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 :


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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

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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.



INTRODUCTION: FIFTEEN CENTURIES AGO, SOMETHING HAPPENED       In A.D. 535-536 mankind was hit by one of the greatest natural disasters ever to occur. It blotted out much of the light and heat of the sun for eighteen months, and the climate of the entire planet began to spin out of control. The result, direct or indirect, was climatic chaos, famine, migration, war, and massive political change on virtually every continent.   As the engine for extraordinary intraregional change in four great areas of the world--Afro-Eurasia (from Mongolia to Britain, from Scandinavia to southern Africa), the Far East (China, Korea, Japan), Mesoamerica (Mexico/Central America), and South America--the disaster altered world history dramatically and permanently.   The hundred-year period after it occurred is the heart of history's so-called Dark Ages, which formed the painful and often violent interface between the ancient and protomodern worlds. That period witnessed the final end of the supercities of the ancient world; the end of ancient Persia; the transmutation of the Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire; the end of ancient South Arabian civilization; the end of Catholicism's greatest rival, Arian Christianity; the collapse of the greatest ancient civilization in the New World, the metropolis state of Teotihuacan; the fall from power of the great Maya city of Tikal; and the fall of the enigmatic Nasca civilization of South America.   But it was also the hundred-year period that witnessed the birth, or in some cases the conception, of Islam, France, Spain, England, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the power of the Turks. It also produced a united China and the first great South American empires, the forerunners of the Incas.   Until now, these geographically widely dispersed tragedies and new beginnings--occurring well before the Old and New Worlds knew of each other--have been viewed by historians as largely separate events. Now, for the first time--as a result of the research done for this book--the origins of our modern world can be seen as an integrated whole, linked by a common causal factor.   This climatic disaster half destroyed the Roman Empire, unleashing hordes of central Asian barbarians against the empire's northern borders, triggering geopolitical processes that created Arab pressures on its southern flank, and causing a series of killer epidemics that drastically reduced its population.   In Arabia and the Mediterranean world as a whole, an apocalyptic zeitgeist, which at base was the result of the shift in climate, led to the emergence of Islam.   In western Europe, the climatic catastrophe and its epidemiological aftereffects destabilized the demographic and political status quo and led to the birth of at least four major nations.   In western Asia, the disaster triggered the rise of the Turks--a process that eventually led to an expansion of Turkic influence everywhere from India to eastern Europe and ultimately to the emergence of the Ottoman Empire.   The same worldwide climatic chaos also destabilized economies and political systems in many areas of the Far East, opening up the way for the reunification of China, the birth of a united Korea, and the emergence of Japan as an embryonic nation-state.   In the New World, a popular revolution was triggered that destroyed the greatest of all ancient American civilizations, the Mexican empire of Teotihuacan. That collapse freed up the Mesoamerican world and led to the rapid growth, and consequent collapse, of much of Maya civilization. In Peru, power shifted from the arid lowlands to the wetter, mountainous Andes, which paved the way, centuries later, for the rise of pre-Columbian America's largest empire.   The mystery climatic disaster of 535-536 resynchronized world history.   The contemporary Roman historian Procopius wrote of the climate changes as "a most dread portent." In describing the climate in that year, Procopius wrote that "the sun gave forth its light without brightness like the moon during this whole year." Other accounts of the event say that the sun became "dim" or "dark" for up to eighteen months. Its light shone "like a feeble shadow," and people were terrified that the sun would never shine properly again. In some parts of the empire, there were agricultural failures and famines.   In Britain, the period 535-555 saw the worst weather that century. In Mesopotamia there were heavy falls of snow and "distress among men." In Arabia there was famine followed by flooding.   In China in 536 there was drought and famine, and "yellow dust rained down like snow." The following year, the crops were ruined again--this time by snow in the middle of August. In Japan, the emperor issued an unprecedented edict, saying that "yellow gold and ten thousand strings of cash [money] cannot cure hunger" and that wealth was of no use if a man was "starving of cold." In Korea, 535 and 536 were the worst years of that century in climatic terms, with massive storms and flooding followed by drought.   In the Americas, the pattern was similar. Starting in the 530s, a horrific thirty-two-year-long drought devastated parts of South America. In North America, an analysis of ancient tree-ring evidence from what is now the western region of the United States has shown that some trees there virtually stopped growing in the years 536 and 542-543, and that things did not return to normal until some twenty-three years later, in 559. Similar tree-ring evidence from Scandinavia and western Europe also reveals a huge reduction in tree growth in the years 536-542, not recovering fully until the 550s.   Up until now, there has been no explanation for such extraordinary climatic deterioration. Certainly the dimming of the sun (without doubt caused by some sort of atmospheric pollution) and the sudden worldwide nature of this deterioration point toward a massive explosion in which millions of tons of dust and naturally occurring chemicals were hurled into the atmosphere.   But what was the nature of that explosion?   I believe that I have discovered what happened so many centuries ago--and, toward the end of this book, I make my case for proving exactly what this staggering disaster was. Before you reach that portion of the book, however, you will see, in substantial detail, the effect that event had on the entire world that existed then--and how an ancient tragedy shaped the world in which we live today.   In doing the research for this book, I have developed a greatly increased respect for the forces of nature and their power to change history. That respect, as well as the new perspective it engenders, has changed my view of the very nature of history, which must be understood in holistic terms and which really functions as an integrated, planetwide phenomenon.   If I have done my job well, what you are about to read is an analysis of the mechanisms and repercussions of catastrophe, a hitherto unknown explanation of our history, and a chilling warning for the future.   Excerpted from Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World by David Keys All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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