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Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations

Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations



  • Brian M. Fagan


  • Hardcover: 284 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st ed edition (March 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465011209
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465011209
  • Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 7 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds


Book Description

In 1997 and early 1998, one of the most powerful El Ni"os ever recorded disrupted weather patterns the world over. Europe suffered a record freeze, as the American West was hit by massive floods and snowstorms, while droughts resulted in enormous forest fires in Southeast Asia, and famine in East Africa.

In Floods, Famines, and Emperors, Brian Fagan shows that these events were neither isolated nor new. El Nio has been disrupting weather patterns on and off for some five millennia–perhaps much longer– sometimes with catastrophic effects on civilizations. Integrating climate science, archaeology, history, and the superb writing of a natural storyteller, Fagan shows how the systemic interaction of climate, land, and people have shaped culture since the dawn of time: El Ni"o droughts have brought on the collapse of dynasties in ancient Egypt; El Ni"o monsoon failures have caused historic famines in India, while El Ni"o floods have destroyed entire civilizations in Peru, and changed the course of European exploration.

The material that comprises Floods, Famines, and Emperor is only now beginning to be discussed in scientific symposia. But Fagan has not written a dry, academic text. This book is a lucid, fascinating, and thoroughly readable account of climate and culture for history buffs, archaeology enthusiasts, the growing legions of weather watchers, and science readers of all kinds.

From the Publisher

Praise for this title

"Every so often, advances in scientific understanding require reconsideration of the historic record. Brian Fagan brings recent climatology to bear on history with admirable and entirely convincing skill. A landmark book." –William H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples and The Global Condition: Conquerors, Catastrophes, and Community

"Clear, precise and thoroughly engaging…Drawing on an encyclopedic range of sources — archaeology, geology, history and ethnography — Fagan immerses the reader in a lively anecdotal portrait of the relationship between major climatic events and major historical events in both ancient and modern times. This is a must-read for laypersons, serious scholars and students alike." –Thomas D. Dillehay, University of Kentucky

"Brian Fagans engaging new book is a masterful synthesis of ocean, atmosphere and human dynamics. It chronicles the commanding interplay of climatic change and the creation and collapse of great civilizations. This is compelling reading for the global audience of a warming world." –Michael E. Moseley, author of The Incas and Their Ancestors

About the Author

Brian Fagan is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A former Guggenheim Fellow, he has written many internationally acclaimed books of popular archaeology, including The Rape of the Nile, The Great Journey, and From Black Land to Fifth Sun. He lives in Santa Barbara.  


Good to read; a nice beginning, May 3, 2002

This review is from: Floods, Famines, and Emperors : El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations (Paperback)
To be honest, I enjoyed this book far more than I anticipated. Fagan is a smart archaelogist, and does not reduce human history to weather; rather he shows how weather can influence politics, religion, agriculture, and economics. Fagan could have made this point more clearly: weather can sometimes be influential; it’s not determinative.
Fagan offers a good direction for archaelogists and historians to head; more serious works would do well to take up Fagan’s challenge to analyze historical weather patterns. It’ll be a tough go, but well-worth the trouble.

One of the book’s strongest chapters is Chapter 11, showing how French colonial rule in the Sahel helped to impoverish and starve peoples living there, while increasing desertification. Here, he echoes the theme of the vastly superior -Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino and the Making of the Third World-. This latter book, by Mike Davis, is one of the most important books of recent decades. Where Fagan fails to consider structural inequalities and human suffering as a result of El Ninos, Davis fully succeeds. The books make for some nice contrasts (I assigned both to my college students). Turn to Davis, after you’ve had fun with Fagan.

Water, water, everywhere and nowhere, March 14, 2004

This review is from: Floods, Famines, and Emperors : El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations (Paperback)
According to Brian Fagan, the phenomenon known as El Nino has abruptly entered our collective awareness. That’s a good thing, since its effects have a long, and often disastrous reach. It is not, he contends, the only issue to consider in climate impact. It has been "over-hyped" by media. The issues go beyond freak storms and harsh droughts. Humans have confronted weather throughout their evolutionary history. How society copes with global weather impact is Fagan’s real concern. He’s collected a wealth of information in this well written account. There is much to learn from this book, which includes some intriguing
Comfortably divided into three major themes, Fagan opens with an explanation of El Nino’s "discovery". What had seemed to be freak weather events proved to have an underlying pattern. The El Nino Southern Oscillation [ENSO] is an eastward moving body of warm Pacific Ocean water. The warmth blocks the flow of the Humboldt Current moving from Antarctica along the South American coast. Fish die or depart, with birds duplicating the pattern. Fagan stresses that the effect of that warm cell has global reach and has roots deep in time. Pharonic Egypt felt its impact, perhaps contributing, if not causing, social upheaval and even a new philosophy of rule by those absolute rulers.

How society and its rulers deal with abrupt weather change is the focus of the second part. As an anthropologist, Fagan is conversant with ancient societies. He examines the Andean Moche people who engineered extensive irrigation systems to catch feeble rainfall. With El Nino, rainfall changes from feeble to fabulous and the Moche watched their canals being flushed away. The following famines broke the power of the Moche aristocracy and the culture collapsed. A similar fate occurred to the Maya, whose rigid social pattern prevented them from coping with crop loss. However, the Anasazi people of the American Southwest, long skilled in desert agriculture, had a different method for dealing with drought. A loose, flexible society encouraged sharing of resources, then departure when the soil failed. Fagan overturns the long-held view that the Anasazi "mysteriously" disappeared. He contends they simply dispersed.

In the final section, Fagan relates some historical climate events such as The Little Ice Age and the Sahel drought. He examines the short-sighted policies that have exacerbated the human impact of such events. Over expansion in good years leaves no flexibility for addressing the needs of bad times. Governments must avoid superficial solutions in the face of knowing climate will generate surprises. Better planning scenarios are required for land occupation and use. Although it’s been said before, Fagan urges better understanding of what is sustainable. That, of course, means more research and the application of political will derived from its results. While that may curtail some short-term profit gains and force revision of some cultural noms, it’s the survival of the species that’s at stake.

Fagan’s easy writing style mustn’t undercut the value of this book. Enhanced with good maps tied nicely to the text and an outstanding bibliography make this book required reading. Weather, after all, is part of the human condition everywhere. We all need to understand better its impact, and cheap jokes about El Nino aren’t part of that comprehension. [stephen a. haines – Ottawa, Canada]

Floods, Famines, and Emperors, April 8, 2000

This was a wonderful treatment of the effects of weather/climate on ancient civilizations. I found the thesis rather intriguing, as I had not considered how compelling might be the effects of major changes in the weather regime on a culture. One is quite aware of local effects of the weather, especially when it is severe. The news media make the statistics of every flood, hurricaine and draught the subject of international interest. Certainly the effects of major climatic disasters like the 7 lean years of the Bible and the Dust Bowl years of US history are familiar. Professor Fagan makes clearer the political and social impact of El Ninos world wide in antiquity as well.