Part I: The Collapse of Civilizations by Malcolm H. Wiener

In a new paper for the Belfer Center, “The Collapse of Civilizations”,  acclaimed Aegean prehistorian Malcolm Wiener explores five paramount causes of collapse of civilizations.

Dr. Wiener’s paper finds that major episodes of climate change have had profound impacts upon cultural continuity, and that the interactions between climate change, famines, migrations, pandemics, and major innovations in the means of transport and warfare are critical in understanding the collapse of past civilizations.

“The prime movers of collapse throughout history,” Wiener writes, “all present risks for today.”



Current dramatic breakthroughs in archaeological science provide persuasive new insights about the collapse of past civilizations. Winston Churchill once remarked “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” Armed with DNA analysis of the movements of human populations, animals, and pathogens; strontium isotope analysis documenting the movements of people over the course of individual lifetimes; analyses of past climates through beryllium as well as oxygen isotope analysis, together with the drilling of deep lake, sea, glacier, and cove cores, and the study of annual growth of tree rings, among other scientific advances, we can look back upon the history of humankind as never before. Five causes of collapse appear paramount: major episodes of climate change, crises-induced mass migrations, pandemics, dramatic advances in methods of warfare and transport, and human failings in crises including societal lack of resilience and the madness, incompetence, cultic focus, or ignorance of rulers.



Malcolm H. Wiener is an Aegean prehistorian who has written extensively on the Eastern Mediterranean world in the Bronze Age. His many published papers span the emergence, florescence, and collapse of the first complex societies of the western world in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, their relationship to the civilizations of the Near East and Egypt, the absolute chronology of the ancient world (science, texts, and interconnections via objects), warfare in the ancient world, the acquisition of copper and tin for bronze tools and weapons, and the interaction of climate change, mass migrations, pandemics, warfare, and human agency in the collapse of civilizations. His awards include the honorary doctorates of the Universities of Sheffield, Tübingen, Athens, Cincinnati, University College London, Dickinson College, and the University of Arizona, the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor (Greece), and the Ring of Honour of the German Academy in Mainz. Mr. Wiener is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of Antiquaries in London, a Corresponding Member of the Royal Swedish Academy, the Austrian Archaeological Institute, the Austrian Academy of Science, the Deutsches Archaologisches Institut, and the Academy of Athens, holds the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, and is an Honorary Director of the Greek Archaeological Society. He is the founder of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory and the Malcolm Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and a recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America Bandelier Award for Public Service to Archaeology and the Athens Prize of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Mr. Wiener is a Trustee Emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Trustees of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation. The Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School is named in his honor. He chaired the independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations on “Non-lethal Technologies: Military Implications and Options” and wrote its report.

Mr. Wiener was born in Tsingtao, China, is a graduate of Harvard College (1957) and the Harvard Law School (1963), served at sea as an officer in the U.S. Navy, practiced law in New York City, and was the founder and CEO of related New York City investment management firms employing algorithmic methodologies in futures markets between 1971 and 1987.