Biblical Hittites relocated due to climate change, new study on trees suggests

No, you must proscribe them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—as Hashem your God has commanded you,




(the israel bible)

February 13, 2023

3 min read

A study of ancient wood may have solved an ancient mystery; what happened to the ancient Hittites, a people that is prominently featured in the Bible? 

A study published last week in Nature reported that three years of extreme drought from 1198 BCE to 1196 BCE in central Anatolia led to the Hittites abandoning their capital city of Hattusa and the fall of their empire. 

“One year of real drought across a large area wrecks lives even in the modern world,” Sturt Manning, an archaeologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a co-author of the paper, told Nature. He added that in the pre-modern world, a third consecutive year of drought would mean “no food, no taxes, no ability to feed the army”, 

This, he emphasized, could undermine any civilization.

The Hittites ruled most of Anatolia from 1650 BCE until 1200 BCE, nearly 500 years, rivaling ancient Egypt. Today, that region comprises most of the Asian section of Turkey and parts of northern Syria. After the Hittites left, Hattusa was left vacant and later burned down.

The researchers based their conclusions on the examination of 23 samples of 18 tree rings from juniper trees that grew during the period from 1775 BCE to 748 BCE at the site of Gordion in central Anatolia, 230 kilometers west of Hattusa. The wood was collected from structures discovered in excavations of a king’s tomb in the Phrygian capital of Gordion in central Turkey in the 1950s. The presence of narrow tree rings with no evidence of fire or insect infestation was the result of decreased rainfall in late spring and summer.

They also studied modern meteorological records for the region from 1929- 2009. They discovered that the annual rainfall was less than 250 millimeters roughly 1 in every 15 years. A minimum of  300 millimeters of rainfall is required to grow barley or wheat in the region.

The researchers identified a drought that occurred in three consecutive years from 1198 BCE to 1196 BCE.

“We’re not saying the climate solely caused the collapse of the Hittites,” Manning said. Manning explained that the Hittites could have survived a drought by switching to a different crop. “Humans are incredibly good if they want to be, at being resilient,” he explained.

In fact, the Hittites planned for drought by building reservoirs.

“It shows an awareness of the fact that there are going to be dry periods,” Alan Greaves, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, UK told Nature.

“Even with a good system and good adaptation to drought, this was simply too much to cope with.” Dominik Fleitmann, a palaeoclimatologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, said.“We have all the documents saying that there are famines in the Hittite empire,” Fleitmann said.

But, apparently, three consecutive years was too much for their preparations. Greaves explained that the drought not only led to a famine, but it also led to political crises. “They just weren’t politically or economically prepared for that particular drought,” said Greaves.

The Hittites fled, relocating the capital from Hattusa to a new capital called Tarhuntassa in an as-yet undiscovered location. 

Harvey Weiss, an archaeologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut disagrees with the conclusion that a three-year drought led to the migration of the Hittites. Based on research by David Kaniewski on the climate in the region at that time, Weiss believes that the Hittite migration was caused by a “mega-drought” beginning in 1190 BCE led to a 30% reduction in winter rains for 200 years, affecting the regions from from Spain through the Mediterranean and Turkey, all the way to India. 

“Two or three years of drought are not much, but an abrupt mega-drought with high magnitude creates cascading effects” Weiss said. 

 “The end of the Hittite empire does not mean total collapse everywhere in the Near East,” Weiss noted. “Not even uniformly all over Anatolia.”

The Hittites figured prominently in the Bible. The patriarch, Heth, was a son of Canaan, the son of Ham. Abraham purchased the Machpela Cave in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite.  Esau married wives from the Hittites. Joshua was commanded to conquer the land of the Hittites. 

According to the Book of Judges (1:26), when the Israelites captured Bethel, they allowed one man to escape, and he went to the “land of the Hittites” where he founded the settlement of Luz. 

In King Solomon’s era, the Hittites are depicted in the Bible along with Syria as among his powerful neighbors. In the time of King David, Uria the Hittite was the husband of Batsheva and an elite soldier in his army.

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