of an heir, the kings performed a sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering to his ancestors. A human sacrifice marked the new king's installation in office. To be a king, one must have taken a captive to serve as victim in the accession ceremony. The ritual killing was part of nature’s cycle. The religious explanation that upheld the institution of kingship and the basis for authority was that Maya rulers were necessary for continuance of the “Universe”.89

External and internal warfare was a key factor in Mayan civilization. There were ongoing wars between peoples; torture and human sacrifice were a regular part of social practices, including religious holidays, sporting events and building dedications.90 Blood was a constant part of Mayan society. To start a war, the king would impale himself (usually through the penis) with a sharp object (like the stinger of the sting ray) and show his blood to the troops. Captured enemies were decapitated and their heads used to play a ball-like play sport. It was the captain of the victorious team however that was the sacrifice. Ritual execution was a norm if the crops failed or to counter a variety of other societal maladies.

Blood letting was partly a means to control population, but it was also symbolic of a society with endemic, ongoing violence. Uncontrolled warfare was probably one of the main consequences of the decline in soil arability. In the centuries after 250 AD, the start of the Classic period of Mayan civilization, the occasional skirmishes grew into vicious wars accompanied by scorched earth polices, where the total existence of the enemy was burnt and destroyed.

Arthur Demarest's Mayan excavations suggested two distinct periods: before 761 AD and after. Before then, wars were well-orchestrated battles to seize dynastic power and procure royal captives for very public and ornate executions. But after 761, he notes, "wars led to wholesale destruction of property and people, reflecting a breakdown of social order comparable to modern Somalia." In that year, the king and warriors of nearby Tamarindito and Arroyo de Piedra besieged Dos Pilas. "They defeated the king of Dos Pilas and probably dragged him back to Tamarindito to sacrifice him."91 One explanation for the abrupt change was the intense rivalries for power among its members. These rivalries, alongside shrinking food resources, perhaps exploded into civil war and triggered the social collapse and state failure.

Archaeologist T. Patrick Culbert reported that pollen found in underground debris suggests there were almost no tropical forest left at the time of the Mayan collapse. A sediment sample taken from the Cariaco Basin off Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea shows a series of three massive droughts led to the decimation of the Mayan civilization.92 Mayan communities relied on a system of canals and artificial reservoirs. This provided them with power and control over the people, as water is almost the only source of life for a farming community.

Sediment cores taken last year from the bottom of a lake on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula indicate that a series of extended droughts coincided with major cultural upheavals among the Maya inhabitants of the area.93 Between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1000, major dry spells occurred about every 200 years, including a decades-long drought that coincided with the collapse of so-called Classic Maya civilization in the 9th century. Water shortages played a role in the collapse: Vernon Scarborough found evidence of sophisticated reservoir systems in Tikal and other landlocked Maya cities. Since those cities depended on stored rainfall during the four dry months of the year, they would have been extremely vulnerable to a prolonged drought. Richardson Gill believes there was more to the collapse than simple drought. In fact, it was a sustained period of a dry climate. "Sunny days, in and of themselves, don't kill people…but when people run out of food and water, they die."94

Overpopulation was another problem. Based on data collected from about 20 sites, Culbert estimates that there were perhaps 200 people per sq km in the southern lowlands of Central America. "This is an astonishingly high figure; it ranks up there with the most heavily populated parts of the pre-industrial world. And the north may have been even more densely populated."95 These urban areas were reliant on a few major sources of fresh water.

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