Cover image for Catastrophe : an investigation into the origins of the modern world
Catastrophe : an investigation into the origins of the modern world
Keys, David.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ballantine Pub., 2000.

Physical Description:
xviii, 343 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
"Originally published in Great Britian by Century Books, Random House UK Ltd., in 1999"--T.p. verso.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QC981.8.C5 K45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
QC981.8.C5 K45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



An examination of the origins of the modern world looks to a world-wide climatic event that blocked out much of the sunlight for eighteen months, wreaking havoc on civilization.

Author Notes

David Keys--archaeology correspondent of the London daily paper The Independent and leading TV archaeological consultant--has visited more than one thousand archaeological sites in sixty countries

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Isn't world history too messy and complicated to be susceptible to single-cause explanations? Not to Keys, who simplifies the eclipse of the Eastern Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the beginning of nation-states from Ireland to Japan, and assorted other civilizational rises and falls by sourcing them ultimately to a volcanic eruption in the Sunda Strait separating Sumatra and Java. From ice cores and tree rings climatologists know temperatures nosed down around A.D. 535, a fact that Keys, while hedging it as a possible cause, narratively treats as the actual initiator of the "proto-modern" world. Keeping that condition in mind, the skeptical reader can still engage with this Keys' lively, popular story. At its center figures a Mongolian people, the Avars, made itinerant by droughts, plagues, and wars. They headed west across the steppe, and the rest is history. Whatever the merit of Keys' single chain of causality, his marshalling of a variety of evidence and literary sources in his cause produces rhetoric that can persuade. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Keys's startling thesis, a global climatic catastrophe in A.D. 535-536--a massive volcanic eruption sundering Java from Sumatra--was the decisive factor that transformed the ancient world into the medieval, or as Keys prefers to call it, the "proto-modern" era. Ancient chroniclers record a disaster in that year that blotted out the sun for months, causing famine, droughts, floods, storms and bubonic plague. Keys, archeology correspondent for the London Independent, uses tree-ring samples, analysis of lake deposits and ice cores, as well as contemporaneous documents to bolster his highly speculative thesis. In his scenario, the ensuing disasters precipitated the disintegration of the Roman Empire, beset by Slav, Mongol and Persian invaders propelled from their disrupted homelands. The sixth-century collapse of Arabian civilization under pressure from floods and crop failure created an apocalyptic atmosphere that set the stage for Islam's emergence. In Mexico, Keys claims, the cataclysm triggered the collapse of a Mesoamerican empire; in Anatolia, it helped the Turks establish what eventually became the Ottoman Empire; while in China, the ensuing half-century of political and social chaos led to a reunified nation. Huge claims call for big proof, yet Keys reassembles history to fit his thesis, relentlessly overworking its explanatory power in a manner reminiscent of Velikovsky's theory that a comet collided with the earth in 1500 B.C. Readers anxious about future cataclysms will take note of Keys's roundup of trouble spots that could conceivably wreak planetary havoc. Maps. BOMC and QPBC selections. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In the years 535 and 536 C.E., according to archaeological journalist Keys, a dusky haze blotted out the light and heat of the sun and brought about both massive droughts and floods. The famines and plagues that resulted from these climate changes then drove tribal groups out of the heartlands of Asia and into the Mediterranean world of the old Roman Empire. Then, the wars and displacement of long-settled peoples that resulted destroyed the old order and, in Keys's opinion, marked the emergence of the modern world. Keys supports his thesis with an impressive array of scientific and historical evidence. Although it seems unlikely that any single factor could have such catastrophic consequences, the book, written in an engaging manner, should stimulate interest in the role of climate in human events. Suitable for academic libraries.--Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., CUNY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Aims and Caveatsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
List of Illustrationsp. xvii
Introductionp. 3
Part 1 The Plague
1 The Winepress of the Wrath of Godp. 9
2 The Origins of the Plaguep. 17
Part 2 The Barbarian Tide
3 Disaster on the Steppesp. 27
4 The Avar Dimensionp. 32
Part 3 Destablizing the Empire
5 Revolutionp. 41
6 "The Cup of Bitterness"p. 47
7 Changing the Empire: The Cumulative Impact of the Plague and the Avarsp. 54
Part 4 The Sword of Islam
8 The Origins of Islamp. 59
9 Islamic Conquestsp. 71
10 Behind the Roman Collapsep. 75
Part 5 The Turkic Dimension
11 The Turkish Time Bombp. 85
12 The Jewish Empirep. 92
Part 6 Western Europe
13 Disaster in Britainp. 105
14 The Waste Landp. 113
15 The Birth of Englandp. 118
16 Irish Conceptionp. 125
17 French Genesisp. 130
18 The Making of Spainp. 136
Part 7 Disaster in the Orient
19 Chinese Catastrophep. 149
20 The Rebirth of Unityp. 161
21 Korean Dawnp. 165
22 "Ten Thousand Strings of Cash Cannot Cure Hunger"p. 172
Part 8 Changing the Americas
23 Collapse of the Pyramid Empirep. 183
24 The Darts of Venusp. 198
25 North American Mysteryp. 205
26 From Art to Oblivionp. 208
27 The Mud of Hadesp. 217
28 Birth of an Empirep. 223
29 Glory at the Heart of the Cosmosp. 227
Part 9 The Reasons Why
30 In Search of a Culpritp. 239
31 The Big Bangp. 249
32 Reconstructing the Eruptionp. 262
33 The Endgamep. 267
Part 10 The Future
34 Beyond Tomorrowp. 273
Appendixp. 281
Notesp. 293
Recommended Further Readingp. 323
Indexp. 329