Not that you would always know this from listening to them. “What the fuck is the Meghalayan?” a tenured professor of geology asked me in July. “It’s silly,” another said. Meanwhile, the new age’s beleaguered advocates claimed an “incredible press campaign” had misrepresented their work.
This week, the fight spilled into the pages of one of the country’s most prestigious journals, as a critic raised a new concern with the embattled age. A short article published Thursday in Science contends that the Meghalayan is premised on faulty archaeology. There is scant evidence, it says, that the worldwide mega-drought around 2200 B.C., which started the Meghalayan, brought ancient society to its knees.
“There was no sudden, universal civilizational collapse,” writes Guy Middleton, a visiting archaeologist at Newcastle University, in the piece. “Overall, the archaeological and historical evidence suggests that 2200 B.C. was not a threshold date.”
Middleton’s point is larger than just the Meghalayan: He is siding with a group of scholars, mostly at European universities, that argues that climate change has almost never led to war or total ruin in the past. He writes as much in his piece: “Climate change never inevitably results in societal collapse, though it can pose serious challenges, as it does today.”
Does climate change cause more war?
The Meghalayan’s architects did not mince words in their response.
“This is a totally misleading piece of writing, which displays a lamentable grasp of the facts,” said Mike Walker, a professor at the University of Wales and the leader of the team that proposed the Meghalayan.
“I do not see a single accurate claim,” agreed Harvey Weiss, a professor of archaeology at Yale who, also helped write the Meghalayan proposal.
In a series of emails, Weiss lambasted his critic’s credentials. “Middleton, a pop-archeology writer, failed archaeology Ph.D., and English-as-a-second-language instructor in Japan, now claims archeo-expertise in matters about which he knows nothing, and gets great audience in Science—of all journals!” he wrote.
“For me, the most intriguing question is, ‘Why does Science publish this rubbish?’” he said in another message, sent several hours later under the subject line “and Weiss added … ”
“I see you’ve been talking to Harvey Weiss!” Middleton replied when I told him about some of these charges without identifying their source. Middleton is the author of a book about societal collapse, and he holds a doctorate in Aegean prehistory. He has also “proudly” taught English for Academic Purposes classes at Tokyo University and Northumbria University, he said, writing: “It has put bread on the table since 2002 and paid me through my Ph.D.”
It wasn’t always clear that the Meghalayan would arouse this level of controversy. The new age was meant to be an aid for geologists and climate scientists who study the past 11,700 years of Earth’s history. This period of time—called the Holocene epoch—contains nearly all of modern human history and is crucial to the study of contemporary climate change.