Societal collapse is the fall of a complex human society. Such a disintegration may be relatively abrupt, as in the case of Maya civilization, or gradual, as in the case of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Common factors that may contribute to societal collapse are economical, environmental, social and cultural, and disruptions in one domain sometimes cascade into others. In some cases a natural disaster (e.g. tsunami, earthquake, massive fire or climate change) may precipitate a collapse. Other factors such as a Malthusian catastrophe, overpopulation or resource depletion might be the proximate cause of collapse. Significant inequity may combine with lack of loyalty to established political institutions and result in an oppressed lower class rising up and seizing power from a smaller wealthy elite in a revolution. The diversity of forms that societies evolve corresponds to diversity in their failures. Jared Diamond suggests that societies have also collapsed through deforestation, loss of soil fertility, restrictions of trade and/or rising endemic violence.
The decline of the Roman Empire is one of the events traditionally marking the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the European Middle Ages. Throughout the 5th century, the Empire’s territories in western Europe and northwestern Africa, including Italy, fell to various invading or indigenous peoples in what is sometimes called the Barbarian invasions, although the eastern half still survived with borders essentially intact for another two centuries (until the Arab expansion). This view of the collapse of the Roman Empire is challenged, however, by modern historians who see Rome as merely transforming from the Western Empire into barbarian kingdoms as the Western Emperors delegated themselves out of existence, and the East transforming into the Byzantine Empire, which only fell in 1453 AD.
North Africa’s populous and flourishing civilization collapsed after exhausting its resources in internal fighting and suffering devastation from the invasion of the Bedouin tribes of Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal. Ibn Khaldun noted that the lands ravaged by Banu Hilal invaders had become completely arid desert.
In the brutal pillaging that followed Mongol invasions, the invaders decimated the populations of China, Russia, the Middle East, and Islamic Central Asia. Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, though he himself became a Muslim, destroyed many cities, slaughtered thousands of people and did irreparable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. These invasions transformed a civil society to a nomadic one.
Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors. Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases although new research suggests tuberculosis from seals and sea lions played a significant part. Live smallpox was also included in the ship inventories of the Australian first settlement, and a smallpox epidemic spread across the continent 3 years after European settlement.
Societal collapse of many indigenous cultures has occurred as a result of European imperialism in various parts of the globe, particularly in areas where European settler communities took possession of land once held by native peoples, in Latin America and North America, and in Australasia. The effects of this dispossession are still evident in many of the problems confronting indigenous cultures, including alcoholism, high rates of incarceration, suicide rates and fraternal violence.
Changes occurring with Collapse
Reversion/Simplification: A society’s adaptive capacity may be reduced by either a rapid change in population or societal complexity, destabilizing its institutions and causing massive shifts in population and other social dynamics. In cases of collapse, civilizations tend to revert to less complex, less centralized socio-political forms using simpler technology. These are characteristics of a Dark Age. Examples of such societal collapse are: the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaean civilization, the Western Roman Empire, the Mauryan and Gupta Empires in India, the Mayas, the Angkor in Cambodia, the Han and Tang dynasties in China and the Mali Empire.
Incorporation/Absorption: Alternately, a society may be gradually incorporated into a more dynamic, more complex inter-regional social structure. This happened in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Levantine cultures, the Mughal and Delhi Sultanates in India, Song China, the Aztec culture in Mesoamerica, the Inca culture in South America, and the modern civilizations of China, Japan, and India, as well as many modern states in the Middle East and Africa.
Obliteration: Vast numbers of people in the society die, or the birth rate plunges to a level that causes a dramatic depopulation.
Other changes that may accompany a collapse:
Destratification: Complex societies stratified on the basis of class, gender, race or some other salient factor become much more homogeneous or horizontally structured. In many cases past social stratification slowly becomes irrelevant following collapse and societies become more egalitarian.
Despecialization: One of the most characteristic features of complex civilizations (and in many cases the yardstick to measure complexity) is a high level of job specialization. The most complex societies are characterized by artisans and tradespeople who specialize intensely in a given task. Indeed, the rulers of many past societies were hyper-specialized priests or priestesses who were completely supported by the work of the lower classes. During societal collapse, the social institutions supporting such specialization are removed and people tend to become more generalized in their work and daily habits.
Decentralization: As power becomes decentralized, people tend to be more self-regimented and have many more personal freedoms. In many instances of collapse, there is a slackening of social rules and etiquette. Geographically speaking, communities become more parochial or isolated. For example, following the collapse of the Maya civilization, many Maya returned to their traditional hamlets, moving away from the large cities that had dominated the political landscape.
Destructuralization: Institutions, processes, and artifacts are all manifest in the archaeological record in abundance in large civilizations. After collapse, evidence of epiphenomena, institutions, and types of artifacts change dramatically as people are forced to adopt more self-sufficient lifestyles.
Depopulation: Societal collapse is almost always associated with a population decline. In extreme cases, the collapse in population is so severe that the society disappears entirely, such as happened with the Greenland Vikings, or a number of Polynesian islands. In less extreme cases, populations are reduced until a demographic balance is re-established between human societies and the depleted natural environment. A classic example is the city of Rome, which had a population of about 1.5 million at the peak of the Roman Empire during the reign of Trajan in the early 2nd century AD, but in the Early Middle Ages the population had declined to only around 15,000 inhabitants by the 9th century.
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