Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Ancient History

CIRES visiting scholar studies how climate changes affected societies thousands of years ago

In 657 B.C., an Assyrian astrologer named Akkulanu wrote a letter to the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, describing disasters, both climate-related and political, that had rocked the Assyrian Empire (which included parts of modern day Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Iraq). That letter, or at least fragments of it, found its way into the hands of a 21st century ancient historian, Dr. Selim Adali, then at Koç University in Turkey. He wondered if there was any way to empirically corroborate the letter’s account of a disastrous drought that ruined the harvest in that year.

So Adali turned to Adam Schneider, an environmental archaeologist who is now a CIRES Visiting Fellow, to ask if there was anything in the climate record that matched the astrologer’s descriptions in the letter.

The letter written by Ashurbanipal’s court astrologer, Akkulanu, in which Akkulanu attempts to put a positive spin on a major drought that evidently wiped out the Assyrian harvest in the spring of 657 BC. Photo provided courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum. 

Turns out, there was. Around that time period, according to sedimentary records and stable oxygen isotope ratios, much of the Near East appears to have experienced a period of intense aridification. “It became clear that this was a rare instance where an ancient drought that could be seen in the paleoclimate record could also be confirmed on the ground by eyewitness accounts,” says Schneider. “This was 2700 years ago. We were incredibly lucky to find this.”

Schneider’s path to becoming a CIRES Visiting Fellow is a little different than some of his peers. While no stranger to Boulder, having gone to CU Boulder as an undergrad, his background was in archaeology. But he has family connections with the world of climate science, so he delved into the field of environmental archaeology during his doctoral program at the University of California San Diego. “I was looking specifically at how changes of climate affected people in the Middle East and North Africa,” he says. “One of the things I do is try to understand the context of why environment affects people. So I can look at pre-event history and see how that primes the pump for how a climactic event will affect a population.”

Now he’s working under CIRES Fellow Balaji Rajagopalan in the Civil Environmental Architectural Engineering Program, and what he’s finding is that it’s not just alterations in climate that brought about big political changes in the Middle East; it’s climate in conjunction with decisions made by humans. In the case of the Assyrian letter, a severe drought was certainly causing problems in the Empire, but the impacts of drought were greatly increased by the decision of Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib, to move the Assyrian capital some 50 years earlier to the city of Nineveh, which was located in an area (near modern Mosul in northern Iraq) that was—and continues to be—particularly susceptible to drought, according to both paleoclimate and modern data. “There was no memory of severe drought in that area—there hadn’t been a drought in hundreds of years,” says Schneider. “It never occurred to them that they’d run out of water. But then, 50 years after the [new] capital is created, there’s evidence of historical drought and then, five years later, revolution, civil war and decline of the state.”

Essentially, says Schneider, climate change can amplify social tension and force unpopular decisions. The Assyrian Empire is a lesson on what can happen when a society develops rapidly with no risk management and no forethought. “What’s important for me about archaeological research and climate change,” explains Schneider, “Is that we can take away some of the issues of uncertainty. We can look back at these kinds of events and show that there’s evidence to demonstrate that climate has caused severe problems in the past. Even in these earlier cases, in which people like the Assyrian were impacted by comparatively minor climatic fluctuations, major problems occurred. So there’s no reason that anthropogenic climate change won’t cause huge problems.”

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

CIRES invites scientists to join the thriving community of researchers in Boulder, Colorado, through our prestigious Visiting Fellows Program. CIRES visiting fellowships are intended to stimulate interdisciplinary science within the institute through engagement with researchers on campus and in Boulder’s NOAA laboratories. Sponsored by CIRES fellows, visiting fellows work with CIRES researchers on a wide range of environmental science topics. The CIRES Visiting Fellows Program has attracted more than 325 scientists from around the world since 1968; many have gone on to lasting careers in CIRES, NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder. Twoyear visiting fellowships are available for postdoctoral researchers ($62,000/year), and terms of up to 12 months are available for senior scientists on leave or sabbatical. The application process opened in late October, and candidates are strongly encouraged to contact CIRES in advance of the January 9, 2017 deadline.


Kristen Averyt
Associate Director for Science
Karen Dempsey
Human Resources

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