We are living in the Meghalayan Age but surprisingly, we in India are largely unaware of it. Last month the International Commission on Stratigraphy, responsible for keeping the Geologic Time Scale, approved the name for the youngest period of that vast span, which begins with the formation of the earth 4.5 billion years ago. But it didn’t make news here.
The Meghalayan Age is a mere sliver of the scale, from 4,200 years ago to the present, but it contains almost all of human civilisation and culture. It is the newest part of the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,650 years ago, after the last Ice Age. The commission has named it for a stalagmite from a Meghalayan cave (they’re among the world’s longest), which was sectioned to find evidence of sweeping climate change in ancient times.
The “4.2 kiloyear event”, a severe dry spell that lasted for at least a century, has been correlated with the most violent dislocations faced by humans since the Ice Ages. Discussed since the 1990s, it ended the Old Kingdom of Egypt, following a series of failures of the annual flooding of the Nile. That must have had religious and political implications, since the flooding was connected to the legend of Isis and Osiris. But it would have affected any culture which had invested in settled cultivation and used surpluses to raise big cities. The Akkadian Empire came down at the same time, Chinese river valley cultures were affected and the world’s first major water harvesting projects appeared in Bronze Age La Mancha (later home to Don Quixote) — motillas, hill forts guarding water supplies and produce.
A correlation has been suggested between the 4.2 kiloyear event and the beginning of the end of the big Harappan cities. Perhaps, the Indus Valley culture cut their losses and travelled east and south, embraced the idea of “small is beautiful” and developed a healthy preference for agricultural settlements over big cities, which would not need to be maintained with enormous surpluses. Crisis and want are the triggers of migration, and the context of climate change that lasted for decades, at least, could explain the arrival of cultures from Central Asia. A similar movement of people in Mesopotamia had to be contained by a 180 km precursor of the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall, to keep out a wave of refugees.
Such are the dramatic political events that the Meghalayan Age began with. But, of course, it is not the first Indian place name to enter the annals of geologic time. That honour must go to Gondwana in Madhya Pradesh, which gave its name to one of the supercontinents which were the dramatis personae in Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory. The Austrian geologist Eduard Seuss noted the similarity between Upper Paleozoic and Mesozoic formations in central India and those of corresponding age in the continents of the southern hemisphere, and concluded that these regions shared a history. About 600 million years ago, South America, Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Madagascar, India, Australia and Antarctica lay cheek by jowl in the Gondwanaland supercontinent, centred on the South Pole.
But to return to the Meghalayan Age, the 4.2 kiloyear event which served as its curtain-raiser serves as a powerful warning for us. It must gladden the hearts of climate change deniers, for it was part of the grand design of nature, and not anthropogenic. At the same time, it offers evidence of the cataclysmic social and political events that climate change can wreak, whatever its origin. It is clear that whole civilisations can be wiped out, and migrations unleashed on a scale that we, grappling with puny inconveniences like boat people and the outsourcing of jobs, cannot even imagine. The belief that Venice and Dhaka would have to sink like Atlantis before serious effects of climate change are felt is simply childish.
Ages before coastlines change, there are likely to be unforeseeable changes in the wealth of nations. People follow capital, and massive forced migrations would follow. It is unlikely that the collective wisdom of the human race, such as it is at the present time, would be able to deal with such a situation, when the political systems and economic balances developed over a century suddenly become meaningless. Rather than debating climate change, we should be preparing for it.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.8