The Hittites were a superpower in the area that is modern-day Turkey, dominating the region for nearly 500 years. For a time, they even rivaled the power of Egypt. But around 1200 BC, they mysteriously abandoned their capital and religious center.

Stuart Manning, an archaeologist at Cornell University, says that the empire’s centuries-old political and cultural structures ended “quite rapidly,” Theories about the collapse have long focused on attacks from naval raiders, epidemics, and famines.

But now researchers believe that three years of extreme drought may have brought about the end of the mighty empire. Through this discovery, the Hittites are sending us a warning about our own climate crisis.

The message of the trees

The rings of ancient juniper wood reveal what was going on with the climate in the Hittite Empire almost 3,000 years ago. Narrower rings reveal drier years, when a lack of water limited the growth of trees. The rings of the juniper tree reveal three straight years of unusually low growth, from 1198 BC to 1196 BC. This suggests a prolonged and severe drought.

The drought may have caused severe food shortages, which could have led to political, economic, and social unrest. Such a crisis could have easily brought about the end of the empire.

If we want to avoid such a fate today, we need to heed this warning from the Hittites.

From Turkey to Honduras

In my novel Windows of the Heavens, a pastor named Harley Camden visits the Mayan ruins in Copán Ruinas, Honduras, and then reflects on an archaeological dig he had participated in several decades earlier. While digging there, he learned that the Mayan Kingdom collapsed suddenly in about 900 AD.

Harley tells his friend Leah Silverman about a journal he discovered from the dig. “As I was reading it this morning,” he says, “I came across something that surprised me. The entry didn’t mean a lot to me in 1986, but now it seems important: ‘Grad student Nancy is not focused on either the religious life or the political history of Copán. Instead, she wants to know how the community grew and declined, and what strain the inhabitants put on the environment. She told me that the population growth during the last decades of the classical period caused tremendous deforestation and degradation of the land.’”

“Interesting,” says Leah. “I didn’t know that you were working on environmental issues.”

“Neither did I. My focus was elsewhere, and it didn’t stick with me. But it seems from this entry that the Mayans disappeared because of what they did to the land.”

“Makes sense,” says Leah. “I don’t know much about Mayans, but I’m guessing that deforestation would do more long-term damage than warfare.”

Another warning … from the Mayans.