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Geoarchaeologist Proposes There Was a “World War Zero”

Could an alliance among the “Luwians” have helped caused the collapse of eastern Mediterranean civilizations 3,200 years ago?

(New York Public Library Digital Collection)
smithsonian.com

During the late Bronze Age, the eastern Mediterranean was dominated by the "Group of 8," the Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians. But around 3,200 years ago all of these civilizations went into steep decline—besieged by war, famine, corruption and bickering.

Archaeologists still debate why the disruption happened and whether it was a caused by an external event like an earthquake or climate change or the result of civil unrest.

Now, as Colin Barras at New Scientist reports, a geoarchaeologist named Eberhard Zangger is proposing a much grander cause for the collapse: an extended series of ancient conflicts that he dubs "World War Zero."

Last week, Zangger, head of the Luwian Studies foundation, which is based in Zurich, Switzerland, launched a book, as well as an extensive website, arguing that another culture he calls the Luwians began a series of invasions that eventually collapsed the other Bronze Age powers.

He argues that the peoples of western Asia Minor, who mostly spoke variations of a common tongue known as Luwian, formed another important source of power in the region. “For thousands of years the majority of western Asia Minor was politically fragmented into many petty kingdoms and principalities,” writes Zangger. “This certainly weakened the region in its economic and political significance, but it also delayed the recognition of a more or less consistent Luwian culture.”

He contends that the Luwians did eventually form a coalition strong enough to take on and destroy the Hittite empire. After that, he believes the Luwians were the “Sea Peoples” mentioned in Egyptian documents who raided that empire and helped destabilize the New Kingdom.

According to Zanngger, the Greeks, in anticipation that the Luwians would turn their coalition against them, then launched a series of attacks on Luwians' port cities. After those triumphs, Zangger argues, the Mycenean Greeks returned home to find their deputies unwilling to relinquish power, leading to civil war and decline into the Greek Dark Ages.

Zangger tells Barras that documents throughout the ancient world fit with his hypothesis, and that almost every large city in the region was destroyed around 1200 B.C. He also believes that there’s plenty of evidence out there to find. He estimates identifying by the end of this year at least 340 potential Luwian sites in Turkey, some via satellite, which have yet to be excavated that he has cataloged with the cooperation of the University of Zurich.

“Some of these sites are so large you can see them from space,” he says. “There’s so much waiting to be found it’s really just mind-boggling.”

But not everyone is convinced the Luwians were ever a powerful force, and many aren’t impressed by the idea of "World War Zero."

“He’s bringing in this idea of ancient international warfare,” Michael Galaty, the head of the department of anthropology at Mississippi State University, tells Barras. “Most archaeologists would balk at using such terminology.”

Christoph Bachhuber, an associate faculty member at the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology, tells Barras that he’s skeptical about the idea and that there needs to be a lot more archaeological evidence to make it plausible, however, he says, the work could help shift attention back on some Bronze Age mysteries.

“He’s really getting the ball rolling to do larger holistic studies of the area,” says Bachhuber. “I’m actually quite excited that he’s bringing attention to this region.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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