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25 October 2003
Did Thera's explosion doom Minoan Crete?

For decades, scholars have debated whether the eruption of the Thera volcano in the Aegean more than 3,000 years ago brought about the mysterious collapse of Minoan civilization at the peak of its glory. The volcanic isle (whose remnants are known as Santorini) lay just 110 kilometers from Minoan Crete, so it seemed quite reasonable that its fury could have accounted for the fall of that celebrated people.
     This idea suffered a blow in 1987 when Danish scientists studying cores from the Greenland ice cap reported evidence that Thera exploded in 1645 BCE, some 150 years before the usually accepted date. That put so much time between the natural disaster and the Minoan decline that the linkage came to be widely doubted, seeming far-fetched at best.
     Now, scientists at Columbia University, the University of Hawaii and other institutions are renewing the proposed connection. New findings, they say, show that Thera's upheaval was far more violent than was previously calculated. "It had to have had a huge impact," said Floyd McCoy, a geologist at the University of Hawaii who has studied the eruption for decades and recently proposed that it was much more violent than had been previously thought.
     The scientists say Thera's outburst produced deadly waves and dense clouds of volcanic ash over a vast region, crippling ancient cities and fleets, setting off climate changes, ruining crops and sowing wide political unrest. For Minoan Crete, the scientists see direct and indirect consequences. McCoy discovered that towering waves from the eruption that hit Crete were up to 15 meters high, about 50 feet, smashing ports and fleets and severely damaging the maritime economy.
     Other scientists found indirect, long-term damage. Ash and global cooling from the volcanic pall caused wide crop failures in the eastern Mediterranean, they said, and the agricultural woes in turn set off political upheavals that undid Minoan friends and trade.
     Rich and sensual, sophisticated and artistic, Minoan culture flourished in the Bronze Age between roughly 3,000 and 1,400 BCE, the first high civilization of Europe. It developed an early form of writing and used maritime skill to found colonies and a trade empire. By 1450 BCE, Mycenaean invaders from mainland Greece seized control of Crete, ending the Minoan era.

Source: The New York Time, International Herald Tribune (23 October 2003)

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