Based on the evidence presently available, therefore, we may be seeing the result of a systems collapse that was caused by a series of events linked together via a “multiplier effect” in which one factor effected the others, thereby magnifying the effects of each. Perhaps the inhabitants could have survived one disaster, such as an earthquake or a drought, but they could not survive the combined effects of earthquake, drought and invaders, all occurring in rapid succession. A “domino effect” then ensued, in which the disintegration of one civilization led to the fall of the others.
In these words Eric H. Cline in 1177 B.C., the Year Civilization Collapsed states the basic idea of a systems collapse explanation for what happened in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age.
But then he suggests that even this perfect-storm approach lacks enough complexity. He refers to complexity theory which, as best I understand it, is a way of acknowledging chance. So Qoheleth was a complexity theorist:
I returned , and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding , nor yet favour to men of skill ; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV).
One of the people Cline refers to is Guy Middleton who has an interesting article here about archeology and various collapses in history. Middleton published this when people were talking about the Mayan calendar and the end of the world. He says that although states sometimes collapse, civilizations are “uncollapsible”. Hmm.
Complexity theory applied to our modern world shows that events in China, for instance, can cause people to lose their jobs or pay more for food in the USA. Complexity theorists even talk about the “butterfly effect”. Theoretically so small an event as a butterfly fluttering its wings in some distant place may set in motion events that eventually have a large effect here.
As applied to the Bronze Age collapse, a series of stressors may have contributed. These included natural disasters, civil disorders, wars, and trade blockades and disruptions.
You could picture the world order as like the complicated power grid in the United States. Tornados in Oklahoma and snowstorms in the Northeast affect it. If there were enough such stressors the system might be disrupted or collapse. I think of a recent internet outage I experienced. Some work crew accidentally cut a fiber optic cable in Nebraska. This led to outages for over a month in several states.
The idea is that the more complex any system becomes, the more liable it is to unexpected instability and collapse.
In complexity theory it is a mistake to seek linear cause and effect. Thus, to say that a plague or an invasion caused the Bronze Age collapse would leave out too many other factors. Rather, we ought to acknowledge that we know about several stressors on the system and that, given the distance in time and the incomplete nature of the archeological record, there may have been other stressors we remain unaware of.
So how do we account for the suddenness of the collapse? Well, Cline thinks it was more gradual than often portrayed. The downfall of Ugarit was apparently very sudden. But elsewhere the collapse may have manifested itself as increasing chaos leading to stages of disintegration and destabilization.
I think Cline, against his own intention not to give a single cause, says that the growing complexity of civilization, which made the various kingdoms dependent and vulnerable, caused the collapse. But he walks this back, saying finally that complexity theory may be the right explanation but that we do not have enough information yet.
He has one more chapter left on the aftermath of the late Bronze Age collapse.