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Wood Knows Things Too…

Photo of Tree Rings By Arnoldius via Wikimedia Commons

A recent study in Science led to newspapers and media outlets around the world today putting headlines like “Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in tree rings“. Ooo… Exciting headlines!

But sadly, I am picky, and those headlines are misleading.

Lets leave aside entirely the whole debate over when Rome actually fell, and agree with the study that it fell sometime between 250 and 600 AD- a nice broad range. The trees weren’t diligently recording the invasions of northern barbarians, or the movement of the capital of Rome away from, well, Rome… or the splitting of the empire. There were no tiny togas inscribed there- alas the day. That would have been cool, if utterly impossible. The real news is somewhat less exciting, though still important work in the field of dendrochronology.

(Dendro= Tree or tree like) + ( Chrono= Time) +  (Ologist= Someone that studies stuff) = Someone that studies time and trees… At the SAME TIME!!

What the dendrochronologists accomplished was to put together a record that stretches 2500 years into Europe’s past using 9000 wooden artifacts, diligently correlating the rings on each one to each other and to the established record. By looking at the tree rings- at the thin dark rings (a dry, difficult season) and larger, lighter rings (a wet, milder season) they can correlate shifts in climate to historical records. Since the periods of drought recorded in the trees are around the same age of the violence and turmoil surrounding the periods of decay in the Roman empire- voila! The trees recorded the fall of Rome!

In fact, they recorded one of the causes- maybe even one of the main causes for the fall of Rome- but not it’s actual fall. It’s a picky, picky, very irritating point to make, I know. And the scientists themselves weren’t responsible for the headlines (Bad Editors and PR People! Bad!*.) A lack of resources egged on by drought or difficult weather will certainly make trees grow less and people go a little nuts. It might cause food shortages everywhere, leading to a rise of telethons for those starving children in Gaul, or cause peoples living in the north where life is harder to look south to the Italian Penninsula and say ‘Hey Alric… I bet we can take their land and grapes and goods easily… those guys are led by dudes in sheets.’

But the history teacher in my head will not be silenced- and the beauty of the history of Rome is that we actually do have a History, however imperfect it might be. Unlike, say, the fossil record, where we are usually forced to make educated assumptions about how a species or species went extinct because there is no other record that we can consult- dinosaurs took shitty notes while going extinct**.With Rome we have first-hand accounts, and even pretty decent second-hand accounts of what was going on, that tell stories of conflict, and mismanagement, and greed, of changing societies, overreaching militaries, and other groups who thought it was their turn to be the go-to guy for the western world. The fact that we can know that there was all this climate change that further stressed out a crumbling society is really cool- but not the whole story.

The authors do want it to be- they say in the abstract that “Historical circumstances may challenge recent political and fiscal reluctance to mitigate projected climate change.” I agree. Hopefully, yes, this will prepare the governments of the world to attempt to mitigate a situation where the modern equivalent of visigoths will attack. But I doubt it. The cynic in me (now having an inspiring debate with the history teacher) says that there have been one too many analogies of our modern society to the fall of Rome for this one to be effective. Face it, even if this is good, solid evidence that climate change played a part in Rome’s long protracted demise (and make no mistake, IT IS good, solid evidence), the fact is that our leaders, our economy, the state of religion, and our obsession with professional sports, have all been compared to the human factors involved in Rome’s fall… and the comparison to the fall of one of the greatest civilizations in the world hasn’t made much of a difference in any of those areas.

Nonetheless (and before all dendrochronologists in the world refuse to talk to me ever again), it is a good chunk of the story. Just like rocks, trees know things. They record the exact climate conditions in an area- they are a more temporary inscription than stone, but a great tool for archaeologists looking to corroborate timelines at archaeological sites. There are even places in Germany and Northern Ireland where the record stretches back 11,000 years. A record like that is truly impressive. And so is this study. Even if it doesn’t tell you that Rome fell in 476 AD due to a bad rainstorm, it still shows the dramatic role that climate played in European civilization- acting as a kind of greek chorus from the rise of Ceasar to the Black Death, and beyond.

*To all editors and PR People: Just Kidding! Hahaha, just a silly joke…Will you still hire me? Please?

** A really stupid paleontology joke- look up coprolites


  1. Malcolm wrote:

    Coprolites..funny. Great post. Many causes to Rome’s demise, including lead poisoning, too, but all contributing, as you point out…no single cause, regardless of what those gossipy trees might say.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  2. LMG wrote:

    Fascinating, thought-provoking, and funny stuff–well-done!

    Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink