The rise of the Mongol Empire at the hands of Genghis Khan in the early 1200s was a cultural and military expansion that forever changed the social (and even genetic) landscape of Eurasia. Playing an important role in Khan’s successes were the sturdy Mongol horses, the use of which “gave the Mongols the decided tactical advantage of mobility in conflicts against sedentary civilizations.”
New research, says The Economist, suggests that contributing to the Mongols’ massive expansion was a transient, decades-long blip in the climate—a shift that brought warm temperatures and abundant rain to the pastures on which the Mongol’s horses grazed. The new research, by Amy Hessl and Neil Pederson, suggests that the changing climate conditions boosted plant growth, which provided more food for horses, and in turn boosted their viability in battle.
Historians and archaeologists have often argued that climate plays a role in the decline and fall of nations and empires, from the collapse of the eastern-Mediterranean bronze age, via the end of the Maya city-states of Central America, to the revolution that destroyed France’s ancien regime. To link it to the rise of an empire is more unusual, and raises fascinating questions about the degree to which history can be enriched by the study of things such as the supply of available energy. It is even possible that a better understanding of Mongolia’s past climate may help Genghis’s descendants as they try to cope with the striking changes of the present.