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Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization Hardcover – February 1, 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 74 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Everybody knows the Dark Ages weren't really dark, right? Not so fast, counters archaeological journalist David Keys, maybe it's more than just a slightly judgmental metaphor. His book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, based on years of careful research spanning five continents, argues that sometime in A.D. 535, a worldwide disaster struck and uprooted nearly every culture then extant. Given contemporary reports of the sun being blotted out or weakened for nearly a year and a half, followed by famine, drought, and plague, it's hard not to think that so many reports from all over the world must be related.

Keys shows a keen grasp of both the written historical record from Asia, Africa, and Europe and the archaeological evidence from the Americas, and tells many tales of great havoc destroying old empires and laying the ground for new ones. Rome may have fallen, but Spain, England, and France rose in its place, while farther east, Japan and China each unified and gained strength after the chaos. Could an enormous volcanic eruption have had such influence on the world as a whole, and could the same thing happen tomorrow? Catastrophe makes no predictions, but leaves the reader with a new sense of history, nature, and destiny. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

In Keys's startling thesis, a global climatic catastrophe in A.D. 535-536--a massive volcanic eruption sundering Java from Sumatra--was the decisive factor that transformed the ancient world into the medieval, or as Keys prefers to call it, the "proto-modern" era. Ancient chroniclers record a disaster in that year that blotted out the sun for months, causing famine, droughts, floods, storms and bubonic plague. Keys, archeology correspondent for the London Independent, uses tree-ring samples, analysis of lake deposits and ice cores, as well as contemporaneous documents to bolster his highly speculative thesis. In his scenario, the ensuing disasters precipitated the disintegration of the Roman Empire, beset by Slav, Mongol and Persian invaders propelled from their disrupted homelands. The sixth-century collapse of Arabian civilization under pressure from floods and crop failure created an apocalyptic atmosphere that set the stage for Islam's emergence. In Mexico, Keys claims, the cataclysm triggered the collapse of a Mesoamerican empire; in Anatolia, it helped the Turks establish what eventually became the Ottoman Empire; while in China, the ensuing half-century of political and social chaos led to a reunified nation. Huge claims call for big proof, yet Keys reassembles history to fit his thesis, relentlessly overworking its explanatory power in a manner reminiscent of Velikovsky's theory that a comet collided with the earth in 1500 B.C. Readers anxious about future cataclysms will take note of Keys's roundup of trouble spots that could conceivably wreak planetary havoc. Maps. BOMC and QPBC selections. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st American ed edition (February 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345408764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345408761
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #147,966 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Within minutes of finishing this riveting, wide-ranging book, I was composing an email recommending it to several friends.
The author -- archaeologist and journalist David Keys -- posits that a single event in about 535 CE triggered between 18 months and 3+ yrs of bad weather worldwide. The first calamity to follow the catastrophe was drought in some places, massive floods in others. On the heels of terrible weather came famine worldwide and plague in the old world.
Implicated in and resulting from these, he traces massive movements of peoples in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America, and radical changes in government everywhere. (He reaches a bit when discussing North America, which has the thinnest archaeological and no historical evidence.)
Among -- but not limited to -- the changes he attributes to the catastrophe are these --
- the triumph of the Anglo-Saxons over the Celts
- the entrenchment of Buddhism in Japan, and Japan's unification
- new governmental structures in various SE Asian states
- the "fall" of the Roman Empire
- the rise of Islam
- the flowering of Anasazi culture
- the rise of the first pan-Peruvian empire
- the abandonment of Arianism
- the development of a Jewish state in today's southern Ukraine, leading to the separation of the Ashkenazim from the "original" Jews
A significant part of the book is spent in explanation of some of the science used in dating historic events. Keys explains dendrochronology (dating by tree rings), the development of the study of glacial ice cores, and variations in carbon isotopes over time, among other methods. His explanations are thorough but simple, never lapsing into jargon.
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Format: Hardcover
I must admit I opened this book with some doubts, expecting to struggle through an "Eric von Daniken" potboiler of implausible facts and theories. To his credit, Keys doesn't venture too far from the historically proven facts -- such as they are, because this is a poorly documented era -- in his quest to puzzle out just what did happen to set the cultural pot boiling so frantically in the period 540-650CE.
Trouble is, the historically verifiable facts are very thin on the ground. But if you've never pondered what sent Byzantium on its steepest nosedive, why Islam took over so much of the Middle East in so short a time, what prompted the collapse of the Celts, why several Central and South America civilizations foundered around this time, here's a theory worth considering, if 'coincidence' isn't good enough for you ... a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia, with a consequent climatic upheaval (drought, storms, plague, etc.)
Like all determinist approaches to ancient history, the theory is essentially unverifiable, but it's an entertaining book on the darkest of the dark ages, nonetheless. I'm sure academics can find much to criticize, but it seems well-researched, and is very clearly written. People will be talking about this book a lot over the next few months, so arm yourself for the inevitable debates!
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Format: Hardcover
Keys' aim of the book was well stated in the introduction - "to help change people's view of the past - and of the future". After reading this 300-plus-page description of fairly well documented research and speculation, I found his approach to the information novel more than anything. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to effectively investigate and analyze collected data from the time period between 535 and 536. Keys presents us with an opportunity to view tree ring evidence, geopolitical instabilities, and geological speculation in the context of a worldwide historical framework. Moreover, he suggests that "a force of nature ultimately lay behind much of the change experienced by the world in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D." As someone outside of the field of archaeology, anthropology or geological science, I found the historical perspective that is offered unique (it's definitely the first time I've read anything about the evolution of religions, volcanology and the rise and fall of civilizations in the same book). My one critique concerning the writing style itself is that it tends to be repetitive in places, especially toward the end of chapters, and it's clear that Keys wishes to play to the historically savy audiences as much as possible, bouncing between discussions of Ashkenazi non-Cohenic Levites and non-Levite Ashkenazi Jews, which makes some passages difficult to follow (what was the point of this chapter, you'll ask yourself). There are chapters which tend to be more academic than explanatory, delving into details that could have been omitted without losing the spirit of the work. Overall, I found the book enjoyable and a good introduction into the subject. If one day more conclusive evidence surfaces from the interest generated, I applaude Mr. Keys for the effort. I think he's done the scientific community a great service and offers a new perspective on what might be considered dry history.
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Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed reading Catastrophe, but I took it with a large grain of salt. Keys makes a solid case that a disaster, possibly a huge volcanic eruption, happened sometime around 535 AD. The aftermath was worldwide drought, floods, famine, plague and the collapse of ancient civilizations around the world.
The book seems to be on to something (unlike the silly Chariots of the Gods and its ilk), but there are reasons to be skeptical about the author's conclusions.
First, Keys covers a great deal of ground for someone who is described on the book jacket as an "archaeology correspondent" for The Independent, a London daily paper. He makes a number of important judgments about ancient Chinese, Indonesian, American, British, European and Middle Eastern sources, as well as about geology, meteorology and even physics. His books suggests that he consulted specialists before drawing his conclusions, but I can't avoid the impression that some of his claims might be hotly disputed by experts in in the relevant field. In short, it's a little hard for the lay person to judge whether Keys has the qualifications needed to make the judgments upon which his arguments ultimately depend.
Second, Keys has a disturbing tendency to use words like "undoubtedly" and "certainly" when describing the ancient world. I've read a great deal of history, and I have learned that nothing is ever really "certain" or "undoubted," especially if we're talking about events that happened 1500 years ago. Rather, such words often reflect an author's uncouncious effort to shore up a weak argument.
Finally, Keys gets a little swept away by his thesis, constantly re-asserting that whatever happened in 535 caused (however indirectly) the birth of the modern world.
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