Research on empires: focus on agriculture and military technology


Larger and more complex societies evolved around 10,000 years ago. The motives for the formation of the state and the organization of society are the subject of many theories. Researchers now want to know why empires come and go: the further development of agriculture and military technology.

The team, led by Russian-American complexity researcher Peter Turchin of the Center for Complex Science (CSH) in Vienna, based the study, published in the journal Science Advances, on the “World History Database Seshat” originally developed by Turchin. This is a set of historical and archaeological data for 373 societies around the world. Scientists focused in the study on the period extending from the beginning of the “Holocene” era, about 10,000 years ago, until the year 1900 AD.

Research data traces the rise and fall of empires

These data track the formation and dissolution of larger communities over time. The organizational form of the state in its various guises dominated here for about 5,000 years. Based on the information collected, the scientists used mathematical and statistical methods to experimentally test several theories about the “Holocene transition”.

Agriculture and military technology in the spotlight

While some focus primarily on agricultural development, others focus more on conflict, such as class conflict or military threats from other powers. Others see the developments seen as a complex coping strategy to social problems, according to the CSH broadcast.

17 possible influencing factors

Although all of these ideas are based on plausible examples, “none of them turned out to be definitively more convincing than the others,” says Turchin. Together with his colleagues, he has now studied 17 potential influencing factors in various groups, which various theories consider important for the “Holocene transition”. Two factors combined have been found to best fit data on the formation and change of state structures: increased agricultural productivity and the invention or adoption of military technologies, such as iron-forged weapons. iron or the development of mounted or gunpowder armies.

Conflicts over land and resources put great pressure on people

Ultimately, social, political and cultural development is best explained by the fact that land and resource conflicts put great pressure on people. This, in turn, has led to societies with the advantage of having more living space, being made up of more people, being able to collect and store more information, communicate more efficiently over longer distances and to have more people dedicated to building infrastructure or the military. purposes. crowd.

Dealing with bronze and iron increased the circle of influence of societies

For scholars, the picture of history repeating itself looks like this: societies that may have used bronze and later iron or a military innovation for themselves, for example, quickly expanded their sphere of ‘influence. Then there was the relative stability of its size. As a result, more innovations and cultural achievements appeared, until a new breakthrough occurred and settled again, and soon other societies spread and sometimes settled, until the process starts all over again from the beginning. For example, scholars cite the ancient and modern kingdoms of Egypt, as well as the first great empires in the Middle East or in China, the Roman Empire or the huge colonial empires of European countries, some of which lasted until the 20th century. century. .

Research as food for thought on established theories

The researchers see their work as a stimulus to reflect on the plausibility of some of the well-established theories in the field. For Turchin, empirical tests have the potential to definitively rule out hypotheses that do not stand up to such tests.


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