Beginning about 3000 years ago, a wave of innovation has started to sweep over human societies around the world. During the following millennium, the continued emergence of new technologies had a dramatic effect on the history of mankind.
This era saw the advancement of the ability to control horses with bit and bridle, the spread of ironworking techniques across Eurasia which led to more complex and cheaper weapons and armor, and new ways to kill from a distance, like with crossbows and catapults. Overall, the war has become much more deadly.
At that time, many societies were consumed by the crucible of war. A few, however – the Achaemenid Persian Empire, the Roman Empire and Han China – not only survived but flourished, becoming mega-empires encompassing tens of millions of people and controlling territories of millions of square kilometers. .
So what drove this cascade of technological innovations that changed the course of history?
We are complexity scientist, Peter Turchin, and historian, Dan Hoyer, working since 2011 with a multidisciplinary team to build and analyze a large database of past societies. In a new article published in PLOS A On October 20, 2021, we describe the main societal drivers of ancient military innovation and how these new technologies have changed empires.
A database for human history
The store of knowledge about the past is really huge. The trick is to translate this knowledge into data that can be analyzed. This is where Seshat comes in.
The Seshat database is named after Seshat, an ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge and writing. Founded in 2011 as a collaboration between the Evolution Institute, Complexity Science Hub Vienna, University of Oxford and many others, Seshat aimed to systematically bring together as much knowledge as possible about the shared past of the world. ‘humanity.
Next, our team formatted this information in a way that enabled researchers to use big data analysis to search for recurring patterns in history and test the many theories aimed at explaining such practices.
The first step in this process was to develop a conceptual scheme for historical coding information ranging from military technology to the size and shape of states to the nature of rituals and religion. The database includes more than 400 societies in all parts of the world and ranges from around 10,000 BC to 1,800 AD.
To trace the evolution of military technologies, we first broken them down into six key dimensions:
- Hand guns
- Transport animals
- Metallurgical advances
Each of these dimensions was then divided into more specific categories. In total, we identified 46 of these variables among the six technological dimensions.
For example, we distinguish the types of projectile weapons as slingshots, single bows, compound bows, crossbows, etc. We then coded whether or not each historical society in Seshat’s sample used these technologies. For example, the first appearance of crossbows in our database dates from around 400 BC in China.
Of course, knowledge of mankind’s past is imprecise. Historians may not know the exact year that crossbows first appeared in a particular region. But the inaccuracy in a few cases is not a serious problem given the astounding amount of information in the database. The goal is to uncover macro-level patterns across thousands of years of history.
Competition and exchanges stimulate innovation
In our new article, we wanted to find out what drove the invention and adoption of increasingly advanced military technologies to the world during the days of old megaempires.
Using the massive amount of historical information collected by the Seshat team, we performed a series of statistical analyzes to trace how, where and when these technologies evolved and what factors seemed to have had the most significant influence on these processes.
We have found that the main drivers of technological innovation do not have to do with attributes of states themselves, such as population size or sophistication of governance. Instead, the main drivers of creation seem to be the overall world population at one point in time, increasing the connectivity between large states – as well as the competition that these connections have brought – and some fundamental technological advancements that sparked a cascade. subsequent innovations.
Let us illustrate these dynamics with a specific example. Around 1000 BC, nomadic herders from the steppes north of the Black Sea invented the bit and bridle to better control horses when riding them. They combined this technology with a powerful recurving bow and iron arrowheads for a lethal effect. Horse archers have become the weapon of mass destruction of the ancient world. Shortly after 1000 BC, thousands of pieces of metal suddenly appeared and spread across the Eurasian steppes.
Competition and connection then developed between the nomadic people and the large sedentary states. Because it was difficult for agricultural societies to resist these mounted warriors, they were forced to develop new armor and weapons like the crossbow.
These states also had to build up large armies of infantry and mobilize more of their population towards collective efforts such as maintaining defenses and producing and distributing enough goods to feed everyone.
This has spurred the development of increasingly complex administrative systems to manage all of these moving parts. Ideological innovations – such as today’s major world religions – have also been developed because they have helped unite larger and more disparate populations towards a common goal.
In this cascade of innovations, we see the origins of the world’s first mega-empires and the rise and spread of world religions practiced by billions of people today. In a way, these critical developments can all be attributed to the development of bit and bridle, which gave riders better control over horses. Each step of this line has long been understood. Nevertheless, by using the whole range of intercultural information stored in the Seshat database, our team was able to trace the dynamic sequence linking all these different developments.
Of course, this account gives a very simplified explanation of very complex historical dynamics. But our research exposes the critical role of inter-societal competition and exchanges in the evolution of technology and complex societies. Although this research has focused on the ancient and medieval periods, the military revolution triggered by gunpowder had similar effects in the modern era.
Perhaps more importantly, our research shows that history is not “just one damn thing after another” – there are indeed discernible causal patterns and empirical regularities throughout history. . And with Seshat, researchers can use the knowledge accumulated by historians to separate theories supported by data from those that are not.
This article was originally published on The Conversation by Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut. Read the original article here.