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‘Catastrophe’ a captivating read

Though evidence is shaky, author’s ideas are plausible

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David Keys is of the opinion that climate, or changes in climate, have the potential to alter history — not just on a short-term basis but in the long run as well.

As an archaeology correspondent for London's "The Independent," Keys writes with headline-grabbing flair but often at the expense of credulity; he requires his readers to accept several large, speculative leaps in logic to reach his same conclusions.

It's not that the book's premise is unsupportable — it's actually quite plausible. The problem lies in Key's documentation of evidence. It reads like a lawyer's brief — so much scholastic gobbledygook that one wonders if Keys is trying to dazzle in order to cover up the holes he's dug into the ground of common sense.

And yet, even with this caveat, "Catastrophe" is still an engrossing read, filled with fascinating historical events of cause and effect.

Keys postulates that beginning in the middle of the 6th century, the Earth suffered a major catastrophe without precedent in recorded history.

For months on end, starting in 535 A.D., a strange, murky haze surrounded the Earth, robbing the planet of normal sunlight, which caused crops to fail everywhere. It also caused droughts and flooding, bringing ancient cultures to the brink of economic and political collapse.

These radical weather changes also caused the first recorded outbreak of the Bubonic plague, which wiped out entire populations in Europe.

Keys' story of how the plague began in East Africa, after a drought and subsequent heavy rain, makes for some of his more interesting writing. He not only presents stomach-turning, 6th century descriptions of how the plague decimated its victims, he also details the anatomy of the flea and how the plague bacteria developed in the parasite's malfunctioning stomach.

The author goes on to outline how the climatic catastrophe altered the world's food chain, which in turn forced rodents — like mice, which breed faster than their natural predators — to enlarge their foraging area. This then brought them — and the sick fleas — in contact with other rodents, such as the rats that inhabited the sailing vessels that journeyed to all parts of the Roman Empire.

Keys relates every major political, cultural, economic event that changed the course of human history back to the cataclysmic climate shifts of A.D. 535. To see what this catastrophic event was, what Keys believes made it happen and what might happen in the future is what makes the book worth reading.

And even though some of his conclusions seem tenuous at best, the story of beginning and ending civilizations more than makes up for any faults.

E-mail: gag@desnews.com