Lisarow High School Ancient History

Thera Tin and the Aryans 1


Thera, Tin, and the Aryan Invasion
by Tom Slattery
Three history-making events appear to have happened around 1500 B.C., and all three may be closely related.
One: The Greek volcanic island of Thera in the Mediterranean exploded around then. It may have been the largest volcanic event to occur in human history.
Two: The great Aryan Invasion originating out of central Asia and continuing down into northern India was in progress. While there is some argument that it was not a genuine invasion, a movement of people does appear to have taken place down through Iran (which derives its present name from the event), and this movement, as preserved in the Rig Veda, does appear to have been at least partly a military conquest. An important offshoot of this invasion, the Mitanni of biblical Haran, played an important part in Western history.
Three: The Late Bronze Age began. The Late Bronze Age is the true Bronze Age. The Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age used a different metal, an alloy of arsenic and copper. Only in the Late Bronze Age do we see the real bronze alloy of tin and copper.
Even if the explosion of the volcanic island of Thera may not have been the mightiest volcanic explosion in all of human history, it was tremendous. The tsunami from it devastated the Minoan capital on Crete and swamped coastal areas along the eastern Mediterranean.
When a similar event, the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora, happened in fairly recent history we had a year without a summer, 1815 AD. And not long ago there were still people alive who remembered the global effects of a much smaller volcanic explosion of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa that occurred in 1883 AD.
The far more devastating effects of the 1815 Tambora explosion turned summer into winter that year in distant New England. Crops failed and people literally starved. Thomas Jefferson made a note of it.
The explosion of Thera in 1500 B.C. appears to have been even greater. And even if it had been of about the same magnitude, its effects would have been similarly devastating on a global scale. Across the Northern Hemisphere, at least one summer would have been like winter. Crops would have failed. Grazing grasses would have been stunted. Starvation and social chaos would have prevailed.
People driven by desperation would have begun to move, especially to move south where the effects on crops and grazing grasses would have diminished with latitude and food would have become less scarce. Conventions of human behavior and civility would have been abandoned in the desperation to survive.
Since the southern movement of peoples called the Aryan Invasion occurred at this time, there may be more than just a coincidental relationship of events. In fact, one should be more surprised if nothing historical had happened in central Asia as a result of the Thera volcanic explosion. One is therefore free to suspect that the great Aryan Invasion may have been motivated, at least in some part, by temporary global climate change caused by the Thera explosion.
For whatever reasons, the Late Bronze Age - the true Bronze Age that used the tin-copper alloy - also began at this time. And there may be a connection with the Aryan Invasion that centres around 1500 B.C.
Copper ore was relatively abundant. The island of Cyprus, which derives its present name from copper ore, was a known source. And there were copper mines in the Sinai.
Tin ore, however, was extremely rare. And as a result, tin would have become the strategic mineral of the Bronze Age, much like petroleum is the strategic mineral of our time. Those who controlled tin ore had the strong bronze military implements and bronze-related economies needed to keep control and maintain national integrity. Those who did not, fell behind.
The largest and most easily mined deposits of rare tin ore were scattered in a curving geological line that runs from just east of the great salt lake called Issyk Kul in Khirghizia to just east of the present city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. On Map 4 in his book Tin in Antiquity, R. D. Pennhallurick names the mine locations, Sarszhas, Sarybulak, Aktyuz, Uchkoshkon, Maikhoura, Changhalli, Kochkarli, and Karnab. And during the Bronze Age these were some of a very few places in the Old World that were known to have tin ore, and this was largest lode of easily mined tin ore.
And the Aryan Invasion appears to have swept south from this area. There is something quite telling about the Aryan Invasion in this regard. The "ar" sound in Aryan appears to have the same Indo-European root as words for "ore" in various Indo-European-derived languages, "ore" in English, "erz" in German, for instance.
They were thus the "Ore People." Apparently they did not differentiate between "ore" and its product, "metal." So they may have called themselves the "Metal People." This comes in contention with the commonly held opinion that the "Aryan" name meant "noble," or "superior." I would guess that this nomenclature came after the fact. The Aryans dominated other peoples and became superior in the social stratigraphy, and they were thus able to be noble. It is hard to dismiss the idea of "Ore People" as perhaps having been their original designation for themselves.
One can guess that they had, shortly before the great invasion, discovered that by mixing copper with tin they made a much better metal than anyone else had. The Rig Veda, the myth-history of their successful invasion, mentions metal body armor and war chariots, both probably new in warfare at that point. The armor would have been their new tin-copper bronze, and the war chariots would only have been made possible by tin-copper true bronze alloy for horse-control mechanisms like bits and true bronze chariot-wheel rims, axles, and bearings.
It is not difficult to concoct a scenario of a known powerful volcanic event eradicating at least one summer growing season and absolute desperation forcing a mass-movement south - a mass-movement into widespread chaos caused everywhere by the temporary climate change. Superior metal technology had previously enabled surprising successes in military exploits. Then desperation forced the mass-movement of a whole people, and they utilized their superior metal technology. And a centuries-long military-trade-migration movement to the south followed.
Following their initial successes, the Aryans may have maintained exclusive control over tin ore sources, trading not only cash-credits for it, but political-military influence as well. One is led to suspect something like this happened in the case of the Aryan Mitanni who settled in upper Mesopotamia. They came to play a strange large role in distant Egyptian history. Might this have been due to imperial Egyptian need for tin to make bronze?
A first note of possible Aryan Invasion influence in Egyptian history comes with the Hyksos (literally "People Under Foreign Rulers") takeover of northern Egypt for a century between about 1650 to 1550 B.C. Introduction of war chariots into Egypt occurs then. Then come the Mitanni - preserved in biblical text with Abraham's sojourn in the country of the Mitanni called Haran - who several times "married" into the Egyptian royal family. And this may be a glimpse at a larger picture behind the success of the Aryan Invasion.
The Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Tuthmosis IV (1398 BC to 1388 BC) "married," as his primary wife, a Mitanni princess, breaking ancient Egyptian tradition of matrilineal succession. Their kid, half-Mitanni pharaoh Amenhotep III, continued this break by "marrying" the daughter of his father's prime minister, a clearly foreign man named Yuya whom Ahmed Osman believes may have been the biblical Joseph (of Genesis).
Their kid, Amenhotep IV, initiated a new pseudo-monotheism worshipping an aspect of the sun called the Aten, changed his name to Akhn-Aten to reflect it, and tossed out the old religion and its old familiar pantheon. And it is interesting to note that this Aten's name was Shu, the Aryan-Mitanni god of the sun.
So beginning with the Hyksos and mostly ending with the end of Eighteenth Dynasty, there appears to have been a possible Aryan connection. The first seems to have been the Hyksos. The second is the definitely Aryan-Mitanni influence in Egyptian history growing out of several marriages to Mitanni princesses and resulting in a monumental change in the state religion initiating worship of an apparent Aryan deity. And all of this may have been due to an interest by the Egyptian ruling class in the most vital strategic mineral of the Bronze Age, tin.
And it may interesting to note that the ancient Egyptian word for "tin" seems to have been dm, sometimes written d)m, apparently for an unknown Egyptian aspiration or vowel. This does not sound like the Indo-European derived word we hear in Greek as kassiteros. The ancient Egyptian word seems remarkably like our modern English word "tin," or the German "zinn."
Might we still be using the ancient Egyptian word? Might this be because tin once played a far more important role in a European history connected with ancient Egypt than we have so far discovered? The only large sources of tin outside of central Asia known anywhere in the West in the Bronze Age were in Cornwall-Brittany and on the present German-Czech border. And since it was the vital strategic mineral of the Bronze Age, Egypt would have gotten at least some tin from there.
A volcanic island named Thera exploded circa 1550 B.C. The Aryan Invasion, which included an offshoot called the Mitanni, is centred around that time.
The Late Bronze Age, the true Bronze Age, that used an alloy made from tin and copper rather than the earlier alloy made from arsenic and copper, began about then. They seem at first sight to be intimately related to one another. And if this is true, we are what we are today because of it, more than has previously been suspected.
Tom Slattery is author of The Tragic End of the Bronze Age, listed on
This resource page is copyright © 2001-2002 Tom Slattery.
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