Giant new dataset tracks societal factors that drove military tech

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In this cascade of innovations, we see the origins of the world’s first mega-empires, as well as the rise of world religions practiced by billions of people today.

About 3,000 years ago, a wave of innovation began to sweep through human societies around the world. For the next millennium, the continued emergence of new technologies has had a dramatic effect on the course of human history.

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 stronger and cheaper weapons and armor and new ways to kill from a distance, such as 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 motivated this cascade of technological innovations that literally changed the course of history?

We are complexity scientist, Peter Turchin, and historian, Dan Hoyer, who have been working since 2011 with a multidisciplinary team to build and analyze a large database of past societies. In a new article published in PLOS One 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 initially aimed to systematically gather as much knowledge as possible about the past. common to mankind. 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 these patterns.

The first step in this process was to develop a conceptual scheme for encoding historical 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 spans time from around 10,000 BC to 1,800 AD.

In order to trace the evolution of military technologies, we first broken them down into six key dimensions: handguns, projectiles, armor, fortifications, transport animals, and 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 into slingshots, single bows, compound bows, crossbows and so on. 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 imprecision in a few cases is not a serious problem given the staggering amount of information in the database and when the goal is to uncover macro-level patterns across thousands of years of history. .

The Seshat Database places technological innovation in specific societies at specific times, as shown in this map showing the spread of mounted cavalry through time from its origins in the Eurasian steppes. (Peter Turchin and Daniel Hoyer, CC BY-ND)

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 greatest 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 the sophistication of governance. On the contrary, the main drivers of innovation seem to be the entire world population at any given time, the increase in connectivity between large states – as well as the competition that such connections have brought – and some technological advancements. fundamentals that sparked a cascade of 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 recurve 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 the great world religions of today – have also been developed because they have helped to 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 as well as 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, but using the full range of cross-cultural information stored in the Seshat database, our team was able to trace the dynamic sequence linking all these different developments together.

Of course, this account gives a very simplified explanation of very complex historical dynamics. But our research exposes the key role played by competition and inter-societal exchange in the evolution of both technology and complex societies. Although this research has focused on the ancient and medieval periods, the military revolution unleashed by gunpowder had similar effects in modern times.

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 story was co-authored by Daniel Hoyer, researcher and project leader at the Evolution Institute and part-time professor at George Brown College.

Originally published in The Conversation.


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