Thursday, June 2, 2016

Mongol hordes gave up on conquering Europe due to wet weather

It has mystified historians ever since. After a string of major victories, the Mongol army suddenly retreated from central Europe in 1242.

Some scholars claim Mongolian politics forced the withdrawal, while others credit the strength of fortified towns in present-day Hungary and Croatia. But Europe could have been rescued by its own bad weather, an analysis of tree rings and historical documents concludes.

The Mongol cavalry fed its horses on the grass of the Eurasian steppe, says Nicola Di Cosmo of Princeton University, one of the study’s authors. A warm climate in the early 1200s helped make the grasslands lush and this, in turn, helped the Mongols extend their empire into Russia, he says.

In 1241, the Mongol army reached the plains’ western limit in Hungary. Led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu, the Mongols crushed the Polish and Hungarian armies on open, flat terrain that suited their mobile warfare tactics.

“They were familiar with that environment,” says Di Cosmo. “What they didn’t know is how prone to flooding that particular area was.”

Compared with the rest of the steppe, Hungary has a high water table so it floods easily.

Analysing tree rings in the region, Di Cosmo and his colleagues found that Hungary had a cold, wet winter in early 1242. This probably turned Hungary’s central plain into a huge swamp.

Historical documents the team studied back up this claim, recording, for example, that melting snows kept the Mongol army from attacking a Hungarian castle surrounded by marshes.

Lacking pasture for its horses, the Mongols fell back to drier highlands and then to Russia in search of better grass.

While climate wasn’t the only factor in the reteat, it would be a mistake to ignore it, says Di Cosmo. “It’s like saying the winter in Russia had no effect on Napoleon’s army,” he says.

Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, says the study is interesting, but he warns against over-interpreting the influence of climate on historic events. “I’m sceptical that such ‘climate determinism’ holds nearly as universally as some authors seem to think,” he says. The changes in weather the study reported seemed “modest”, he says.

But Aaron Putnam of the University of Maine in Orono says that the study steered clear of determinism, taking into account all potential factors. “I think it’s convincing,” he says. “The previous explanations of the Mongol withdrawal didn’t add up.”

Horse logistics limited the Mongols, Putnam says. “They were incredibly technologically savvy, but they got into a place where horses just didn’t do well.”

Putnam says that natural weather records like tree rings have much more to tell us about the history of premodern civilisations, which depended heavily on environmental conditions. “It’s just an incredible archive.”

Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep25606

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