Guest Post: Eric Cline on ‘World War Zero or Zero World War’

We invited Eric Cline, author of 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed to comment on the recent media flurry occasioned by claims of a Bronze Age ‘World War Zero’.

World War Zero or Zero World War?

My Twitter feed and Google Alerts began exploding on Thursday afternoon. The headline from Popular Archaeology read: Scientists proclaim a new civilization in the Aegean Bronze Age.The headline in the New Scientist screamed: World War Zero brought down mystery civilization of ‘sea people’. Picking up on that, the Inquisitr declared: Entire Civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ May Have Been Wiped Out in ‘World War Zero,’ Archaeologists SayThe Mirror’s headline shrieked: Devastating ‘World War ZERO’ destroyed ancient Mediterranean civilisations and plunged Europe into a dark age. And the Daily Mail solemnly intoned: Mysterious civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ were wiped out by ‘world war zero’ 3,000 years ago . World War Zero? A previously unidentified — and mysterious — civilization that was wiped out? Sounds like a movie coming soon to theaters, right? Let’s hope not.

Where did all of this come from, out of the blue? “World War Zero” is not a phrase that one typically sees in a newspaper and yet four of the five articles that have appeared so far have used it in their headlines. The common source appears to be the “Luwian Studies” organization, headed by geo-archaeologist Eberhard Zangger, which announced both the publication of a new book on the Luwians that he wrote and the launch of a related website (which says that it contains much of the same material as the book). The New Scientist reporter who seems to have broken the story cites Zangger throughout, but it is not clear whether he was actually interviewed or if the information came from a press release, the book, or the website. To his credit, the reporter did contact several other archaeologists and scholars outside the organization for their opinions, but those opinions, and their criticisms, are buried in the last paragraphs of the article.

Usually this is the sort of media circus that involves the Ark of the Covenant or Atlantis, but this concerns the Luwians. The Luwians? Who’s ever heard of the Luwians, eh? Perhaps that’s the problem right there; the media have never heard of them.  Add in “World War Zero” — a buzz phrase certain to catch people’s attention in this day and age — and the frenzy begins.

So, where to start? I’ll be brief and just address the problem with the headlines, leaving a discussion of the actual content of the articles for another time.

First of all, the Luwians are not a newly discovered civilization, despite Popular Archaeology’s headline. As Mike Myers might have said on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s, “The Luwian civilization is neither new nor a civilization. Discuss.” Luwian is a language that was spoken and written in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) by the Hittites and others during the second and early first millennia BCE — the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. There were undoubtedly people who self-identified as Luwians, just as the Maya spoke and wrote the Mayan language over in the New World several thousand years later, but, as my colleague Seth Sanders has pointed out, the Luwians were not a unified civilization and never referred to themselves that way. Nor did anyone else at the time ever refer to them as a civilization; neither the Hittites nor the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Cypriots, and Canaanites, most of whom talked about themselves and each other in those terms. Moreover, we’ve known about the Luwians since the 1920s; entire books and lengthy articles on the Luwians have been published just in the past several decades alone. So, not a civilization and not new.

What about “World War Zero”? The mind boggles at this. To begin with, the end of the Bronze Age was not caused by a World War. Period. End of sentence. Google “World War” and the definition that comes up is “a war involving many large nations in all different parts of the world.” That’s simply not what happened just after 1200 BCE. For one thing, the Sea Peoples were hardly “many large nations;” at most they were a motley collection of groups of migrating people. For another, the end of the Late Bronze Age didn’t happen in “all different parts of the world,” but specifically in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, from Italy to Afghanistan. So, not a “World War Zero.” Move along; nothing to see here.

What we DO have is a collapse of civilizations at that time, which is very well known. The Collapse, as archaeologists call it, with a capital letter, was such a monumental event that it can only be compared to the fall of the Roman Empire more than 1,500 years later. I have written about this in my own book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which was published two years ago. However, rather than being instigated by a single group such as the Luwians or triggered by a single event such as a war, the Collapse was probably caused by a combination of unfortunate events, including drought, famine, and earthquakes, as well as invasions and possibly internal rebellions. There was, in short, a perfect storm of calamities that combined to bring the Late Bronze Age to an end, but a World War was not among them. In fact, The Daily Mail covered the Collapse angle just last year, in an article about my book, but seems to have forgotten about that already.

And, what about the wiping out of the ‘mysterious civilization’ of the Sea Peoples? They may be “mysterious,” but scholars have been discussing them for a very long time. They also weren’t a civilization and we know they weren’t wiped out; the Egyptians resettled the surviving Sea Peoples both in Egypt and in territory that they controlled in Canaan. We also know that the Luwians and the Sea Peoples are not one and the same — at most, there were some Luwians among the Sea Peoples, but they did not make up the entire group of THE Sea Peoples. So, while the Luwians are part and parcel of the general collapse after 1200 BCE, it is misleading to single them out as having been the only people “wiped out” — the Mycenaeans, Minoans, Hittites, Egyptians, Cypriots, Canaanites, Assyrians, and Babylonians were also casualties of the collapse, as I documented in 1177 BC. So, not a “wiping out” of a “mysterious civilization.” How about rephrasing it as “the demise of people in western Anatolia who may have spoken and written Luwian as their primary language”?  Probably won’t sell as many newspapers or generate as many clicks, right? But it’s more accurate.

There are other problems within the articles themselves, but the above gives some idea of the uninformed sensationalism that has already been generated by the media frenzy. The end of the Bronze Age is a fascinating topic, which doesn’t need to be exploited or sensationalized in order to attract interest. In fact, one wonders how much of this is media hype and how much of this was actually said by the Luwian Studies organization. Since the book has just appeared and their website with the same information has just gone live, it should be easy to investigate. Stay tuned.