New York: Over population and drought led to the sudden collapse of the 7th century BC Assyrian Empire, says a study that draws a parallel between the collapse of the ancient superpower in the Near East and what is happening in the same area today.
The 7th-century story bears a striking resemblance to the severe drought and subsequent political conflict in today's Syria and northern Iraq, the researchers said.
At the start of the 7th century BC, the Assyrian Empire dominated the ancient Near East. It was the largest empire of the Old World and possessed a mighty military body. But then, before the century was out, it had collapsed.
"As far as we know, ours is the first study to put forward the hypothesis that climate change - specifically drought - helped to destroy the Assyrian Empire," said Adam Schneider from the University of California in the US.
The study recovered text found on a clay tablet. The text is a letter to the king, written by a court astrologer, reporting that "no harvest was reaped" in 657 BC.
Paleo-climatic records back up the courtier's statement. Further, analysis of the region's weather patterns, in what is now northern Iraq and Syria, suggests that the drought was not a one-off event but part of a series of arid years.
Add to that the strain of over population, especially in places like the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (near present day Mosul) - which had grown unsustainably large during the reign of King Sennacherib - and Assyria was fatally weakened, the researchers stated.
Within five years of the no-harvest report, Assyria was racked by a series of civil wars. Then joint Babylonian and Median forces attacked and destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC.
The empire never recovered.
"Drought and over population affected the economy and destabilised the political system to a point where the empire could not withstand unrest and the onslaught of other peoples," Schneider added.
On a more global scale, modern societies should pay attention to what can happen when immediate gains are prioritised over considerations of the long term, the researchers concluded.
The study appeared in the journal Climatic Change.