Bronze Age “World War Zero” Could Have Wiped Out A Mysterious Civilization

A 'Trojan Horse' has been built for tourists in Turkey, but how much do we know of the culture that once occupied the famous city? Maratart/Shutterstock

Archaeologists are making the case that the Trojan War not only occurred, but was the high point in an epic series of wars that ended with the downfall of three Bronze Age civilizations. The conflict has been dubbed “World War Zero”, and progress is being made on understanding the little-known culture at its heart.

Homer's Illiad is so filled with gods and magical features it is easy to consider it fantasy. However, excavations at what is now called Hisarlik have provided evidence that the ancient city of Troy existed, and geographical features around the site resemble those Homer described.

A team of researchers argues that Troy was part of the Luwian (pronounced Luvian) civilization, which dominated what is now the western half of Turkey during the Bronze Age. However, a series of wars, including the Trojan War, destroyed the Luwians and their neighbors. The dark age that followed left few references, so most evidence for the Luwians comes from archaeological digs.

The website Luwian Studies has been established to collate these finds. The site describes its purpose, and that of the foundation that funds much of the research, as to “promote the study of cultures of the second millennium BCE in the west of Asia Minor.”

The most intriguing part of Luwian research is the possibility that it could explain the widespread collapse of civilization around the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age.

The theory, outlined in the video below, holds that the scattered Luwian kingdoms united to defeat the Hittite Empire, bringing down one of the region's great civilizations. Their success on one front was closely followed by war with a similar coalition of Greek kingdoms, the Mycenaeans. The Greek's eventual success lead to the sacking of Troy and the destruction of the Luwian alliance.

 

The cost of such a long war would have been heavy for the Greeks. Dr. Eberhard Zangger, Luwian Studies' president, proposes that many rulers returned to find their kingdoms in disarray or in the hands of others. Unlike Odysseus in Homer's second great poem, they lacked a goddess's help, resulting in chaos. Although to us the region affected by these conflicts is a small portion of the planet, to those affected it would have seemed that most of the world was at war, leading Zangger to designate the battles as “World War Zero”.

The video builds on ideas Zangger has been promoting for 20 years, but he acknowledges his theory is far from proven. However, he points to evidence that towards the end of the Bronze Age, western Turkey was among the most densely populated parts of the Earth, with large cities we have barely begun to explore.

With the apparent lack of any major natural disasters at the time, war is the most likely explanation of the near-simultaneous fall of three great civilizations, and Zangger's work, along with Homer's hints, explain how even the theoretical winners could turn victory to defeat.

Many archeologists remain skeptical. Dr. Christoph Bachhuber of the University of Oxford told New Scientist, “Archaeologists will need to discover similar examples of monumental art and architecture across western Anatolia and ideally texts from the same sites to support Zangger’s claim of a civilization.”

Yet if the story is even half true it adds to recently unearthed evidence of a German battleground of astonishing size, to reveal the late Bronze Age was a much bloodier time than previously recognized, and emphasize the unusual nature of Europe's recent peace.


All that remains of the topless tours of Illium, even after a century of excavation. Sergei Afanasev/Shutterstock
 

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