Posted by: Johan Normark | December 13, 2010

The hiatus and the Dark Ages in World History

I have not written much about my current project on climate change and settlement change in recent time. This is because I have been busy trying to compile a manuscript for my book Holy Places, Holey Spaces, and Emergent Wholes and a couple of related articles. Do not expect many new posts on these issues in the future (check out the tag “climate” to see my earlier posts on these issues).

Studies that correlate declines or collapses of societies with climate and ecological change are many and such research do get funding (just a hint of what your research application can include if you want some funding). Jared Diamond is the star in this kind of research. Another researcher that describes the world history from a quite one-sided ecological perspective is Sing Chew. With his world system approach he argues that the world history (actually the Old World history) has passed through various Dark Ages which are seen as periods of restoration of ecological balance. Dark Ages “occur as a consequence of ecological exhaustion and stress and exhibit losses in wealth, trade disruptions, and simplification of lifestyles and less hierarchization and more egalitarianism of the social structure” (Chew 2007:160)

Chew separates “social time” from “ecological time” since “there is a length of time when the ecological threshold is reached as a consequence of natural system and social system connections that require a period (ecological time) for ecological recovery or social system adaptation (such as reorganization, learning processes, technological adaptation, etc.) to take place.” Nature takes longer to recover since its rhythm is dependent on “generation time, disturbance frequencies, and age of reproduction, and other spatial scales such as topography, interaction lengths, etc. (Chew 2007:55).

To resolute the crisis a time period of roughly 500 years is needed. Such a resolution may not lead to a system transition (Chew 2007:14). These cycles of ecological degradation from human impact has a longer duration than the 300-year economic cycles that pulsates the world system according to Chew. This means that not all political economic shifts can be correlated with ecological stress since they have different durations (Chew 2007:15). However, political and economic changes are ultimately related to ecology in any case.

Chew (2007:31) separates nature and culture even though he underscores “the close and dependent connection that the social system (Culture) has with the natural system (Nature)”. In my view, there is no point in trying to merge them into a “holistic” understanding since they have been separated from the very beginning. This simply reflects a dichotomized perspective prevalent in the world system approaches. Hence, I doubt that we can also distinguish between these various “times” from each others. They are far more mixed. Chew also has a top-down perspective. The world system affects most of its parts which receives generalized explanations in order to fit into the grand narrative. Local differences become irrelevant.  

Richardson Gill provides an excellent Maya version of just how such generalizations work. Epigraphers and archaeologists have pointed out that the so-called hiatus during the Middle Classic period probably had political reasons related to the power struggle between Tikal (or the Teotihuacan alliance as Stanley Guenter calls it) and the Snake (Kan) kingdom (at Dzibanche and later at Calakmul). This knowledge has been known for more than a decade and the local and regional patterns fits very well with political strategies at certain phases of this period. Despite this fact, Gill, as late as 2007, still proposes the idea that climate change caused the hiatus. Not all sites went through a hiatus (which earlier archaeologists assumed from a smaller sample of excavated sites, primarily Tikal).

For the later Terminal Classic collapse Gill argues that droughts were local and did not strike all sites at the same time. He would probably apply the same reasoning for the hiatus. Sites that went through a hiatus would be sites affected by droughts and those with no hiatus were not affected by the droughts, etc. However, in order for him to make such an argument he must also explain why the assumed droughts only affected sites of the “Teotihuacan alliance” and not the other alliance. Proposing the overarching idea that the hiatus was caused by climate or ecological changes hence overlooks and overrun local and regional archaeological data in favor of simplification and generalization. Unfortunately, this way of reasoning is quite common in climate and ecological related studies of the past. 

Chew, Sing C. (2007). The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation. Lanham: Altamira Press.



  1. A naive question maybe, but isn’t living in a “dark age” the normal situation for most humans during thousands of years around Earth? Even when advanced civilizations pop up now and then, most people have lived more or less outside history. If the situation is quite normal maybe it should not be labeled as “dark”? They had campfires and lamps after all! If the present global civilization collapses, maybe we will have a new period of very little history writing but at least a lot of sunshine?

  2. True, and that is why such world systems approaches are problematic. Chew primarily focus on the center of these world systems and the dark age is defined by that area experiencing a decline (such as Rome). And, of course, most people in ancient Rome lived were poor. The danger is to have these generalized “top-down” approaches that reduces differences in favour of a homogeneous narrative.


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