Climate change may have encouraged the Huns to invade Europe | Popgen Tech


The fall of the Roman Empire about 1,500 years ago has attracted countless theories about what caused it. A prevailing hypothesis is that roving bands of invaders overwhelmed Roman settlements across Europe and Central Asia, spreading violence and destruction wherever they went. This pressure was too great for the Empire to withstand, and so it collapsed.

A nomadic, pastoralist people known as the Huns are particularly involved in appropriating this superpower. Their fierce riders struck fear into the hearts of anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. However, the motives of the Huns are still somewhat of a mystery. Most historical accounts portray these people as barbaric and ruthless, with an insatiable lust for blood and gold.

“The Huns’ seemingly inexplicable violence may have been one strategy to cope with climate extremes.”

But most of these descriptions do not come from first-hand accounts and attempts to paint the Huns as subhuman may have been politically motivated. A new paper in the Journal of Roman Archeology suggests that climate change may have been a driver for these raids between the 430s and 450s AD. Specifically, several decades of drought pushed the Huns to the brink, forcing them to brutalize others in the pursuit of survival. They weren’t necessarily greedy or violent – although they might have been – but mostly they were just hungry.

The authors, Associate Professor Susanne Hakenbeck from Cambridge’s Department of Archeology and Professor Ulf Büntgen from the university’s Department of Geography, argue that “the Huns’ seemingly inexplicable violence may have been one strategy to cope with climate extremes within a wider context of the social and economic changes that took place at the time.” Ominously, that sentence has parallels with the geopolitical situation and climate change today.

To support this argument, the researchers relied on analysis of tree rings, which are the bark outgrowths of slowly forming plants that can tell scientists a lot about the past. They also relied on archaeological and historical evidence, such as analysis of skeletons recovered from the region. The data paint an interesting picture of Europe 1500 years ago, which was plagued by stretches of unusually dry summers. This would have affected the availability of pasture for livestock, as well as agricultural stability. The Huns were therefore encouraged to shift from shepherds to raiders.

Access to food is an overlooked aspect of motivation for war.

“Tree-ring data gives us a great opportunity to link climate conditions to human activity on a year-to-year basis,” Büntgen said in a statement. “We found that periods of drought recorded in biochemical signals in tree rings coincided with an intensification of poaching activities in the region.”

Access to food is an overlooked aspect of motivation for war. In fact, war and famine are both deeply connected, as detailed in the 2019 book “Food or War” by climate scientist Julian Cribb, who describes the human jaw as the “most destructive object on the planet.” Cribb links almost every major conflict in history, from the 30 Years’ War to World War II, with some connection to food scarcity as an incentive for warfare. The Huns may be no exception.

“Between about AD 150 and AD 400, weather conditions cooled and deteriorated with temperatures reaching unprecedented lows in what became known as the ‘Late Ancient Little Ice Age,'” Cribb wrote. “This had a compounding effect on the Roman food supply and economy, and especially on Rome’s ability to pay and feed its legions…Scholars have also found that periods of drought strongly correlate with the assassinations of 25 Roman emperors and unrest among Germanic tribes between 27 BC and 476 AD.”

Hakenbeck and Büntgen note that it would be “problematic to link historical events to climatic conditions in a way that implies a simple cause-and-effect. Nevertheless,” they write, “the climatic fluctuations of the period, especially the dry summers from 420 to 450 CE, would likely have had an impact on both agricultural and pastoral carrying capacity, at least in areas not directly in the moisture-rich floodplains.”

In other words, history is complex and neat narratives may not do it justice. However, the role of climate as a writer of history is often overlooked and there are important correlations that deserve more investigation, argue Hakenbeck and Büntgen. They point to the most devastating Hunnic attacks occurring in AD 447, 451 and 452, which coincided with extremely dry summers.

“People living in the Carpathian Basin attempted a range of strategies to buffer the effects of prolonged summer droughts,” write Hakenbeck and Büntgen. “They flexibly changed their subsistence economy between herding and farming, and some – Hunnic warbands – also changed their social and political organization in favor of raiding and exploitation of gold.”

It may not have been a winning strategy. After all, Hakenbeck and Büntgen write, “just a few decades after their appearance in central Europe, the Huns disappeared.”

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We may be seeing a bit of history repeating itself. Europe recently experienced its hottest summer on record, which was devastating for some farmers in the region. Unlike the droughts in the region 1500 years ago, which were natural abnormalities, it is human activity that is accelerating the current climate crisis. It doesn’t seem likely that agricultural collapse will prompt anyone to start raiding villages again this time. But it could exacerbate the ongoing global refugee crisis and, as Cribb warns, lead to more war on a much more massive scale. We must look to history to avoid the dangers of the future and the Huns are a good example of what not to do.

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