New Nature Paper: Moralizing Gods Emerged After the Evolution of Complex Societies

God the Father, Saint Salvator’s Cathedral, Bruges, Belgium (Creative Commons)

Humans invented “big gods” after the rise of complex large-scale societies, according to a recent analysis of 10,000 years of history by the Seshat: Global History Databank team. Big gods are defined as moralizing deities who punish ethical transgressions. Contrary to prevailing theories, our team found that beliefs in big gods are a consequence, not a cause, of the evolution of complex societies. The results are published in the March 20 issue of the journal Nature.

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. “To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says co-lead author Harvey Whitehouse (University of Oxford). “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” Strikingly, however, doctrinal rituals tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality.

Doctrinal rituals (performed frequently or subject to policing by a religious hierarchy) are thought necessary to standardize beliefs and practices in large groups. “Such rituals may have played a more important role in the initial rise of social complexity than moralizing gods,” says Whitehouse.

Map showing the global distribution and timing of beliefs in moralising gods. For regions with precolonial moralizing gods, the date of earliest evidence of such beliefs is displayed in thousands of years ago (ka), coloured by type of moralizing gods. Whitehouse, François, Savage et al. (2019) Nature.

The complexity of a society can be estimated through social characteristics such as population, territory, and sophistication of government institutions and information systems. Religious data collected by the team include the presence of beliefs in the supernatural enforcement of reciprocity, fairness, and loyalty, and the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.

Seshat allows researchers to analyze hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space,” explains co-lead author Pieter François (University of Oxford). “Now that the database is ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about human history.” This includes competing theories of how and why humans evolved to cooperate in large-scale societies of millions and more people.

Related Links

General Information and FAQ for Nature Paper on Moralizing Gods

Press on our Nature Paper 

Peter Turchin: Do “Big Societies” Need “Big Gods”?

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Seshat: Global History Databank’s study of human sacrifice featured in The Atlantic

Depiction of a human sacrifice ritual at El Tajín (Mexico). Source: Wikipedia.

Human sacrifice is usually studied within the context of a single culture but viewing the practice on a comparative scale could help answer questions on how ritual, religion, and social cohesion influence the evolution of large-scale complex societies. Laura Spinney’s recent article in The Atlantic outlines the Seshat project’s work on testing theories attempting to explain the rise – and fall – of human sacrifice.

The Seshat team defines human sacrifice as the deliberate and ritualized killing of an individual to please or placate supernatural beings (including recently deceased ancestors). One theory that the Seshat founders tested was that human sacrifice is a destabilizing factor rather than a form of social control. This destabilizing effect becomes particularly strong when societal size exceeds a million people. Seshat founder Harvey Whitehouse explained to Spinney, “Our suggestion is that this particularly pernicious form of inequality isn’t sustainable as societies get more complex.” In larger, more complex societies, human sacrifice is often abused by rulers to promote fear and therefore becomes detrimental to social cohesion, increasing the chance of internal rebellion or external conquest.

The Seshat data suggest the spread of early world religion (based on the concept of a “big god” rather than a god-king) played a major role in the disappearance of human sacrifice. It appears that the spread of religions in the first millennium BCE that feature moralizing big gods led to increased social cohesion in complex societies. This theory will be tested soon using the power of the Seshat: Global History Databank.

For more information on the study of human sacrifice and the role of the Seshat project, read Spinney’s article.

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We’re hiring: Postdoctoral Researcher (to be based at Oxford)

Seshat world map

“The “Ritual Modes: Divergent Modes of Ritual, Social Cohesion, Prosociality, and Conflict, in the Evolution of Social Complexity” project seeks a Postdoctoral Researcher on a full-time, fixed-term, basis from 1 May 2018 (or a soon as possible thereafter) until 30 October 2019. You will be based at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford.

This post will focus on testing theories pertaining to the evolution of social cohesion and social complexity in the historical record. In particular, how ritual, religion and warfare can act as drivers of this evolution. The research will focus on longitudinal historical data (by using data from the Seshat: Global History Databank), ethnographic data and post 1945 armed group datasets. The successful applicant will be part of a team and will be actively involved in analyses and publications testing the evolution of social cohesion and social complexity using the full range of selected datasets.

We are looking for someone who has already completed their PhD in a relevant discipline, who has substantial knowledge of statistical techniques suitable for the analysis of large complex social science datasets. We are also looking for someone with the communication skills to present data at conferences and meetings. For further details, including the job description and selection criteria, please click on the link below.”

Click here more information on how to apply


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The first article to utilize the full power of the Seshat: Global History Databank has arrived!

Philosophers, historians, and social scientists have proposed a multitude of different theories trying to explain the rise of huge complex human societies over the past few millennia. Was the primary driver the invention of agriculture, which seems to be the default explanation held by many archaeologists? Or was it private property and class oppression, as many Marxists believe? Warfare between tribes was a popular explanation a century ago, and has been recently revived under the rubric of cultural multilevel selection. Was it large-distance trade, the need for sophisticated information management, or something else?

One of the main goals of the Seshat project is to answer these sort of Big Questions. Nor are these questions only of interest to scholars who like to argue back-and-forth over esoteric details. Issues like the nature and causes of human social development are as relevant to people today as they were for the historical societies we study. Answering these Big Questions points the way to understanding how we arrived at our current state of affairs, and history may also hold the key to avoiding the sort of mistakes that doomed many previous societies.

We went about exploring this critical issue by gathering together massive amounts of data about past societies. We have just taken an important step towards this goal with the publication of the first article that fully utilizes the power of the Seshat approach: “Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization,” published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In this paper, we analyze data describing over 400 past “polities” (ranging from large ones, like states and empires, to small chiefdoms, and even politically independent villages). Our data comes from all world regions (see map here) and extends back in time to the origins of agriculture, in many cases going back thousands of years into the past.

Frequency distribution of the starting dates for data sequences in Seshat Databank. For 10 global sampling points (“late complexity”, see map) data series are short, often starting only when European explorers reached the area in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. For “early complexity” locations data sequences extend back in time between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago. “Intermediate complexity” cases are between these two extremes.

These data provide a truly unprecedented scale of historical material to work with, making our statistical analyzes quite powerful.

The PNAS article does not yet directly answer the questions we posed in the beginning of this blog post. Rather, it’s a foundational article. In order for us to test theories about what caused the evolution of social complexity, we first need to answer a very basic question: what is social complexity? We need to first know what we want to explain before we can go about tracing its evolution.

What we were able to accomplish is to identify nine distinct key characteristics that together measure the developmental trajectories of all the societies used in our analysis (see figure below).

Nearly all previous attempts to explain social complexity focus on only one or two aspects, like the size of the largest settlement, or the number of levels in administrative hierarchies. Our unique analysis, tracking a much larger number of variables within a huge sample of historic polities, was able to discover that, in fact, social complexity involves the co-evolution of these nine characteristics together. In taking the first steps to quantify the development of social complexity, the PNAS article provides a very solid, scientifically sound way for us to now answer the more interesting questions: what causes societies to gain or lose this complexity, and what are the consequences of changes in complexity on other aspects of societies?

We have already started putting this result to work. Several other articles are already going through their paces in academic journals (but the millstones of scientific publishing grind very slowly) or are about to be submitted. We have also published the data on which the PNAS paper is based, so that others can participate in the fun.

You can download the dataset suitable for statistical analyses here. Currently the dataset is available as a downloadable spreadsheet. In the coming weeks, we will be uploading our entire Social Complexity dataset onto our project website in a more easy-to-use, viewable format; keep checking the site for updates!

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How did our ancestors respond to climate change?

flooding in North Carolina

Figure 1. Devastation caused by Hurricane Floyd to a town in North Carolina, 1999. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Innovative new work studying past interactions with an unstable environment suggest a fairly complex answer.

In a previous blog from 2015, I highlighted intriguing preliminary results from a research project by Yale professor of History and Classics and Seshat collaborator Joseph Manning concerning the impact of volcanic eruptions on social instability in ancient Egypt. Since then, I’ve noticed an increase in such studies looking to uncover how societies in the past have been affected by, and responded to, various sorts of environmental and climatological change. Two years later, I wanted to revisit the topic and discuss the significance of two recent articles: a Nature: Communications article by Prof. Manning and colleagues presenting results from their project; and an article forthcoming in Quaternary Science Reviews detailing how the end of the last Ice Age over 14,000 years ago impacted burgeoning societies in different parts of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Nature: Communications article on volcanic eruptions and Egyptian history is written by Joseph G. Manning, Francis Ludlow, Alexander R. Stine, William R. Boos, Michael Sigl, and Jennifer R. Marlon and is titled “Volcanic suppression of Nile summer flooding triggers revolt and constrains interstate conflict in ancient Egypt.” The authors combine different sorts of evidence that has rarely been joined together in historical work: they first use a series of historical climate data and modeling techniques to trace the impact that volcanic eruptions have on flood levels in the Nile River; they then combine this with historical evidence concerning social unrest within Ptolemaic Egypt, a large but volatile ancient state lasting from 305-30 BCE. Nile floods are significant because, throughout most of its history, Egyptians depended on sizeable flooding from the great river to irrigate farmland and grow the crops the population needed to survive. By putting these two strands of evidence side-by-side, the research team found two significant patterns (Figure 2): (1) that volcanic eruptions significantly reduced the size of Nile floods in subsequent years and (2) that civil strife and revolt within Ptolemaic Egypt was also significantly more likely to occur following these low-flood years than other times.

Egypt social indexes

Figure 2. Response to volcanism in Egyptian social indexes. Dates of the initiation of internal revolts against Ptolemaic rule composited relative to the dates of 16 volcanic eruptions (represented at year 0 on the horizontal axes; years 1–8 then represent the first to eighth years after these eruptions, and years −1 to −8 the first to eighth years before). Dots indicates statistically significant values estimated using Barnard’s exact test (green: P < 0.05, red: P < 0.01, magenta: P < 0.001). Green dashed lines give the 95% confidence threshold also estimated using Barnard’s exact test. Source: Manning et al. Nature: Communications (2017), p. 5.

This result is, firstly, a major advance in our understanding of Ptolemaic history, as the Nile flooding and environmental events like volcanic eruptions have not previously been considered as key factors in explaining internal revolts. But there is a broader significance to this work as well. As the authors note when discussing their results, “care must be taken to avoid engaging in and propagating a recently resurgent environmental determinism when interpreting or assigning causality…to associations observed between environmental [e.g. volcanic eruptions] and societal [e.g. internal revolts] phenomena” (p.6). In other words, the argument is not that volcanic eruptions cause revolts. Rather, the causal link is more complex: rising populations and an influx of Greek and Macedonian settlers coupled with fiscal pressures due to repeated warfare with other states in the Middle East as well as lingering tensions between the Ptolemaic ruling elite and the wealthy, prominent priestly class brought Egypt to the tipping-point during much of the third century BCE. In good years, there was just enough to keep these pressures at bay. But the random, unpredictable eruption of volcanoes thousands of miles away led to reduced precipitation in the Ethiopian Mountains, which in turn caused the Egyptian portion of the Nile downstream to flood less than during the typical year, which meant that Egypt’s agricultural productivity was diminished, which led to food shortages, unrest, and, strife. Ultimately, the pressure during these ‘bad years’ was enough to lead to open, sometimes violent revolt. Other periods in Egypt’s history also saw years of bad flooding—during the Roman Empire for instance, or in the Medieval period when the country was under Islamic rule—but this did not always result in internal revolt. To reach this outcome, the volcanic eruption had to be coupled with lingering, structural pressures in Egypt’s social fabric that had been building for years.

settlement patterns

Figure 3. Map of sites used to determine settlement patterns. Source: Roberts et al., Quaternary Science Reviews (2017), p. 13.

A similar message of complexity comes out of the Quaternary Science Reviews piece, “Human responses and non-responses to climatic variations during the last Glacial-Interglacial transition in the eastern Mediterranean.” Here, authors Neil Roberts, Jessie Woodbridge, Andrew Bevan, Alessio Palmisano, Stephen Shennan, and Eleni Asouti combine information about temperature and precipitation changes between the last Ice Age (roughly 16,000 years ago) and the Holocene (roughly 9,000 years ago) together with evidence for settlement by humans in different parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is well established that at the end of the glacial period, this region experienced a general climate change towards wetter/warmer weather patterns, though with a ‘cold-spell’ known as the Younger Dryas period (about 13,000-12,000 years ago) where colder/dryer conditions returned. What this innovative paper shows is that, in fact, the impact of these weather changes varied significantly by region and depended, in part, on the longer-run dynamics that had been prevailing in different areas. In some areas, like the Levant (modern Israel-Palestine, Syria, Lebanon) and Mesopotamia (Iraq and Iran), the cold-spell of the Younger Dryas led to increased settlement and, perhaps, hastened the advent of sedentary agriculture as a subsistence strategy, over the hunter-gatherer strategy that prevailed in earlier periods. Conversely, in less advantaged areas like central Anatolia (Turkey), the cold/dry conditions halted population growth and settlement. Again, a key takeaway of this research is how varied human responses are to changing climatic conditions.

climatic periods in the Mediterranean

Figure 4. Map showing proposed weather/temperature patterns in eastern Mediterranean at different climatic periods. Source: Roberts et al., Quarteny Science Reviews (2017), p. 17.

It’s probably fairly obvious why studying climate change and its impact on past societies is important and is increasingly occupying the attention of leading scholars in a variety of disciplines[1]; the current preoccupation—or, better, concern—over the potential impacts of climate change in the modern world naturally lead the historically-minded to question what lessons can be learned from similar events in the past. What is perhaps less anticipated is how complicated the answer seems to be. Typically, we see in popular media rather alarmist headlines tracing a very direct and clear line from climate change to disaster. We are inundated with headlines like “Climate trauma: The invisible cost of climate change“, “Climate change is a threat to rich and poor alike“, or “The Uninhabitable Earth Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.” Work such as the papers mentioned here are offering exciting, important windows into how human societies interact with an ever-changing and unpredictable—and potentially hostile—environment. Looking to the past, we can see the different ways that societies have been affected by climate events, but also how we can respond and adapt to new circumstances.

I don’t want to suggest that climate change is not a huge problem that requires immediate, coordinated, and serious international engagement to tackle. What I am saying is that the lesson history seems to want to teach us is that environmental change is not a one-size-fits-all disaster—it’s impact depends on a host of factors, including the size, scope, and pace of change as well as the long-term structural dynamics of the societies effected, including regional differences. Something to keep in mind as we, as a species, grapple with the unavoidable and increasing impact of climate change.


[1] Other notable recent work looking to uncover human-environment interaction in the past includes work by Seshat collaborators Peter Peregrine and Carol Ember, who are involved in a large project seeking to detail the consequences of climate-related disasters on societies in the past as well as the conditions that lead to more or less adaptive responses to such events (see the project site here). See also two recent articles by Prof. Peregrine exploring how different social-institutional structures determine how societies respond to climate-related disasters (this recent article in Disaster Prevention and Management as well as this working paper). An interesting and accessible account of the impact of climate change throughout human history is Brooke, J. L. Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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Dacura creates high-quality social science datasets for researchers

Innovations in computer science help open the field of possibilities for archaeologists; and support ambitious projects like the Seshat: Global History Databank. ALIGNED’s Dacura platform is an exciting new development in the field of computational archaeology. The Seshat project’s board of directors along with consultant and archaeologist Peter Peregrine and former director Rob Brennan have published a new working paper with the Santa Fe Institute on the Dacura program and its connections to the Seshat project.

The Internet is vast and disorganized. The average academic researcher deals with thousands of unrelated search results on Google, Google Scholar, or repositories of academic articles like JSTOR. Last week I was looking for information on specific Han dynasty uprisings for the Seshat project. A Google search for more information on the 197 BCE uprising led by Marquis of Dai, Chen Xi, gives a few relevant results but also brings up modern business owners with the same name and stories on a 2011 activist with the same name. There is also a lack of quality control with the relevant sources—have these articles been confirmed by experts? The Dacura platform hopes to help researchers with by creating an automated process to weed out unrelated information, leaving only the relevant and useful.

Researchers will be able to define the parameters of the data they’re looking for and the Dacura system will support the researcher by searching the Internet to compile high quality information for their dataset. Dacura improves open simple ‘keyword’-type searches by combining computer readability with human input. The Dacura workflow involves data harvesting from high quality Internet sources, dataset curation with human input, and expert analyses of the data. The workflow results in the creation of high quality datasets.

A graphic describing the Dacura workflow. The full working paper full working paper is available from the Santa Fe Institute.

Dacura was also designed with current standards in RDF and Linked Data. This means not only that it can help researchers find data on a topic, but once a dataset is compiled Dacura publishes it as Linked Data so that other interested people can get their hands on it without having to reproduce all the time and energy in starting from scratch. The RDF means that all the information is structured and layered. For instance, data in Seshat are ‘tagged’ with information about location (where did the information being expressed happen) and time (when did it happen). This helps relate the different data points together and, crucially, can be understood easily by both humans and computers.

Map of Han-period China. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 (2007): Talessman

So, if I study revolt in 197 BCE and I want to find more information, Dacura tags all of the information I input about the rebellion with the time 197 BCE and its location in Han-period China. This makes sense to me as a human, but the computer also knows that Han-period China is a subset of the territory of modern-day China, which is a subset of the region known as East Asia, and so on. This is important, because other online databases also tag their data with similar temporal and geographic information. This is how the Linked Data comes in—because Seshat data is well-structured and expressed in RDF, Dacura will help me grab up all of the other structured data that exists on the internet tagged with the location Han-period China and a time containing 197 BCE (from DBPedia or wikidata, or historical datasets like the ChinaHGIS project or pelagios, or an archaeological database like OpenContext). This dramatically increases the amount of information I have at my fingertips to answer key historical questions, with minimal effort. Then, when I’ve generated a lot of new data about the rebellion, Dacura pushes it all back on the web as structured data for the next researcher to come along and find. Together, we’re building an ‘internet of information’, each effort helping the next in our quest to understand our collective past.

The Seshat project is built upon and supported by the Dacura platform. Seshat data has undergone Dacura’s data harvesting and review process as shown in the workflow graphic. It is how we’ve been able to gather so much data—almost 200,000 data-points covering over 400 historical polities—over the past few years, and helps us every day curate this massive store of historical information. Dacura’s system is also what allows us to publish our data on our public website, as it harvests and collates information stored in the Databank in real time and shows it on the web. While we of course want scholars from all fields to use our data in their research, the real benefit of large, well-structured datasets like Seshat is that it provides ready-to-access data that can be combined with data from other sites, as well as all the new information that archaeologists, historians, and others are digging up every day. As the authors of this working paper note:

By providing a semi-automated means of harvesting, evaluating, and exporting archaeological data that has been evaluated for accuracy, Dacura provides both a means and a model for economists, political scientists, ecologists, geographers, and others to access and explore the rich and valuable record of the human past.

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The Seshat Team Maps the History of Mounted Warfare

mounted warfare bayeaux

Scene of the Battle of Hastings (1066) from the Bayeux Tapestry. Creative Commons.

The use of horse-riders in warfare changed the face of global conflict, and continued to impact the evolution of complex societies for thousands of years after its first adaption. A recent paper published in Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History Evolution by Seshat: Global History Databank directors Prof. Peter Turchin and Dr. Thomas Currie, and principal research assistant Edward Turner introduces a detailed chronology and map of the spread of mounted warfare in Afro-Eurasia. The authors explore both the use of cavalry in battle and the use of horses in military transportation.

To learn more about the history of mounted warfare, which began on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between 1200 and 800 BCE as well as the spread of mounted warfare through Asia, Europe, and Africa over the next eighteen hundred years, read the full report:

This article is part of a continuing series on the link between the spread of cavalry and the rise of macrostates. A previous article by the authors puts forth that the spread of cavalry can be used to successfully predict when and where mega-empires arose in the Old World.

spread of mounted warfare

The spread of mounted warfare in Afro-Eurasia. Map by Peter Turchin, Thomas Currie, and Edward Turner.

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Harvey Whitehouse: Studying ritual may help us understand extremism

Why do people engage in self-sacrifice? Why would people adopt such an extreme behavior? Answering these questions has proven to be difficult for policy makers, world leaders, and academic researchers alike. Seshat founding editor and Oxford University scholar Professor Harvey Whitehouse recently offered several critical insights into the psychology of extremism at the IdeasLab session of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Whitehouse revealed that to quell radicalization understand extreme self-sacrifice, we must reimagine our current understanding of the role of ritual and identity in human behavior.

Citing his published research with University of Texas Austin psychologist Professor Bill Swan, Whitehouse discussed how he recently led a team of researchers who studied revolutionary fighters in Libya to better understand the impact of shared extreme pain on identity fusion. To hear Whitehouse summarize his team’s surprising discoveries about human behavior, watch the video below.

Mainstream media reports on Whitehouse’s work on shared dysphoria as a bonding agent can be found in the Pacific Standard and Evening Mail. Further work on this topic is being carried out as a part of the Seshat: Global History Databank Project. Specifically, Whitehouse and other researchers are trying to understand if societies with dysphoric rituals produce more tribal warfare, intra-elite conflicts, rebellions, and military revolts. The Seshat: Global History Databank is currently collecting data to explore the relationship between ritual and warfare and will use this data in the coming months to test theories and develop a better understanding of why people engage in extreme behavior like self-sacrifice.


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Prof Harvey Whitehouse introduces Seshat: Global History Databank at World Economic Forum annual meeting

World Economic Forium

Seshat founding editor and University of Oxford anthropologist Professor Harvey Whitehouse recently spoke about rituals and Seshat: Global History Databank at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Whitehouse presented his research in a Betazone session in partnership with the Nature Publishing Group in a speech entitled “Why Facts Don’t Unify Us.” The lecture touches on Whitehouse’s field work with cargo cults in Papua New Guinea, and introduces theories on the link between the frequency and intensity of rituals and social cohesion that will be tested by Seshat.

Watch Whitehouse’s lecture at Davos here: 

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Seshat is the premier tool to write longue-durée history and test social sciences theories comprehensively with historical data

Seshat: Global History Databank takes a macroscopic view of world history. Source: Pixabay

A major paper on Seshat: Global History Databank has been published in Digital Humanities Quarterly. Lead author and Seshat founding editor Dr. Pieter François sees the publication as an important milestone in showcasing the potential of the project’s method to historians, digital humanists and the general public. I caught up with Dr François to discuss this recent publication during a conference at the University of Oxford. “It’s important to provide our methodology, in the greatest possible detail, to the reader, the user and the critic, so that they can embrace or reject our methodology in the most transparent way possible ” said François. “As the next few years will see a tremendous amount of Seshat data becoming available it is crucial to offer users a comprehensive understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the data set.” The co-authored paper, entitled “A Macroscope for Global History: Seshat Global History Databank, a methodological overview,” provides a window into the philosophy of, and architecture behind the Seshat project.

Dr. François spoke passionately about Seshat’s aim to be the most comprehensive and usable collection of historical and archaeological information. He hopes it will become the first place people go to to test historical and social sciences theories with high-quality empirical data. He highlighted the significant benefits of the databank for users around the globe. “Seshat is not just a databank with a fixed set of datapoints,” he explained, “it’s also a platform which allows the user to upload new data that are relevant for the particular theories that the user is interest in. As such it is a truly collaborative and scalable project with a wide appeal to the academic community, the policy world and the general public alike. As the data is at the same time machine-readable and browsable the Seshat data can be integrated in a wide variety of analyses and uses” François expanded on this idea: “The true strength of Seshat is that it does not limit you to test only one specific theory. You can actually bring together a cluster of different theories that have been proposed in the past and confront them with the data head on and thus highlight which of these theories have the greater explanatory power.”

One of the driving factors of the project is the belief that history should also be examined in the longue-durée in order to better understand phenomena like the levels of warfare, social cohesion, and inequality in today’s society. “A lot of today’s society can not be comprehensively explained by exclusively looking at, let’s say, phenomenon or trends that have played out over the last 50 years. For a lot of the bigger questions, you also need to integrate a much longer time-depth into your analyses, you need to look at trends playing out over centuries and millennia”said François. By bringing together academics with expertise on a range of periods and world regions, the Seshat project is able to collect data on a massive scope to unlock the ability to examine long-term patterns.

Both this time-depth and the ability to compare data across very different time periods and geographic areas allows us to look at history from a “cultural evolutionary perspective”. A second key feature of Seshat, François added, is that a lot of the data is expert curated. “Our data is actually informed by expert opinion. Experts are very much a part of the entire Seshat workflow. As a result the data changes as new knowledge comes to light. Although incorporating the expert input inevitably slows down the data gathering process, and makes it thus more expensive, our choice to go for maximum data quality is absolutely the right one as we want to be seen as a benchmark for historians working on very different fields and achieve maximum impact. Furthermore we have been very positively surprised by the collaboration of a wide range of domain experts who have embraced our methodology.”

François and his co-authors provided examples of a few key theories that the Seshat Databank hopes to test. These theories strike at the heart of the historical roots of inequality, the importance of agriculture in shaping how past societies developed in ways that continue to impact the modern world, and the effect of different sorts of collective rituals on social cohesion, group bonding, and general well-being.

For instance, it has been suggested that current inequalities across the globe—in terms of economic performance, health and well-being, inclusiveness, and other facets—are the result of the way that different countries went through the Industrial Revolution (or failed to do so). Others, though, say that the way the Industrial Revolution unfolded was itself a product of extremely long-term path dependence originating at the dawn of the first complex human societies almost 7,000 years ago. Which theory is right? Where exactly do these perspectives diverge, and could they be reconciled? Seshat’s ‘macroscopic’ view of historical development over the longue durée allows users to address fundamental questions like these.

How far back to the roots of current global inequalities spread? Do they originate in the earliest states (left: statue of Akkadian mythic hero Gilgamesh, protagonist of one of the first epic poems ever created; Source: Wikimedia), or are they the product of more recent developments (right: London during the Industrial Revolution; Source: Wikipedia)

The authors also outline a number of challenges, including challenges touching upon data quality, the usefulness of using proxies, …, that they considered when creating the architecture of the Seshat Databank. “It is a list of challenges that we were very much aware of and was on the forefront of our minds when we designed the Seshat methodology and it is up to others now to embrace or challenge us on the inevitable decisions we had to make” said François.

The Seshat team will publish its first round of social complexity data in spring 2017. Stay tuned!

Read the full paper in Digital Humanities Quarterly

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Testing the Axial Age

Axial Age Workshop

Photo by the author

Last week the Seshat project ran a workshop on “Testing the Axial Age” in Oxford, UK. The workshop brought together a small group of scholars from different fields – historians, religious studies experts, archaeologists, and anthropologists. The goal was to discuss what exactly the ‘Axial Age’ means, and develop quantitative, data-based approaches to testing various theories that scholars have proposed to explain it. The workshop was organized by Dan Mullins, Dan Hoyer, and Jill Levine; and funding came from the John Templeton Foundation via the research grant “Axial-Age Religions and the Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism” to the Evolution Institute.

Here are the workshop participants:

Prof John Baines (Oxford)
Dr. Julye Bidmead (Chapman)
Dr. Christina Collins (Exeter)
Prof Robin Coningham (Durham)
Dr. Tom Currie (Exeter)
Agathe Dupeyron (Evolution Institute)
Dr. Pieter François (Oxford/Hertfordshire)
Dr. Dan Hoyer (Toronto)
Prof Jennifer Larson (Kent State)
Jill Levine (Evolution Institute)
Dr. Dan Mullins (Oxford)
Dr. Pat Savage (Oxford)
Prof Barend ter Haar (Oxford)
Prof Peter Turchin (UConn/Oxford)
Prof Vesna Wallace (UC Santa Barbara)
Prof Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford)

The first day started with Dan Mullins providing an overview of different ideas of the Axial Age and theories attempting to explain it. Then we broke up into small groups of an expert historian and two members of the Seshat team who focused on specific past societies. I was part of the team that included Vesna Wallace and Agathe Dupeyron. While the main focus was coding how the spread of Buddhism into Mongolia in the fifteenth century affected this pastoralist society, the discussion ranged much more broadly, touching at various times on India, Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia.

The next day began with an overview of empirical patterns that we have captured so far led by Dan Hoyer. After that we went through each variable one at a time and discussed how it changed in different parts of the world.

Vesna Wallace

Expert Vesna Wallace and research assistant Agathe Dupeyron coding data into Seshat (photo by the author)

Now for my take: so what is the Axial Age?

Basically, something interesting happened in far-flung regions of the Old World (technically: Afro-Eurasia) in the middle of the first millennium BCE. These regions include Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, North India, and North China. What happened is a bit harder to pin down (and different scholars emphasize different aspects of it). One of these developments was a new egalitarian ethic (relatively speaking; perhaps a better way of saying it is that the extremely oppressive and despotic forms of governance started to lose appeal). Another was the rise of religions/ideologies that transcended ethnicity and enabled integration of multi-ethnic societies. Yet another was the appearance of reflective forms of thought and considered criticism.

What’s remarkable that these features are present in a variety of new religions and philosophies that appeared roughly at the same time in such distant regions of the Old World. These developments happened between 800 BC and 200 BC, with the period 600–400 BC being the most intense in developments. I should mention that some scholars extend the Axial Age to include the rise of Christianity and even Islam, but in my opinion this is not a good idea. After all, these later developments are, in a sense, secondary. If we include them, why should we exclude Mormonism, the last truly world religion to arise so far?

Such parallel developments in far-flung and seemingly unconnected regions is what cries for explanation. But what is it, precisely, that needs to be explained? How can we conceptualize, or even quantify it? How do we deal with such pre-Axial developments as the reign of Akhenaten in Egypt in 14th century BCE (well before the Axial Age)?

It’s also possible that Zarathustra lived many centuries before the Axial Age. These are all valid questions and the workshop was about how we can answer them using the “Seshat approach” (listing the rival hypotheses, collecting systematic data for a global sample of past societies, and subjecting these data to statistical analyses). A research article led by Dan Mullins, which provides details, will soon be submitted.

This article was originally published in Cliodynamica

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A Call for the Development of Field Sites to Study Cultural Evolution

Seshat founding editor and Oxford University Professor Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist, and Seshat consultant and SUNY Binghamton Professor David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, are both are members of the Cultural Evolution Society, which aims to “catalyze the study of cultural change from a modern evolutionary perspective, both inside and outside the Ivory Tower.”

Wilson and Whitehouse’s Social Evolution Forum article “Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution,” was published with comments in the December issue of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution. The article states that field sites will be increasingly important in the study of cultural evolution, and that the Cultural Evolution Society will be able to play an important role in helping to create them.

Wilson shares his background in field studies as an evolutionary biologist and notes that, “It is especially feasible for any college or university to create a field site for the study of cultural evolution (Wilson and Whitehouse 2016: 233).” Wilson’s Binghamton Neighborhood Project is an example of a successful local cultural evolution field site created by a university.

Source: Cliodynamics

As a social anthropologist, Whitehouse trained in Papua New Guinea by observing the Mali Baining. He believes field sites are important to understand the mechanisms that motivate and explain observed differences between cultures and societies. “To understand the causes of the phenomena we observe in the wild,” argues Whitehouse, “requires carefully controlled experiments and systematic comparison across space and time. Field sites have a vital role to play at this level as well” (Wilson and Whitehouse 2016: 249). He promotes Oxford University’s Anthrolab—which currently collects data in 12 different countries—as a model for communication and networking between large field sites.

Source: Cliodynamics

The unique perspectives offered by these scholars enables them to contribute exciting developments to traditional notions of the “field site”. Wilson, Whitehouse, and the Cultural Evolution Society believe the development of field sites will play an important role in fostering the use of the scientific process in the humanities.

Read the full article with comments in Cliodynamics 7.2






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What Can Seshat Databank Do for Historians?

From the presentation by Peter Turchin, the Founding Editor and Overall Coordinator of Seshat Databank, at the annual American Historical Association meeting in Denver, CO; January 2017.

Colorado Convention Center. Source.

Writing in 1999 in Perspectives on History Robert Darnton, who was the President of American Historical Association at the time, expressed the following opinion:

After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and Social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws. We no longer search for grand designs and dialectics. Instead, we concentrate on the particular and sometimes even the microscopic (microstoria, as it is known in Italy) – not because we think we can see the universe in a grain of sand but because we have developed an increased sensitivity to the complexities that differentiate one society or one subculture from another. Kosovo is very different from the rest of Yugoslavia, to say nothing of Vietnam.

There is no question that each human society is unique in at least one particular way. But aren’t there also some common features shared by multiple societies? When Spanish conquistadors Cortez and Pizarro encountered New World civilizations, which developed entirely independently of the Old World states with which these Europeans were familiar, they saw many familiar social features: kings and nobles, temples and priests.

If you read enough science fiction, as I do, you will encounter a great variety of social arrangements imagined by authors of such novels. However, actual historical societies, while undoubtedly diverse, sample only a small slice of this “possibility space.” In fact, it is quite possible that there are certain universal features shared by all societies of a certain kind. For example, once a polity (a politically independent unit such as a state or a chiefdom) reaches certain size (above one million people) it invariably finds that it needs to employ full-time administrative specialists—bureaucrats—to ensure its continuing function. We may love to hate bureaucrats, but we can’t live without them, at least not in large-scale societies.

The really interesting question, thus, is not whether each society is unique, or all of them are the same. The question is how do we study both the diversity and common features of social arrangements found in the human past?

Here’s where the Seshat project comes in. The problem that we are addressing is this: the huge corpus of knowledge about past societies collectively possessed by academic historians and archaeologists is almost entirely in a form that is inaccessible to analysis, stored in historians’ brains or scattered over heterogeneous notes and publications. The huge potential of this knowledge for comparative history analyses has been largely untapped. Accordingly, the goals of Seshat: Global History Databank are:

  • Build a web of facts about past societies, connected along spatial, temporal, and conceptual dimensions
  • Characterize both diversity and commonalities in the organization and dynamics of human societies
  • Systematically test a spectrum of theories of social evolution on this empirical material

The Seshat project originated in 2011. The first several years were devoted to the conceptual development of our approach, with actual data collection gathering steam in 2015 and 2016. We will be releasing the first batch of data on social complexity variables in March 2017.

Here’s the procedure that we evolved over the initial, conceptual phase of the project. We typically start with a workshop that brings together social scientists and expert historians and archaeologists. The goal is to define very precisely the variables for which we will code past societies. We don’t directly try to answer complex (and often ill-defined) questions about a historical society, such as, was it a state, or not? Was it “complex” or “simple”? Instead, we systematically break down such multi-dimensional characteristics into constituent parts. For example, our coding scheme for social complexity looks at such aspects of complexity as social scale, the length of hierarchical command chains, and aspects of government, informational sophistication, and economic complexity. Then we take each of those aspects and subdivide them into even finer categories. For example, social scale parameters include the population of the polity, territory controlled by it, and the size of the largest settlement/city. Government characteristics include such binary variables as presence (or absence) of full time administrative specialists (bureaucrats), specialized buildings for administration and law, and whether there is a formal legal code.

Pre Rup, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Pre Rup, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia (photo by the author)

The result of this process is a detailed code book that provides instructions on how each variable should be coded. Our crew of motivated and experienced research assistants takes these instructions and begins applying them to specific polities, one by one. They read specialized literature, but as soon as they encounter any difficulty they consult with a specialist on the society they code. In other words, we involve experts right from the beginning of the coding process, and ultimately all data will be vetted by them; often by several experts. As you can imagine, no code book survives the contact with real-life historical societies unchanged. Thus, building the databank is an evolutionary process, in which our coding schemes are constantly evolving as they become increasingly more sophisticated in capturing both the diversity and commonalities among the coded societies. I should also mention that we are careful not to reach beyond what is known about the past. “Unknown” is perfectly valid code in such cases. We also reflect the uncertainty associated with estimates and disagreements among experts.

Currently (as of January 2017) the Seshat Databank contains nearly 160,000 “facts” (a coded value for a certain variable in a certain past society, together with the discussion of why it was coded in this way, and references on which the code is based). We have coded more than 400 polities ranging in time from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century, and spread evenly across major world regions. The overall Code Book now includes detailed instructions on how to code more than 1,500 variables describing such diverse aspects of societies as social complexity, warfare, ritual and religion, agricultural productivity, norms and institutions, production of public goods, personal well-being, and social norms and institutions.  As I mentioned earlier, we will be publishing the first chunk of these data (on social complexity) in March 2017. Stay tuned!

This article was originally published on Cliodynamica

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New archaeological evidence proves Indus farmers grew rice in the Bronze Age

Harappa archeological site.

Harappa archeological site. Source.

Seshat expert contributor and University of Cambridge fellow Dr. Cameron Petrie and colleagues recently unearthed evidence to confirm that the people of ancient Indus (modern-day Pakistan and northwest India) first practiced rice farming in the Bronze Age—much earlier than previously believed. The research was undertaken by the University of Cambridge’s Division of Archaeology along with Banaras Hindu University and the University of Oxford. Petrie and his team recently published their findings in Antiquity and Journal of Archeological Science. Science Magazine also covered the discovery in a recent article.

These new findings challenge previously held beliefs about the development of farming in the Indus River Valley, pushing back the date for Indus rice cultivation to roughly the same time as the beginning of rice farming in China. This finding points to the existence of an ancient network of farmers who supplied produce to various ancient cities spanning across Central and East Asia.

Indus Valley Civilization

Indus Valley Civilization, Mature Harappan Phase.Source.

The research team also found evidence that the Indus Civilization had already practiced crop rotation for a few hundred years when rice farming was introduced to the region around 2000 BC. Petrie told Science Magazine that dual rainy seasons in the Indus River Valley may have helped the civilization develop seasonal crop rotations before any other major civilization. Indus farmers used rice as a summer crop after its introduction. Most ancient civilizations stockpiled their crops instead of practicing seasonal rotation.

Indus crops were particularly diverse. The team found evidence that wheat, barley, and peas were grown in the winter, and rice, millet, and tropical beans were grown in the summer. The research team was able to use radio-carbon dating to determine when the Indus people began to grow multiple kinds of crops. Millets, peas, and vetches dated to 2890-2630 BC, horsegram (a tropical bean) dated to 2580-2460 BC, and rice dated to 2430-2140 BC.

This research has significant implications for our understanding of the past lifeways as well as our agricultural strategies for the future. “It may be that some of today’s farming monocultures could learn from the local crop diversity of the Indus people 4,000 years ago,” Petrie said to Science Magazine.

Edited by Dr. Daniel Mullins 

Read the Science Magazine article



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Alliances and patron-client relationships: a fixture in both ancient and modern complex societies

patron-client relationships

Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Source.

Alliances and patron-client relationships have helped support states since the beginning of social complexity. In a recent Christian Science Monitor article, Seshat contributor and Santa Fe Institute external professor Paula Sabloff analyzed equal alliances and patron-client relationships. Sabloff’s research was part of a John Templeton Foundation-funded project at the Santa Fe Institute. The project examined the beginnings of state organizations in different regions of the world including Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Hawaii, and South America.

In her CS Monitor article, Sabloff explains the difference between alliances and patron-client relationships. Patron-client relationships are between unequal partners. They are often formed when a military power conquered another ruler, who became their client. The relationships were secured with gifts or a marriage between the client and a relative of the patron. When the relationship was formed, the patron would ask for support in the form of troops and provisions from the client; in return, the client retained some power and was able to draw on the resources and protection afforded by a strong patron. These relationships are present in both early states and in the 21st century.

Sabloff writes that patron-client relationships and equal alliances are especially prevalent during times of warfare.

To win a war, it helps to have three things: more troops than the enemy, intelligence about the enemy’s plans, and superior technology. Alliance-building and patron-client relations helped leaders amass more troops and often learn about the enemy’s plans – and this true whether a society is pre-industrial, industrial, or post-industrial. 

A modern example of a patron-client relationship between states cited by Sabloff is Mongolia’s client role in the U.S.’ 2003 “coalition of the willing” in the Middle East. Mongolia’s 180 troops contributed to the war in Iraq in return for (at least possible) US support of Mongolia’s interests against potential threats from her powerful neighbors Russia and China.

patron-client relationships

Mongolian soldiers in transit to Afghanistan. Source.

Patron-client relationships are also apparent in politics. Sabloff notes that the relationship between a state legislator and her electorate is also a patron-client relationship: the legislator expects votes from her electorate after supporting the ‘client’s interests by funding local projects like schools and parks. Sabloff adds that Donald Trump won the recent U.S. presidential election in part because he claimed not to be part of Washington D.C.’s patron-client system.

At Seshat, we examine patron-client relationships within a polity between elites and non-elites. We also look at state-level patron-client relationships. Does a state send tribute or mandatory payments to other states? Do they receive payments and tribute? The following codes are examples from our Roman Principate sample polity.

We will soon be able to use Seshat as a tool for analyses to better study how both patron-client relationships and equal alliances affect wider aspects of a society like social stability, inequality, and frequency of warfare. Understanding the way that these relationships operate ultimately will help us to better explain and predict the way that powerful states and political elites strengthen and spread their authority by amassing clients.



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Chiefs Who Eat the Land: Images of Power in Hawai’i before and after Western Contact

The old Hawaiian term for the chief of a district or small island is ali’i ‘ai moku: ‘chief who eats the district’.[1] This had a literal meaning ‒ control over a district came with taxation rights over the crops and livestock of resident commoners ‒ but it also neatly expresses the indigenous conception of the chiefly class (ali’i) as potentially dangerous predators. Old proverbs and traditions almost seem to revel in this chiefly voraciousness.[2] The highest-ranking chiefs were essentially gods, ‘“raging blazes” who walked on earth’,[3] and the appropriate attitude to the ali’i was one of awe. For the commoners, chiefs were sharks walking on land:

A shark going inland is my chief,
A very strong shark able to devour all on land;
A shark of very red gills is the chief,
He has a throat to swallow the island without choking…[4]

In this short blog post I’d like to make a few observations about images of chiefly power and the realities of everyday life for ordinary Hawaiians (maka’āinana), both before and after European contact. I’m no expert on Hawaiian history ‒ this is based on a few things that have cropped up during recent Seshat research ‒ so would welcome your comments below the line.

Chiefs of Oahu, Visiting Sloop Kamchatka, 1818, Mikhail Tikhanov. This painting, showing the Hawaiian ali’i Boki and Kahekili Ke’eaumoku II, is by the artist who sailed on the Russian frigate Kamchatka’s circumnavigation of the world in 1817-19. The chiefs wear the ultimate signs of high rank, the feathered cloak (‘ahu’ula) and helmet (mahiole). Public domain. Source.

In keeping with their shark-like reputations, Hawaiian chiefs did indeed appropriate large amounts of food (and other goods) produced by the commoners. The yearly Makahiki festival served as an opportunity for ritualized taxation: the royal court processed around the island, collecting the produce of the land from altars in each district. The goods were piled up in heaps and served as offerings to the god Lono as well as revenue for the chiefs.[5] If the offering was judged too meagre, ali’i in the procession could order the district to be plundered ‘in the name of the god’ until they were satisfied with the tribute.[6]With a few exceptions, feasting ‒ an integral part of social life for commoners and chiefs alike in many other Polynesian island groups ‒ had become restricted to the elites by the time of European contact. According to archaeologist of Hawai’i Patrick Kirch, they could be found feasting on luxury foods like pork, large pelagic fish, and dogs fattened on taro paste almost ‘every day of their lives’.[7]

Despite all this, certain features of precontact Hawaiian society prevented commoners’ living conditions becoming pushed below subsistence levels. For instance:

  1. Ordinary Hawaiian farmers were not serfs ‒ they were not bound to a certain parcel of land and if a chief became oppressive or his demands for food too onerous, there was always the option to move to another district.[8] Chiefs knew that treating the people too harshly could lose them their labour force.
  2. The threat of a maka’āinana uprising in turbulent times was very real, and we have several accounts of revolts from Hawaii’s oral traditions. ‘For this reason’, wrote 19th-century Native Hawaiian historian David Malo, ‘some of the ancient kings had a wholesome fear of the people’.[9]
  3. The agricultural regime, which developed over centuries of adaptation to Hawai’i’s island environments, was incredibly productive. Irrigated pondfields planted with taro, a starchy root vegetable, were abundant on the geologically older islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i.[10] They could produce as much as 2000 pounds (about 900 kg) of the crop per acre, and required relatively little labour input after the irrigation infrastructure was constructed.[11] Hawai’i Island and Maui were more dependent on rain-fed taro and sweet potato farming, which, although it was more labour-intensive, also produced high yields.[12] Generally, enough surplus food was produced to support an extensive hierarchy of chiefs and priests with enough left over for the farmers themselves.

The effect of all this was that even after the local chiefs had ‘eaten the district’, the average maka’āinana was well-nourished and had time for leisure activities like surfing, which was practised by chiefs and commoners alike.[13]

Taro growing in pondfields on Kauai Island. Photograph by Jasperdo on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Source.

So how did all this change after the fleet of Captain Cook’s third voyage ‘pierced the veil of isolation’[14] separating Hawai’i from the wider world in 1778, making way for a range of Western visitors (traders, explorers, and eventually missionaries) to the islands? Initially, indigenous class relations, systems of land tenure and taxation remained largely intact. However, the population plummeted due to introduced diseases,[15] and the insertion of Hawai’i into the global economy changed the focus of domestic production. For instance, from 1805 onwards, labour was diverted away from food production and into the collection of sandalwood for trade with the British and Americans.[16]

Into this situation came the first missionaries ‒ predominantly American Calvinist Christians ‒ in 1820, aiming to convert Hawaiians not only to Christianity but to an entirely new moral ‘package’ that valued chastity and monogamy, hard work, democracy and individual rights.[17] The old Hawaiian images of shark-like, fearsome chiefs found new echoes in these missionaries’ critique of native rule. Chiefs were condemned as arbitrary and despotic: New England-born missionary Levi Chamberlain lamented the ‘dark minds and depraved hearts of despots who hold the common people in the most absolute subjection’.[18]

The key difference was that now, these images of chiefly power were used to push for the replacement of the traditional system of customary land rights with private property laws and contract labour.[19] Missionary families and business interests in the islands soon became entangled, and the Calvinist work ethic suffuses the writings of early entrepreneurs like the Bostonian William Hooper. In 1835, he began work on the first commercially viable sugar plantation in the islands, the Koloa Plantation on Kauai.[20] Hooper viewed himself as something of a saviour: the plantation system, he wrote, would eventually emancipate the natives from the miserable system of ‘chief labour’ which ever has existed at these Islands, and which if not broken up, will be an eventual preventitive to the progress of civilization, industry and national prosperity.[21]

Levi Chamberlain, an early American missionary to Hawai’i. This portrait by an unknown artist dates from 1845. Public domain. Source.

Although many ordinary Hawaiians converted to Christianity after the mid-1820s and enthusiastically adopted reading and writing, this aspect of the new moral and economic system was harder to accept. The maka’āinana had been used to working in family groups to produce enough food for themselves and their chiefly ‘landlords’ (as well as some additional corvée labour in the chief’s fields and on building projects). Working on sugarcane plantations for foreign masters ‒ ten- to twelve-hour shifts of hard labour for meagre pay, sometimes in the form of coupons that could only be spent at the plantation owner’s store ‒ is vanishingly unlikely to have felt like ‘emancipation’ or ‘prosperity’ for the average worker.[22]

Perhaps even more importantly, the resistance of Hawaiians to this form of work caused frustrated missionaries and planters to complain, in morally charged terms, that the natives were inherently indolent and pleasure-seeking. Though it might seem strange to hold that indigenous Hawaiians were simultaneously in need of salvation from oppressive, greedy chiefs and too concerned with merrymaking, sex and dancing, the ‘myth of the lazy native’ was a useful justification for the introduction of coercive new labour laws.[23] Under the Masters and Servants Act of 1850, indentured labour was legalized for Hawaiians and immigrant labourers. Absentee workers could be arrested and imprisoned or sentenced to work for their employers for an extended period. ‘Up until as late as 1874, Kanaka Maoli [indigenous Hawaiians] were still being prosecuted for haalele hana, abandoning work’.[24]

Thus, while in precontact Hawai’i, shark-like chiefs ‘ate the land’ in a very real sense, the economic system that developed decades after Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 meant decreasing living standards and harsher labour conditions for the bulk of the population. The replacement of older systems of communal farming by contract labour made the time-honoured response to arbitrary or oppressive behaviour by those in power ‒ namely, to seek more favourable conditions elsewhere ‒ into a crime. In short, some of the social mechanisms that had kept ordinary Hawaiian living standards above a certain level dissolved.

What this suggests to me is that we must be very careful to separate representations of power from political and economic realities. Old Hawaiian chiefs and kings had fearsome, voracious reputations, but their ability to appropriate food and wealth was counterbalanced by commoners’ freedom of movement, the threat of an uprising, and the high yields of Hawaiian food crops. Conversely, the imported, Calvinist-inflected morality framed coercive practices in labour mobilization as a necessary evil in order to morally improve ‘indolent’ Hawaiians, or even as a form of emancipation from the despotic power of chiefs.

Seshat’s methodology takes into account both ideologies of power (asking, for instance, whether kings or high chiefs were viewed as gods on earth) and its more concrete manifestations (like degree of taxation, differential access to the legal system, and social mobility). It’s been fascinating for me to work on Hawai’i from initial Polynesian settlement about 1000 years ago to the immediate post-contact era, using our coding system to capture social, political and economic change. I look forward to seeing what Seshat’s comparative analyses make of Hawai’i’s shark chiefs and maka’āinana taro farmers!


[1] Patrick V. Kirch. 2010. How Chiefs Became Kings: Divine Kingship and the Rise of Archaic States in Ancient Hawai’i, p. 48.

[2] Peter Turchin, Seshat’s Founding Editor and Overall Coordinator, has spotted a similar pattern in other areas of the world: ‘in ancient India, the king (raja) was called “the devourer of peasants” (vishamatta)’. See Peter Turchin. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, CT: Beresta Books, chapter 7.

[3] Marshall Sahlins. 1981. Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, p. 34.

[4] This chant, ‘Fallen Is the Chief’, celebrates the victories of the first king to unify the entire Hawaiian archipelago, Kamehameha I. Quoted in Marshall Sahlins. 1992. Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii, Vol. 1. Historical Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 22.

[5] Robert J. Hommon. 2013. The Ancient Hawaiian State: Origins of a Political Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 99-104.

[6] Hommon, The Ancient Hawaiian State, p. 102.

[7] Patrick V. Kirch. 2001. ‘Polynesian Feasting in Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic, and Archaeological Contexts: A Comparison of Three Societies’, in Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, edited by Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden, 186-84. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, pp. 177-80.

[8] Sumner J. La Croix and James Roumasset. 1984. ‘An Economic Theory of Political Change in Premissionary Hawaii’. Explorations in Economic History 21 (2): 151-68, p. 156.

[9] Sumner J. La Croix and James Roumasset. 1990. ‘The Evolution of Private Property in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii’. The Journal of Economic History 50 (4): 829-52, p. 833.

[10] Patrick V. Kirch. 2012. A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai’i. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 198.

[11] Kirch, A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief, p. 145.

[12] Hommon, The Ancient Hawaiian State, p. 61.

[13] Hommon, The Ancient Hawaiian State, p. 104.

[14] Kirch, A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief, p. 6.

[15] La Croix and Roumasset, ‘The Evolution of Private Property in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii’, p. 834.

[16] Marshall Sahlins. 1990. ‘The Political Economy of Grandeur in Hawaii from 1810 to 1830’, in Culture through Time: Anthropological Approaches, edited by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, 26-56. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 31-35.

[17] Clifford Putney. 2010. Missionaries in Hawai’i: The Lives of Peter and Fanny Gulick, 1797‒1883. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, pp. 5-6; Jennifer Fish Kashay. 2008. ‘From Kapus to Christianity: The Disestablishment of the Hawaiian Religion and Chiefly Appropriation of Calvinist Christianity’. Western Historical Quarterly 39 (1): 17-39, p. 18.

[18] Sally Engle Merry. 2000. Colonizing Hawai’i: The Cultural Power of Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 73, 110.

[19] Merry, Colonizing Hawai’i, p. 110.

[20] Ronald T. Takaki. 1983. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawai’i, 1835‒1920. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, p. 3.

[21] Hooper 1836 in Takaki, Pau Hana, p. 5.

[22] Takai, Pau Hana, p. 7; Centre for Labor Education and Research (CLEAR), University of Hawai’i, n.d. ‘History of Labor in Hawai’i’. Available online at, accessed 10 December 2016.

[23] Noenoe K. Silva. 2000. ‘He Kānāwai E Ho’opau I Na Hula Kuolo Hawai’i: The Political Economy of Banning the Hula’. The Hawaiian Journal of History 34: 29-48. The ‘lazy native’ phrase comes from Malaysian sociologist S. H. Alatas’ history of 16th- to 20th-century Southeast Asia: Syed Hussein Alatas. 1977. The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism. London: Frank Cass, p. 2.

[24] Silva, He Kānāwai E Ho’opau I Na Hula Kuolo Hawai’i, 33; CLEAR, ‘History of Labor in Hawai’i’.

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Seshat: A brief look at 150,000 data points

It has taken a long time – five years of data input and the assistance of many researchers – to acquire 150,000 sourced data points for the Seshat databank: an epic historical time series which incorporates hundreds of variables.

Over this period the Seshat databank has overcome technical obstacles, refined its research methods, and at every step of the way acquired leading academic experts to advise on chronologies and the state of knowledge.

Still none of this would have happened without the vision of our sponsors who have funded the project.

Now, in autumn 2016, we are finally at a stage where a critical mass of data has been gathered and Seshat begins to speak.

All the numbers the database now produces are interesting – even the numbers about the numbers.

Chart 1 below graphs one portion of the Seshat data (click to enlarge).

Seshat data

Light Orange: Total figure for data points for all polity sheets within the NGA.
Dark Grey: Average number of data points per polity sheet within the NGA.

To understand this chart one needs to understand Seshat data on polities (historical kingdoms, states, empires and sometimes time periods and archaeological traditions) is collected by sample regions called Natural Geographic Areas (NGAs).

NGA sample regions are time-portholes through which the researcher travels to visit and jot down the social, religious, economic, political, military and environmental changes as they occur, dynamically, throughout its unique history.

The chart further samples this NGA data by including only the data for polities that existed at every 100-year interval between about 9000 BCE and 1900 CE (actual number of polities sampled is written next to their name along the y-axis).

Chart 1 holds two forms of interest: the constructive and the academic.

Constructive: we identify areas where we have a lot of data coded and areas that may need more data. For example, our Seshat coding sheets for polities contain about 700 different variables, split into three main sections called Phase I, Phase II and Ritual variables.

Whilst all polities have received Phase I and Ritual coding work on Phase II variables is on-going: complete for Cambodia, much done for Upper Egypt and the Middle Yellow River Valley and Latium, but a lot more to do for e.g. Konya Plain and Kachi Plain.

The academic interest is that this metadata is beginning to itself reflect the general pattern of global history.

That is, regions with longer histories of statehood have handed down to us much more data about themselves.

We also may notice we will find less data than expected for some NGAs compared to others even though they have equally long histories.

For example, the Konya Plain and Susiana regions have 9000 year histories that exceed Egypt and China but this is not yet reflected in our accumulated data – perhaps it never will be.

These regions – in modern day Turkey and Iran – were always at a geopolitical crossroads – where Persians, Romans, Mongols and Arabs all clashed – and so suffered a comparatively greater amount of destruction of archaeology and written records.

For both these regions the lack of data may also reflect the fact they have received less attention from archaeologists and historians.

In the case of Susiana particularly, but for various reasons true everywhere, early archaeological work and discoveries were unfortunately lost; a fact that emphasizes how important digitized historical databases will be for the preservation of our knowledge of historical societies.

Chart 2 (click to enlarge) shows more Seshat data which obviously is weighted to the Middle Yellow River Valley in terms of the state of its completeness.

Seshat data

The total figure of 150,000 data points for the Seshat database is an undercount. Not included in these figures: our data on wars and battles, the Archaeological database, and a dynamic record on Crop Yields and Carrying Capacity for each NGA.

All this data will help the Seshat databank serve its useful purpose as a resource against which historical and social scientific theories may be tested.

If you are an expert interested in advising us (especially on regions currently underrepresented in our data points) please contact 

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Towards a comparative demographic archaeology

Names on a 1910 census from Hackensack, New Jersey, USA.

Names on a 1910 census from Hackensack, New Jersey, USA.

Modern governments regularly take detailed censuses to ensure that they have accurate information about population size and composition. In the UK the census in its near-to-modern form began in 1801 and has taken place every 10 years since, with the exception of 1941. Most industrialized countries have their own versions of censuses while others, such as Finland, update their official population count every day in response to daily registrations of births and deaths. Governments need to know how many people live in their territories in order to plan taxation, infrastructure, housing, etc.

Given the pressing need for up-to-date population statistics in the modern world, it is logical that we must approximate population size and density in the past if we are to reconstruct ancient social organization. But estimating ancient population size can prove tricky, as we often lack reliable data that can be related to demography. Even where historic censuses exist they can rarely be directly translated into population densities. The Domesday Book is perhaps the most celebrated historic ‘census’ of all; an exhaustive survey of England, ordered by William the Conqueror following his victory at the Battle of Hastings. However, even a detailed survey such as this cannot be considered entirely reliable for the purposes of reconstructing population size; only heads of household were counted and entire cities were excluded from the survey.

In the absence of reliable census data for the past, how can we reconstruct population size? Archaeological demography is a growing field which uses artefactual, rather than written, remains to reconstruct ancient population patterns. It was the subject of a lively session at the World Archaeological Congress in Kyoto this summer, with a number of different approaches to demography presented in the session. Archaeological demography relies on the principle that for a given area of fixed size, we would expect the density of artefacts found within it to be proportional to the density of the population. Thinking in modern terms, we see larger rubbish heaps on the edge of a busy city than we do in a rural location. Through counting the change in density of artefacts over time we can observe changing population size and density. The method is not perfect; for instance it is entirely possible that a social change could occur that would mean that a society begins to use pottery at a faster rate than previously, independent of population change. Likewise, the method only allows relative population patterns to be reconstructed; we cannot compare the demography of two independent regions using this method. However, if we want to approximate demography in the past, which we should do if we want to answer broader questions of social evolution, then we have to try to say something with the available data. As Peter Turchin discussed in a previous post, we need to abandon negativity and get on with things!


Archaeology is rubbish

While most demographic methods produce relative population trends, an alternative method is to approach the problem of ancient population size from a different perspective. Modelling the carrying capacity (maximum number of people who could be supported by the natural resources in a region) provides us with absolute numbers of individuals, rather than simply relative trends. Again, this is not a perfect method as it only provides an upper limit to the population, and populations do not always reach this limit. However, the beauty of this method is that it allows us to make comparisons of potential demographic trends between regions.  The Seshat Databank contains a wealth of agricultural data that can be used to model carrying capacity. We are currently working through these variables and using them to estimate crop yields for each region of interest over the past 10,000 years, using the method developed by Currie et al (2015).

We are using modern agricultural studies to inform us of the benefits of particular farming practices, such as the use of manure as fertilizer. The agricultural data collected by the Seshat team informs us as to when and if these agricultural techniques were practiced in the past.  In this way we are able to adjust the yields predicted by climate-based crop models to produce crop yield estimates that take account of farming practices in the past. These yields will then be translated into total carrying capacities for each region. This method provides a good counterpoint to the other demographic methods available; it is robust to the change in settlement patterns that could masquerade as demographic change and, crucially, it gives us the absolute population numbers that we really need if we are to reconstruct social processes in the past.

Population size is determined by the availability of food resources. Agricultural techniques – such as terracing – improve overall yields and lead to increases in population density.

Terrace Farming

Population size is determined by the availability of food resources. Agricultural techniques – such as terracing – improve overall yields and lead to increases in population density.

The use of the systematically-collated agricultural data within the Seshat Databank to model carrying capacity in the past illustrates the utility of the databank in allowing us to truly make comparisons between the historical trajectories of different regions. This is a real advantage, as typically archaeological estimates of ancient populations are not produced in a manner that allows inter-regional comparison. By contrast, population estimates produced from the agricultural data can be compared between different regions. We need comparable data if we are to undertake comparative archaeology, and the Seshat databank makes this possible.

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The football fan’s dysphoria: new paper on football clubs supports prediction about power of rituals


Source: Creative Commons

How can the Seshat: Global History Databank be used to make policy recommendations for modern times? By examining key aspects of societies in the past, we can better understand the factors that lead to political turbulence, war, and the collapse of empires. Ritual is one of these key aspects. (more…)

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New Scientist gives a history lesson on Seshat


One of the main motivations for developing Seshat is to use our store of coded information to cut through the tangled undergrowth of competing theories that has grown up around our understanding of human history. An article written by Laura Spinney just published in the latest issue of New Scientist does a nice job of bringing this key feature of our approach front-and-centre. The article provides an accessible overview of the aims of our project, the current state of play and some of our plans for the future. Popular coverage of science often likes to have a simple narrative of scientists making rare or unexpected discoveries, or finding support for a certain hypothesis. However, progress in science is actually as much about working out what theories aren’t supported. In academic disciplines such as history, which have traditionally been non-scientific in their approach, there has not been an agreed upon way of deciding which ideas are better supported. This has led to a proliferation of ideas, especially as all these theories have proponents who have been able to muster some evidence consistent with their thoughts. A main aim of our analyses is therefore to create what is referred to in the article as a “cemetery of theories” that don’t explain the data as well as others.


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Can Science Show Us a Way To Stop Terrorism?

Last month, the Science network’s innovative documentary series Through The Wormhole debuted its seventh season with an with a provocative opening line: “We’re at war.” The episode, titled ‘What Makes a Terrorist?’, brings together anthropologists, behaviorists, and other scientists to explain why people would commit atrocious acts in the name of some cause. More importantly, academy-winning host Morgan Freeman wanted to know “Can science show us a way to stop terrorism?”

Among the scientists who shared their thoughts on this pressing issue was Prof. Peter Turchin, founder and overall coordinator of Seshat: Global History Databank. Mr. Freeman presented prof. Turchin’s ‘radical’ idea of using history as a guide to understand why people join terrorist groups, what breeds such groups to begin with, and what to do about it now. According to Turchin, evolutionary pressures operating on groups that are extremely dissimilar—and antagonistic—promotes strong solidarity among the members of these combatant groups. Individualism takes a back seat to extreme self-sacrifice; sacrifice to the group, to the ‘greater good’ (however that is being defined), to ‘The Cause’. It is the pressure on combatant groups, the struggle for survival that breeds the terrorist’s extremism, according to this line of thought.


In fact, there is good evidence for this sort of individual negation towards group solidarity. One of the other scientists interviewed was Scott Atran, professor of Anthropology at Oxford University who introduced the concept of the ‘devoted actor,’ people who become resolutely committed to a cause to the extent that they will sacrifice individual security and benefits. The quintessential terrorist. Likewise, Prof. Harvey Whitehouse, also a professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, has uncovered this practice in operation in the modern world. Prof. Whitehouse is also a Seshat Editor and is one of the world’s leading experts on the evolution and function of groups. In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2014, Whitehouse and his team analyzed data collected in the field in Libya during the 2011 revolutionary war there. They found that the extreme circumstances faced by the revolutionaries—striving for survival, fighting alongside fellow combatants, working together to topple the Kadhafi regime—led to what Whitehouse calls ‘identity fusion.’ The willingness to fight and, possibly, die for the group and their common goal was the result of this fusion, bred by the extreme pressures involved in a struggle for survival.

This is precisely the sort of pressures that Turchin noted as well. As he points out, terrorism is not a new phenomenon. History is in fact rife with examples of combatant groups joining together and using extremely violent means to achieve common ends. This is, according to Turchin, where a Cliodynamic approach comes in. Cliodynamics is, in essence, the scientific study of history. Turchin argues that with a Cliodynamic approach, we can trace out the patterns that have led to terrorist groups in the past and, more importantly, we can test out the result of different possible interventions in the ‘lab’ of history. Turchin himself has taken this tact, with impressive results. As he explains to Morgan Freeman, in 2005, in the aftermath of the Allied occupation of Iraq, he actually foresaw the rise of ISIS, or a similar organization, a development that has caught many polticians and policy makers off-guard. Turchin wrote in that year that “the Western intrusion will eventually generate a counter-response, possibly in the form of a new theocratic Caliphate.”[1]


Turchin made this prediction based on his understanding of history and the way that pressures can build up during armed conflict against opposing groups, leading to ‘blow-back’ effects like the rise of ISIS. The episode concludes with Prof. Turchin outlining the three main options that exist for dealing with ISIS and other terrorist groups today. As Mr. Freeman explains as the episode fades out, none of the options are particularly appealing, but it is important that we have as clear an understanding of what the options actually are and what the likely ramifications of any action will be in order to make a truly informed choice. As Turchin and everyone involved in the Seshat project believe, understanding the lessons of history gives us our best hope of gaining this wisdom.

[1] Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations. New York: Pi Press, 2005, p. 349.


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Human history as fractal: How patterns repeat at all scales in our shared past and continue to shape the future

The ‘Mandlebrot Set’ is the traditional illustrated example of a fractal. Source: Wikipedia

The ‘Mandlebrot Set’ is the traditional illustrated example of a fractal. Source: Wikipedia

Fractal patterns are found within mountains, crystals and galaxies – and everywhere else in the natural world. Is human history mind-bogglingly fractal too? I think it is; and it might change the way you see the world.

What is a fractal? A fractal, like the Mandelbrot Set, is a mathematical equation. It describes patterns that repeat simultaneously at all scales in detail. Now let’s find them in history.

The ‘Mandlebrot Set’ is the traditional illustrated example of a fractal.

Human progress

First, perhaps we can see long-term human progress as a fractal. Social improvement occurs in a rise and fall pattern: something-like ‘two steps forward’ and ‘one step back’.

If the amount of human cooperation that exists can be considered a good proxy for progress, consider the historical evidence for changing levels of societal cohesion.


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Buddha, bandits and bondsmen: Some questions about ancient Javanese states

Javanese states

Stupas of Borobudur. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, 2015 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

As a Seshat research assistant, I’ve been reading about the history of early Javanese states for several weeks now. In the mid-1st millennium CE, these self-proclaimed kingdoms began to emerge on the volcanic plateaus in the centre of the island. Rulers adopted Sanskrit titles and aspects of the religious traditions ‒ Buddhism, Shaivist and Vaishnavist Hinduism ‒ of the Indian subcontinent. Impressive stone temple complexes sprang up, including Candi Sewu (8th century) and the famous Borobudur (9th century), a monumental series of concentric terraces ascending to a high central stupa. Covered in intricate carvings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, it has been described as a ‘mandala in stone’.

As I was trying to get to grips with the political structure of these kingdoms, two points ‒ seemingly contradictory ‒ kept cropping up in the literature:

  • The royal court had considerable power to institute complicated tax arrangements, at least in the villages closer to the centre of authority. Villagers co-operated, providing officials with the necessary information. The labour required to build immense stone monuments like Borobudur is said to have come partly from ‘royal bondsmen’.[1]
  • Fertile land was plentiful, irrigation for rice farming was generally managed at the community level (i.e. the state didn’t control the means of production), and in general it would have been easy to leave.

Living in a world of territorially bounded nation states, we tend to forget that in the past, vast tracts of land (and sea) were not subject to any centralized authority. If demands for tax or labour became too onerous, there was usually the option to move beyond the reach of royal officials or local lords. In Java, moving into the forested uplands, or even just further away from the central court, would (at least in the earlier period) have been sufficient.

So what was the basis of this fairly extensive royal power ‒ if you have a choice, why comply with the tax demands of the king’s officials? How and why would you become a bondsman? Luckily, Prof. John Miksic, an archaeologist specialising in ancient Java, had agreed to meet Seshat’s Daniel Mullins and Pieter François in Singapore and share his expertise. I sent a question about these bondsmen, and Miksic’s reply touched on settlement patterns, patron-client relations and the dangers of living in these early kingdoms.

There were different levels of servitude, he said, and they were not clearly distinguished linguistically. The worst-off were war captives, who were under some compulsion to work the land. However, for a broader spectrum of society, becoming the ‘bondsman’ of a high-status official had its advantages. In exchange for your labour and a portion of your agricultural produce, the official was under some obligation to protect you. As in later periods, Miksic believes that villages at this time would have been fortified ‒ for example with thorny bamboo ‒ as protection from roving bandits (or even from the now-extinct Javan tiger). We do have evidence for royal investment in public safety: an inscription issued by King Balitung in the early 10th century records a gift of land to five royal officials, with the proviso that they protect the villagers and travellers along the ‘dangerous’ mountain path within the territory.[3]

Wet-rice farming in modern-day Java, near Yogyakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata, 2010 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wet-rice farming in modern-day Java, near Yogyakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata, 2010 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Nor should we neglect the role of the perceived spiritual benefits to be gained from relations with a divinely sanctioned king, his court presented as the centre of the universe, and his officials. Miksic has written about this elsewhere.[4] With the help of learned Brahmins and Buddhist monks from beyond the Java Sea, monarchs could lay claim to a ‘ritual sovereignty’[5] that was surely as important as other forms of royal authority in this period. Take the words of the 11th-century King Airlangga, who after building a dam (in fact a very unusual undertaking for a Javanese monarch), took the opportunity to proclaim his royal beneficence:

‘This dam was built in order to bring about benefits for the world and the revival of all the holy religious foundations […] This was brought about through the command of His Majesty [Airlangga], who has his capital at Kahuripa, because he visibly showers upon the world the elixir of life that is his affection, causing a rain of merit. By this construction he will serve to perfect all the holy temple (dharma) foundations for the benefit of all his subjects, old and young, who dwell in the sanctified realm (mandala) of the island of Java. His reason for causing the source of devotion to spread is to provide a shining example for all the world, and also to add to the splendor (of the realm). This is his reason for conducting himself as a universal monarch (chakravartin) as he has in undertaking this construction which will bring about daily well-being for the world, thus providing a sign to the world that His Majesty is not interested solely in his own advantage’.[6]

Miksic’s thoughts on the potential benefits of becoming a bondsman to a Javanese official form an interesting counterpoint to the work of anthropologist James Scott on mainland Southeast Asia. In his fascinating (and controversial) 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed, he emphasises the coercive power of early states to induce people to settle down and, instead of swidden agriculture or hunting and gathering, engage in wet-rice farming (easily taxable, but in many ways unhealthier and harder work). The large labour forces of the early states of mainland Southeast Asia, he argues, were obtained through physical force and slave-raiding:  ‘What is most striking … is that none of these padi states flourished except by slave-raiding on a substantial scale’.[7]

In this model, states use violence to create subjects from which to extract surplus; in the model of the Javanese kingdoms described above, villagers are almost seduced, through offers of protection and divinely bestowed prosperity, into relations with the centre. Were Javanese states ‒ the Medang and Kediri kingdoms, for instance ‒ less coercive, or is this a case of different historical goggles? Do inscriptions like Airlangga’s conceal a darker reality? Javanese villagers do seem to have had some negotiating clout when it came to taxes: the one inscription of 906 CE records the elders of Palepangan successfully petitioning a high official to reduce their tax burden by claiming that their land had been measured incorrectly.[8] But because our view of these kingdoms is still very ‘top-down’, derived from inscriptions issued by kings and rakrayan (local lords) rather than from archaeological excavation of ordinary settlements, many of these questions remain unanswered.

Works Cited

[1] Kenneth R. Hall. 2011. A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Social Development, 100-1500. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 141.

[2] Jan Wisseman-Christie. 1986. ‘Negara, Mandala, and Despotic State: Images of Early Java’, in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries, edited by David G. Marr and A. C. Milner, 65-94. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 78.

[3] J. G. de Casparis. 1986. ‘Some Notes on Relations between Central and Local Government in Ancient Java’, in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries, edited by David G. Marr and A. C. Milner, 49-63. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 54.

[4] John N. Miksic. 2004. ‘Mataram’, in Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, edited by Ooi Keat Gin, 863-66. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, p. 863.

[5] Kenneth R. Hall. 1992. ‘Economic History of Early Southeast Asia’, in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. I: From Early Times to c. 1800, edited by Nicholas Tarling, 183-275. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 207.

[6] Hall 2011, p. 148.

[7] James C. Scott. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 85.

[8] Anton O. Zakharov. 2012. ‘Epigraphy, Political History, and Collective Action in Ancient Java’, in Connecting Empires and States: Selected Papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, edited by Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, Andreas Reinecke, and Dominik Bonatz, 82-89. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 85.


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Examining Social Complexity, Religion, and Prosociality in Southeast Asia and Beyond

Four NGAs of Focus from Seshat World Sample 30

Four NGAs of Focus from Seshat World Sample 30

Southeast Asia provides an important and fascinating window into understanding why human social formations became more complex over the last several millennia. Yet, much of the theorizing and analysis surrounding the evolution of complex societies around the globe has focused on evidence from regions such as the Middle East or Europe, meaning that scholars have largely neglected to examine these predictions in light of the intricate and elaborate process of cultural evolution in Southeast Asia. United in their shared passion to better understand how humans transitioned from living in small groups comprised of dozens or hundreds of individuals to living in large kingdoms, empires, and modern nations comprised of tens of millions or hundreds of millions of individuals, an international group of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, computer scientists, and mathematical modellers congregated in the small and vibrant city-state of Singapore in the heat of August to share their research in two carefully-choreographed workshops.

The Hive, workshop venue, Nanyang Technological University

The Hive, workshop venue, Nanyang Technological University

These workshops were organised both by their regional and topical focus. Specific sessions were dedicated to four of Seshat’s Natural Geographic Areas, namely Central Java, Cambodian Basin, Middle Yellow River Valley, and Deccan Plateau (see highlighted map).

Among the ‘big historical questions’ addressed during this workshop, several stood out, including the following:

  • How can researchers better incorporate and preserve historical, archaeological, and ethnographic data to investigate the cultural evolutionary dynamics of complex societies, including our own?
  • What were the key transitions in the evolution of complex societies? What are the major integrative and organizational mechanisms that hold large, complex groups social formations together?
  • What are the major types of cooperative problems that may have driven the development of complex cultural systems?
  • Did broad shifts in collective religio-philosophical values influence the prosocial behaviour of elites and rulers throughout the last four millennia, both within the region of Southeast Asia and beyond?

The first workshop opened with an overview of the current state-of-the-art of the Seshat: Global History Databank by several members of Seshat team. Peter Turchin provided members of the public and Singapore’s rich and diverse academic community with an overview of the Seshat: Global History Databank. Kevin Feeney introduced the construction of the Seshat Ontology. Tom Currie and I discussed the objectives and progress of Axial-Age Religions and the Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism Project to date. Finally, Nanyang Technological University’s Cheong Siew Anne, working closely with Andrea Nanetti, discussed how maps, diaries, and other historiographic materials can inform the construction of interactive web-based digital catalogues, which in turn, can provide insights into how social groups interact through time.

The second workshop, which spanned over two days (17-18 August) was led by experts on Southeast Asia and beyond. These archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians drew from variety of evidentiary sources ranging from satellite imagery and historiographic materials to architectural motifs and computational models, providing a wealth of important insights for the Seshat: Global History Databank.

For example, Seshat Research Assistant Jenny Reddish (pictured above) was able to fill a gap in the published literature regarding ancient Javanese patron-client relations by putting a set of specific questions directly to John Miksic, a world expert on Central Java. John’s detailed and erudite responses to these questions have enabled Jenny to add a wealth of historical facts to the Seshat: Global History Databank and have inspired Jenny to explore the topic further by writing a blog post for Seshatdatabank.ingo on the topic (forthcoming).

Another intriguing line of inquiry was initiated by Goh Geok Yian, who, along with John Miksic and Pieter François, was inspired to explore the role of trading networks in the development of complex social formations throughout Southeast Asia.

In his closing comments, Peter Turchin emphasized the opportunities that the study of Southeast Asia provides for future comparative historical research. He noted that many global theories concerning the emergence of complex societies have focused on areas outside of Southeast Asia. Therefore, Southeast Asia represents a fertile area for future research because it provides the data necessary for ‘out of sample testing’ (also known as cross-validation), a technique for assessing how the results of a statistical analysis will generalise to an independent data set. Essentially, this means that data collected from Southeast Asia is particularly valuable because these data have not been included in the initial historical model’s construction. It is clear that more work needs to be done in this region to take advantage of this analytical opportunity.

Finally, I would like add a brief personal note about my expectations and experiences during these workshops. Perhaps because of its small size, I underestimated the scale of Singapore’s scholastic community. While I was certainly aware of Singapore’s world-class universities, it was not until I was able to interact directly with the students and faculty that I came to recognize the vibrancy of the scholastic community here. The National University of Singapore (NUS) alone, for example, is home to over 5,700 Faculty and Research Staff. To my delight, the Seshat workshops in Singapore served to build bridges between research staff both within Singapore and beyond. For example, prominent scholars at NUS such as John Miksic (archaeology) and Sng Tuan Hwee (economic history) met for first time during the workshops and created local connections united by Seshat’s focus on global comparative history.

These workshops were made possible by the Seshat: Global History Databank and its funders, as well as the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), specifically NTU’s Complexity Institute and the Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

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The importance of Cliodynamics in a post-Brexit world

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

Why do politicians so often repeat their past mistakes when facing modern economic and political crises? Why does it prove so difficult time and time again to get people from different nationalities, different cultures to work together for the common good? It only brings harm when governments see no value in the lessons of history. Seshat coordinator Peter Turchin says that governments can and should use history as a tool to better understand modern large-scale human cooperation—especially in light of the recent Brexit decision

Turchin recently explained the need to study historical patterns in a post-Brexit world in a recent comment published by Nature. “Getting people to cooperate in very large groups such as the EU is difficult. Understanding how humans have been able to create cooperative societies is also hard, because we cannot readily run experiments. Nevertheless, much progress can be achieved by taking a scientific approach to analysing historical data,” he wrote.

Perhaps we can better understand the struggles of the EU by studying empires of the past, how they formed and why they fell. This is where cliodynamics—studying past patterns to better understand and analyze the present—can play an important role. However, for this approach to be successful, large cooperative research projects like Seshat: Global History Databank must be created to test hypotheses and detect key patterns.

By detecting these patterns and determining the key variables we can determine how the EU should move forward in a post-Brexit world. One hypothesis Turchin would test is the idea of smaller groupings of nations vs. a large all-encompassing EU. In a previous blog post, he used data from the World Values Survey to show that the original six EU members are closer together culturally than the wider EU body.


Testing these sort of ideas using history as our laboratory, we can hope to come to a better understanding of how to get large numbers of people from different backgrounds to come together and stay together, working cooperatively for the benefit of everyone.


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Coding rituals: the example of modern Inti Raymi (Peru)

 The Inka making an entrance into the Plaza de Armas and interacting with the crowd.

The Inka making an entrance into the Plaza de Armas and interacting with the crowd.

After the Seshat team cleaned ritual data in May, I was eager to see how our coding approach could apply to contemporary rituals. On 24th June, I travelled to the former capital of the Tawantinsuyu empire—Cusco, the Navel of the Universe—to attend the annual Inti Raymi festival. It is modelled after a famous Inka ritual vividly depicted by the Chronicler Bartolomé de Segovia, who witnessed the last great Inti Raymi in 1535 (D’Altroy 2014, 262). Inti Raymi, also known as the Warriors’ Cultivation ritual, took place annually in the month that coincided with the winter solstice and was one of the most impressive Inka rituals (D’Altroy 2014, 262). Later, Garcilaso de la Vega also described the ritual based on oral stories he heard from his Inka relatives. His major work, the Royal Commentaries of the Incas, is the main source of inspiration for the modern iteration.

Modern procession of a mummy effigy. The modern Inti Raymi festival takes many of its visual cues from Guaman Poma’s work.

Since the 1940s, the ritual has indeed been revived by the local authorities of Cusco in an attempt to support the national indigenism movement in its local expression and has been imbued conferred with even more political meaning in the 1980s under Mayor Estrada as he added a new component to the ritual whereby the Inka hands his power to the Mayor of Cusco (Silverman 2013).

The staged ritual has become very popular with tourists to the Cusco area and is the culmination of a month of local celebrations in the former capital. Although this ritual is anything but ‘authentic’ (a discussion of what authenticity is would require another blog post), and has been criticised by several scholars for its participation in the disneyfication of heritage, it’s a good occasion to explore the way rituals have been coded in the Seshat: Global Databank project using a concrete, modern example and comparing it to its Inka equivalent. Below is a description of the Inti Raymi following the format of the Seshat Codebook, with information filled in for all of the variables we gather concerning rituals.

♠ Name ♣ Inti Raymi ♥ The re-enactment of this Inka ritual takes place in three stages: the opening prayer ceremony at the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun), the offering of coca leaves to the mountains of Cusco and the ‘encounter of the times’ between the Inka emperor and the Mayor of modern Cusco in the Plaza de Armas, and the traditional afternoon performance at Sacsayhuaman (Silverman 2013).
♠ Frequency for the ritual specialist ♣ yearly ♥ Every year on the 24th June.
♠ Frequency per participant ♣ yearly ♥ Every year on the 24th June.
♠ Frequency for the audience ♣ yearly ♥ Every year on the 24th June.
♠ Duration ♣ 8 ♥ hours. Although concerts and cultural manifestations are organised for the whole month leading up to the festival, the ritual itself takes place over the course of a day. It starts at approximately 9am from the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and finishes around 5pm at Saqsayhuaman. The original Inti Raymi lasted 8-9 days, according to Segovia (D’Altroy 2014, 262).
♠ Typical size of participating group ♣ [5,000-50,000] ♥ Tens of thousands. The whole Plaza de Armas was filled with people interested in seeing the performance. Although the tickets to attend the Saqsayhuaman part of the ritual were restricted to 3766 people, many more could see the event from the hills surrounding the complex. The first Inti Raymi in 1944 was attended by over 5,000 spectators (Silverman 2013, 131).
♠ Inclusiveness (ritual specialist) ♣ entertainers ♥ Only trained dancers, actors and performers can enact the Inti Raymi festival. The cast of performers involved in the festival comprises thousands of people (Silverman 2013, 140).
♠ Inclusiveness (participants) ♣ whole polity ♥ The ‘polity’ here is no longer the Inka Empire, but modern Peru. This code indicates the widest sphere of inclusion within the Seshat coding procedure, but in this example it would also include people from outside the polity, such as international tourists.
♠ Inclusiveness (audience) ♣ whole polity ♥ Since this is a public ritual, in which the audience actively cheers for the performers (especially the Inka and Qolla, or queen), they are considered participants.

Dysphoric elements
The modern ritual doesn’t include negative, emotionally arousing elements, which makes sense considering that it is an event attracting thousands of tourists.
♠ fasting ♣ absent ♥ It was present for the preparation of several ritual in Inka times (Covey, personal communication) and might have existed for the Inti Raymi as well.
♠ vigil/sleep deprivation ♣ absent ♥ This element would also have been present in the Inka Inti Raymi, due to the continuous dancing and drinking over several days.
♠ fear ♣ absent ♥
♠ humiliation ♣ absent ♥
♠ disgust ♣ absent ♥
♠ poisoning/dysphoria-causing drugs ♣ absent ♥ The original Inti Raymi is likely to have involved alcohol abuse.
♠ pain ♣ absent ♥
♠ mutilation ♣ absent ♥
♠ risk of death ♣ absent ♥
♠ other ♣ absent ♥

Euphoric elements
♠ feasting ♣ absent ♥ The original Inti Raymi, like most Inka celebrations, probably involved large-scale feasting and drinking.
♠ alcohol ♣ absent ♥ The consumption of Chicha (maize beer) was probably key to the original Inti Raymi.
♠ euphoria-inducing drugs (other than alcohol) ♣ inferred absent ♥ During the morning ceremony, coca leaves are offered to the sacred mountains of Cusco; but they are not consumed by the participants. However, this would be a significant departure from the original Inti Raymi, where coca leaves were probably consumed in considerable quantities.
♠ sex ♣ absent ♥
♠ dancing ♣ present ♥
♠ synchronous movement ♣ present ♥

An example of synchronous movement during the Opening Prayer Ceremony at the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun)

An example of synchronous movement during the Opening Prayer Ceremony at the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun)

♠ singing ♣ present ♥

Music: drums and flutes accompanied by singing during the Opening Prayer Ceremony at the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun)

Music: drums and flutes accompanied by singing during the Opening Prayer Ceremony at the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun)

♠ entertainment ♣ present ♥
♠ other ♣ ♥ List the other(s)

Although most a significant part of the ritual takes place in Quechua, the former lingua franca of the Inka Empire which subsists as a linguistic family in the Andes, the call for social cohesion through patriotism is easily observable. Before the Inka arrived at the Plaza de Armas, the Mayor of Cusco explicitly linked the ritual to the enduring strength of the nation (in Spanish). Since Mayor Estreda’s modification of the official Inti Raymi script, a whole section of the ritual is devoted to the Inka handing down his power to the current Mayor, who promises to take care of the people and work to improve the city (Silverman 2013, 138). This year, the political agenda was reinforced by the presence of the then president-elect, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. He has since then been formally sworn in as president on the 28th July. This His presence can be considered a powerful statement, after his fragile victory over Keiko Fujimori a few weeks earlier. During his campaign, the president-to-be Kuczynski consistently reinforced his personal connection to Cusco and the Peruvian provinces, and he owes his victory to the southern electors.
♠ honour code ♣ present ♥
♠ oath taking ♣ present ♥ The exchange between the Mayor and the Inka relies on an honour code and involves a special oath (for the script, see Silverman 2013, 137-138). The verbal exchange had a specific meaning this year due to the presence of the president-elect, hence extending the traditional link between the Inka and the municipality to the whole state of Peru.
♠ enemies of any group member are my enemies ♣ inferred absent ♥
♠ willingness to die for each other ♣ inferred absent ♥
♠ obligations to each other’s families ♣ inferred absent ♥
♠ other ♣ ♥
♠ Orthopraxy checks ♣ present ♥ Orthopraxy refers to mechanisms ensuring that rituals are performed in a standardized way. The ritual follows an official script since 1952, which has been modified by Mayor Estrada in the late 1980s (Silverman 2013, 135).
♠ Orthodoxy checks ♣ present ♥ Conversely, these checks refer to the correct interpretation of a ritual by its audience. Part of the new script generated by Estrada ensured that the political link between the Inka empire as an “imagined community” and modern-day Cusco would become visible to the audience.

Costs of participation
♠ currency ♣ present ♥ Although a significant partsof the morning festivities of the festival are accessible for free, the apex of the day takes place at Saqsayhuaman and involves an entrance fee ranging from USD 30 (for residents of Cusco) to more than USD 120.
♠ property/valuable items ♣ absent ♥
♠ health costs ♣ absent ♥
♠ animal sacrifice ♣ absent ♥ However, several Inka festivities involved animal sacrifice, notably of llamas (McEwan 2006, 151): they may have been present in the original Inti Raymi.
♠ human sacrifice of an out-group member ♣ absent ♥ Human sacrifices might have been present in the original Inti Raymi, but there is no consensus among scholars (Covey, personal communication).
♠ human sacrifice of an in-group member ♣ absent ♥
♠ human sacrifice of a relative ♣ absent ♥
♠ other ♣ ♥

This staged event is a key phenomenon for local tourism, on top of being a meaningful political performance. The 2016 iteration could be seen as an attempt to fake social cohesion, a mere two weeks after the presidential elections which highlighted just how divided the country really is. It projects a united façade, at least externally, to the thousands of tourists who come to the South American capital of archaeology. Its orchestrated nature might prevent it from having as much of a social impact on Peruvians as other large-scale rituals, like a dramatic football match, but it is important nonetheless because of the high stakes involved.

The role of rituals as a ‘social glue’ necessary to the appearance and maintenance of large-scale communities is one of the hypotheses that the Seshat project will enable us to test (for more details on how we will proceed, see Whitehouse et al 2015). As of this summer, we have coded the variables outlined above for hundreds of polities across the world. Hence, we are in a very good position to understand the importance of ritual for the emergence of social complexity.

Further Reading: 

  • Our aims for ritual analysis are detailed in the following article:
    Whitehouse, Harvey; François, Pieter; and Turchin, Peter. 2015. The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity: Five Predictions and a Drum Roll. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, 6(2).
    irows_cliodynamics_29624. Retrieved from:
    (Last accessed: 20/07/2016)
  • For more information on the modern Inti Raymi ritual, I highly recommend Silverman’s 2013 article:
    Silverman, Helaine. 2013. Cuzcotopia: Imagining and Performing the Incas. In R. Staiff, R. Bushell and S. Watson (eds.), Heritage and Tourism: Place, encounter, engagement, pp. 128-151. London and New York: Routledge. (Available online at: Last accessed: 20/07/2016.
    Silverman has written extensively on the entanglement between heritage and politics in Cusco.
  • Terence D’Altroy’s book is an excellent, up-to-date introduction to the Inkas:
    D’Altroy, Terence. 2014. The Incas. Second Edition. Malden, Oxford, Chichester: Blackwell.
  • McEwan, Gordon Francis. 2006. The Incas: New Perspectives. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.
  • Official video of the 2015 Inti Raymi: (Last accessed: 20/07/2016)
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Supersize my data

Notes from the Global Social Science Research Meeting, University of Pittsburgh, July 22-3 2016

The world of Big Data. Source: ">Slideshare

The world of Big Data. Source: Slideshare

We live in the Digital Age. The development of communications and research technologies in recent years have made the world smaller—travel and communication is faster, easier, and wider, connecting the world in ways never seen before. The flip-side to living in an ever-shrinking world, though, is that information keeps growing; the easier it becomes to collaborate with colleagues living in disparate parts of the globe, the better that digital technologies get at storing massive amounts of data, and the more refined tools we develop to connect different sources of knowledge together, the more information we have at our disposal.

What this means is that we are now able, for the first time in human history, to explore properly and systematically some of life’s truly huge questions: How and why did humans first form states? Why is there so much inequality in the world, not only economic but in terms of social well-being, health, and access to resources? Why do people move around so much and what effects to different sorts of migrations have on society? We’ve dealt with some of this issues in previous blog posts here. The crucial point is that to answer such Big Questions requires truly Big Data—massive amounts of information on human society offering a global sample and extending as far back into history as possible.[1]

Well in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Source: Pixabay

Well in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Source: Pixabay

Take, for instance, inequality, one of the most pressing problems in the world today. Understanding how social and economic inequalities develop requires that we look beyond only the recent past. Deep historical events actually play a huge role in how we live today: the sort of tax laws in place in the early days of Industrialization, long-run changes in the environment alter the wealth of nations, and cultural norms that dictate how well people cooperate and sharing resources evolve over many centuries, to name only a few. It is crucial, then, to take into account as mane different societies as possible and track the development of key variables over as long a time frame as possible.

This is precisely what the Seshat: Global History Databank[2] and a handful of other large-scale social science projects are attempting to achieve. The issue now is not what can we do with all of the information out there, but what ‘s the best way to bring it all together so we can start to answer some of these key questions and, hopefully, improve the lives of people around the world?

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh. Source: Wikipedia

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh. Source: Wikipedia

Recently, a few of these groups got together for two days at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss these critical issues. Mainly, we wanted to see if there was any overlap between what we are all trying to do and, if so, how can we best pool our resources to get the most out of our collective efforts?

The meeting was organized by Prof. Pat Manning, director of the World History Center at Pitt and one of the world’s most vocal and productive champions of large-scale, data-intensive social science research. Together with his colleague Vladimir Zadhorozny (who was also in attendance) and many others, they have put together the CHIA database that seeks to streamline the process of connecting different historian’s datasets. Ruth Mostern, who will be taking over the World History Center now that Pat is retiring, was in attendance as well. Ruth is an expert on medieval China and has been working on geo-referencing projects to provide stable, authoritative lists of places online. This sort of geo-referencing is a key part of the ‘Big Data’ research we are all doing, because the different places described and defined by projects like Ruth’s become nodes through which the rest of us link up our data, since all history occurs in particular places! Molly Warsh, a professor of World History at Pitt and PhD candidate Bennet Sherry also were able to joint in the discussions.

We were also very fortunate that Leo Lucassen and Auke Rijpma were able to fly in from the Netherlands for the workshop. Leo is research director at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and has for years been working with colleagues on the Global Collaboratory on the History of Labour Relations 1500-2000[3], a huge effort to digitally combine datasets that deal with labour history—types of production, different types of labour relations in a society, the ways that different segments of the population fit into the labour system, etc. Auke is an assistant professor at Utrecht University who works on the long-term historical dynamics of economic and social well-being. He also helps run the CLARIAH project, an enormous digital infrastructure project funded by the Dutch government that is developing a flexible, user-friendly system for integrating social science datasets.

Hiroko Inoue flew in from California to represent the IROWS center as well as to discuss the database of settlement and urbanization that she is constructing along with Chris Chase-Dunn, who joined us by Skype. Also joining us from California was Dennis Flynn, an economist who is working on a large project exploring the history of silver, from its use as a money, to its transport around the world as a valuable commodity, to the process of production from mining to minting to spending in different historical societies. Steve Ruggles of IPUMS and the Minnesota Population Center Skyped in as well. Steve works on integrating micro-historical datasets concerning census records from the United States, an invaluable source of information on social history.

For Seshat, overall coordinator Peter Turchin along with founding editor Pieter Francois and research associate Daniel Hoyer were in attendance. We were very happy to be involved with such a lively and accomplished group. It became clear quite early on in our discussions that there is a lot of overlap between all of our research.

Mainly, we have all come to realize that recent developments in digital technologies offer the possibility for a new kind of research, one that is data-driven, with a global and historical scope that is simply unprecedented in previous social scientific research, and therefore one that allows us to answer these Big Questions. We are all interested in exploring how and why different types of inequalities develop over time and, of course, how to reverse those trends? Answering this involves developing measures of well-being and access to resources for as many historical societies as possible, tracking the movement of people and goods across huge distances, exploring the dynamics of urban growth and decline, and a hole host of other factors that we are, collectively, gathering data on.

In the end, we decided to formalize our association so that we would keep in touch and can coordinate our work— Big Questions, Big Data Association. We hope to continue to add more and more groups to the association to be part of the discussion and to collaborate on even bigger joint research. Anyone who uses the available digital tools to answer Big historical questions, not just about inequality but on any important issue of human life our association, will be a welcome addition to the group. Look for the Association’s website to go online in the near future and stay tuned for some interesting and innovative research coming out of the group in the next few years!

[1] Peter Turchin, “Arise ‘Cliodynamics,’” Nature 454, no. 7200 (2008): 34–35, doi:10.1038/454034a.

[2] Peter Turchin et al., “Seshat: The Global History Databank,” Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 6, no. 1 (2015),

[3] Karin Hofmeester et al., “The Global Collaboratory on the History of Labour Relations, 1500-2000: Background, Set-Up, Taxonomy, and Applications,” 2016.

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Visualizing values mismatch in the European Union

In my July 1 post, Brexit as Destructive Creation, I argued that one significant cause for the European dysfunction was the choice made by the European elites to expand the union too fast too far. Why do I think this was a mistake?

As I have said on numerous occasions (in this blog and in my other writings), it is hard to get people to cooperate, especially in large social groups. Successful cooperation requires that people share values and institutions. Values tell us why we want to cooperate: what is the public good that we collectively want to produce? Norms and institutions tell us how we are going to organize cooperation. Mismatched values and institutions may doom a cooperative effort even before it has a chance to get going.

In my opinion, the expansion from the original six nations (Benelux, France, Germany, and Italy – I will refer to them as the “core” EU nations) to the current 28 was a big, big mistake. We can use the data collected by the World Values Survey (WVS) to visualize just how bad this mistake was.

WVS has been collecting data on people’s beliefs in many countries since 1981. One interesting result of analyzing these data was that much of variation between populations of different countries can be mapped to just two dimensions: (1) Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and (2) Survival values versus Self-expression values. When average values for each country in the sample are plotted in a two-dimensional space defined by these two axes, we have what is known as the Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map. Here it is for the latest (sixth) survey:

Inglehart-Wetzel group culturally similar countries into “Catholic Europe”, “Protestant Europe”, “English Speaking”, and so on.

But I am interested to look at this mapping from a different point of view. Accordingly, I color-coded all countries into the following categories:

  • Core (red): the original six countries that formed the European Economic Community
  • EU (brown): the other 22 members of the European Union
  • Europe (green): two Western European countries that are not in the EU
  • Candidate (yellow): current candidates for the EU
  • World (grey): the rest of the world (I omitted country names that would clutter the infographic too much).

Note: the reason Italy* has an asterix is because, for some reason, it was not included in the sixth wave, so I used its values from the fifth wave data.

And here’s what it looks like:


The pattern is so striking it almost doesn’t require commentary, but let’s spell it out anyway. The original six (“Core Europe”) group together very closely. There are only two other countries that are part of the same cluster, Austria and Switzerland. Remarkably, the modern territories of both of these countries were encompassed by the boundaries of the Carolingian empire (see Is this the Beginning of the End for the European Union?). It looks like the “ghost” of the Charlemagne’s empire has more influence on today’s cultural values than such later distinctions as Catholicism versus Protestantism.

The current 28 members of the European Union, on the other hand, don’t cluster at all. On the contrary, they span three-quarters of world variation in values. Only African-Islamic countries and central America end up outside the ellipse that encompasses all 28 EU members.

Given such normative mismatch, is it so surprising that the European Union in its current composition is a dysfunctional organization?

This post was originally published in Cliodynamica 


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Cultural diversity database D-PLACE officially launches

Researchers interested in cultural evolution often highlight the importance of taking cultural diversity seriously. Human cultural systems are quite diverse, they note, but much research suffers from a chronic form of tunnel vision. Without a comprehensive map of cultural diversity, researchers are likely to make false inferences from relatively homogenous sampling pools. We can’t see the forest for the trees. Joe Heinrich and collaborators made this case plain in the context of psychological research when they found that much of our knowledge of human psychology was limited by the fact that scholars relied heavily on the study of WEIRD college students (that is, people who are Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic). A broad and representative sampling frame is important. To know where we’re going, we need a good map.

Scholars have been slow to piece together a comprehensive map of cultural diversity, however, because much of the relevant data on cultural systems is dispersed across thousands of individual ethnographies, historiographies and case studies. While detailed accounts of an individual cultural group can give researchers insights into what is particular and unique about that group, researchers interested in making general and reliable statements about the incidence, distribution, and causes of cultural variation need to pull together vast amounts of data cultural systems from around the globe.

This week a team of researchers has announced the creation of what promises to be a powerful new tool for the analysis of cultural diversity. It has the potential to help researchers piece together a map of cultural systems to explore new theories and topics in unprecedented detail. The project team members took to PLOS-ONE to announce their plans. The authors, led by Dr. Kathryn Kirby, postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Geography at the University of Toronto, put together a large, interdisciplinary team to bring us D-PLACE: the Database of Places, Languages, Culture and Environment. D-PLACE provides a massive, open-access store of information on cultural practices, geography, and environment covering over 1,400 pre-industrial societies. The data in D-PLACE are drawn from two cross-cultural databases: the Ethnographic Atlas and the Binford Hunter-Gatherer Dataset. The attractive new project site can be found here.

While Seshat: Global History Databank collects information on a host of topics concerning historical societies from pre-history to the 19th century, D-PLACE focuses only on information gathered by ethnographers on pre-industrial societies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Seshat includes many variables beyond the scale of cultural studies, including warfare and military technology, ritual practices, population and polity size. The way that cultural norms and practices evolve over time is a key component to many of the theories we are exploring at Seshat, from the rise and decline of large territorial states, to the institutions that underpin economic growth, to the spread of religious systems. D-PLACE provides a new and useful compendium of observations about fairly recent cultural developments; an important complement to the sort of work we are doing.

D-PLACE’s database lets users compare up to four variables for different societies at the same time. Variables are location, environment (for example, average rainfall and temperature), culture (anything from labour practices to economic activities to social structure to games played in the society), and language family. The downloadable results are available in various formats including maps, trees, and tables.

The data can be used on a few different levels. In its simplest form, the database was built as a tool for exploration for everyone from scholars to young students to members of the public. Here is a map search for different types of games played in societies in China:

dpace 1

Then, when two or more variables are in play, the database becomes predictive. Researchers are able to use two or more variables to create associations. For example, we created a two variable model comparing occupational complexity and community structures in the United States.

dplace 2

The database also allows users to map cultural features onto language classifications or phylogenies. This data can be analyzed using four different types of evolutionary analysis: ancestral state reconstruction, cultural transformation analysis, correlated evolution, and analyses of the tempo of evolution.

Source: PLOS ONE

Source: PLOS ONE

In these ways, D-PLACE offers a useful method for the analyses of cultural studies and human diversity in a specific period in time.

D-PLACE is a joint collaboration between researchers from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human history in Jena Germany, University of Auckland, Colorado State University, University of Toronto, University of Bristol, Yale, Human Relations Area Files, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, American Museum of Natural History, and City University of New York.

Although limited by its narrow temporal scope and its reliance on only two cross-cultural datasets, this open-source and user-friendly database is likely to grow into an increasingly useful resource for accessing and analyzing information on cultural practices around the globe. The information offered can be utilized by other projects, like Seshat, to create very large, comprehensive historical datasets leading to better, more powerful analyses. Hopefully, we will continue to see D-PLACE and more resources like it continue to grow in the future, opening up opportunities for data-intensive research into cultural diversity.

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Network science can be used to illuminate the laws of history

A visualization of network science. Source: Wikipedia

A visualization of network science. Source: Wikipedia

Austrian Academy of Science computational historian and Seshat contributor Johannes Preiser-Kapeller was recently interviewed by Technology Review on the use of network science in historical research.

Network science can help us understand processes of very different natures that share the same network structure (the way that nodes are connected by links). Examples include the spread of disease and the size of forest fires. Network approaches have been used in fields like biology, computing, and telecommunications.

In a novel development, network science was applied to history as well. Dr. Preiser-Kapeller has reconstructed political networks in the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century and recorded how networks changed over time. His nodes and connections trace the connections between important political actors and details gleaned from their correspondence. When the political network fragmented, a civil war broke out that facilitated the empire’s collapse in 1453.

The fall of Constantinople. Painting by Theophilos Hatzimihail. Source: Wikipedia

The fall of Constantinople. Painting by Theophilos Hatzimihail. Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Preiser-Kapeller then compared the patterns he found in the Byzantine Empire to other periods of medieval conflict in Europe, Africa, and Asia. He found that an executive power transfer (or upheaval) was more likely in all periods when one of these power transfers occurred the previous year.

Read more on the laws of history and Dr. Preiser-Kapeller’s work in computational history here.


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Garbage in? How we can improve the quality of historical data

The spatial coverage of points representing all cities included in the final dataset of Reba et al. 2016. Source: Yale

The spatial coverage of points representing all cities included in the final dataset of Reba et al. 2016. Source: Yale

A week ago the urban archaeologist Mike Smith wrote a scathing post about a new article in’s journal Scientific Data. In the article, Meredith Reba and coworkers report on how they “spatialized” the dataset on urban settlements, based on previous publications by Tertius Chandler and George Modelski. As Smith writes in his blog, “The data in both Chandler and Modelski are a mess, routinely dismissed by urban demographic historians as worthless for serious scholarship.” The title of his blog post asks, “Why would a journal called ‘Scientific Data’ publish bad data?”

With all due respect (and it’s not an empty phrase, I know Mike and greatly respect his work and scholarship), his negative critique is unfair and counterproductive.

It’s unfair because Reba et al. have made an important addition to the Chandler and Modelski data by “spatializing” it. In other words, they added geographic coordinates to urban settlements in the Chandler/Modelski datasets. They also did it in a thoughtful and scholarly manner. Read their paper to see how much care they took with locating the cities on the map. As they write in the abstract, “The dataset creation process also required data cleaning and harmonization procedures to make the data internally consistent. Additionally, we created a reliability ranking for each geocoded location to assess the geographic uncertainty of each data point.”

Mike Smith doesn’t criticize them for doing a poor job of locating the urban settlements on the map. His problem is with the estimates that Chandler and Modelski make about the population sizes of these settlements. But developing better population estimates for cities is something that can be done independently of their geographic location. Reba et al have added to our knowledge of historical cities, by giving them spatial coordinates. They incremented our knowledge. It’s up to urban archaeologists and historians to improve the estimates of settlements’ population sizes.

Unfortunately, these specialists are not eager to increment our knowledge. Here’s what Mike Smith writes in his blog:

I have to admit that I really despair of this situation. I am very upset that such obviously poor data are being used by otherwise rigorous scholars, and I am upset that I don’t have better data. I have talked to quite a few colleagues—archaeologists and ancient historians—about this situation. I have asked if any of them were involved in assembling reliable and accurate data on ancient city sizes in their region of specialty, and the answer has been negative. I have asked if they knew of anyone doing systematic urban demographic history in their region, and again the answer is no. In my own region, Mesoamerica, there was a flurry of demographic work on city size in the 1980s, but then scholars lost interest. I have asked if anyone might be interested in mounting such a systematic comparative project, again with a negative answer.

The upshot for someone, who wants to do analyses, is: you can’t use the Chandler/Modelski data, and we have nothing better for you to use.

I don’t buy this council of despair. In any case, just how bad are the Chandler/Modelski data? Are their estimates off by 50%, by a factor of 2, or even 3? In many analyses, in which we consider settlements ranging in size from 100s to 1,000,000s – that’s four orders of magnitude – a mere factor of 2 is not that much of an error. So scholars argue about whether the population of Rome in the first century BCE was 0.5 or 1 million. After you have log-transformed these numbers, it’s not going to have that much difference on the global cross-cultural analysis that includes the whole spectrum of settlement sized across the last 10,000 years.

This is not to say that I endorse Chandler/Modelski conceptual approach. In the Seshat project we use a much more sophisticated one. First, we don’t simply provide a “point estimate”, e.g. 1,000,000. If there is a significant degree of uncertainty, our research assistants are instructed to code it with a range. It can be, for example, [500,000—2,000,000] and that’s fine—this is useful datum. Second, when experts disagree, we include both (or more) rival estimates. Finally, these estimates are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We also include explanations of where they come from. Eventually we are going to connect to more detailed archaeological databases that provide the solid scientific basis for these estimates. See my post on the Anatomy of a Seshat Fact.

So what the Seshat project offers is an evolutionary way forward that avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of either bad data or despair.

Between Scylla and Charybdis. Source: Flickr

Between Scylla and Charybdis. Source: Flickr

This is how science works. It’s cumulative. We start with naïve ideas, bad approximations, and wrong theories. Then, by applying the scientific method we get progressively better ideas, more accurate approximations, and logically sounds and well-tested theories. So let’s abandon negativism, roll up our sleeves, and get to work!

This post was originally published on Cliodynamica 

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Why is political turbulence rising in America? An interview with Peter Turchin

elite overproduction

Gaius Gracchus addressing the Plebeians. Source: Wikipedia

The patterns of history can provide important clues for future political turmoil and the potential collapse of an empire. Seshat principal investigator Peter Turchin recently spoke to the IB Times about elite overproduction in the United States and what it means for the current political landscape. Elite overproduction is a phenomenon in which rapidly growing numbers of elite aspirants compete for a limited number of power positions. Turchin told IB Times that elite overproduction contributed to the collapse of the Roman Republic, and the American Civil War. It is now happening again today in the United States.

Clear signs of elite overproduction include a rise in the number of politically active millionaires and billionaires. Donald Trump’s candidacy, therefore, “fits like a glove to the predictions of the theory,” said Turchin. Turchin’s model shows that “absolute immiseration” is another signal of troubles to come. The gap between the classes widens and a larger number of people fall to the bottom. Thus we have seen that Bernie Sander’s candidacy, which resonates with the frustrations of non-elites, did surprisingly well against the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Will we see a full-blown crisis in the next ten years? Read Turchin’s full interview in IB Times. For his predictions, made in 2010, see the article in Nature. And find more information on Turchin’s blog Cliodynamica.

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Trinity College Dublin welcomes the Seshat team: 3 days of meetings at Ireland’s oldest university

Members of the Seshat project had a busy and productive few days in Dublin, Ireland this past week. The 2nd Computational History and Digital Humanities Workshop was held on May 25 at Trinity College Dublin. The workshop was followed by a two-day meeting of members of the Seshat project. Seshat and ALIGNED research assistant Odhran Gavin wrote a blog post for the ALIGNED project’s website on the workshop and the Seshat meeting that followed. To find out what was discussed at both workshops, check out his post here.

Trinity College Dublin The 2nd Computational History and Digital Humanities Workshop. Source: ALIGNED t

The 2nd Computational History and Digital Humanities Workshop. Source: ALIGNED

Trinity College Dublin Seshat Workshop. Source: ALIGNED

Seshat Workshop. Source: ALIGNED

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Reconstructing the Past: the “Prince of the Lilies” and the “Minoan Peace”

Over the previous weekend the Seshat project ran a workshop on Cretan history and archaeology. We met in the Villa Ariadne, which the first excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, built for himself right next to the great Minoan Palace at Knossos. Several times during the workshop the discussion among the experts and Seshat people delved into a very difficult subject: how do we use archaeological data to make inferences about past societies? In this post I thought I would explore this issue a bit, using two examples from Sir Arthur’s work.

The first one is the famous Prince of the Lilies fresco, which was supposedly found by Sir Arthur in Knossos:

The “Prince of the Lilies” exhibited on one of the buildings in the Knossos archaeological site (all photographs in this post by the author)

The “Prince of the Lilies” exhibited on one of the buildings in the Knossos archaeological site (all photographs in this post by the author)

In fact, this famous fresco is, essentially, a 100% fabrication. In the Heraklion Archaeological Museum one can see how it was arrived at:

The “Prince of Lilies” at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The “Prince of Lilies” at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum

It’s actually a pastiche that includes three elements from what were probably three separate frescoes: a headdress, a torso, and a leg. All the connecting parts were drawn by Evans. Here is the close up of the headdress bit:


The face is the twentieth century drawing, and Sir Evans didn’t get it right, because, as one of the archaeologists noted during our tour of Knossos, Minoan men didn’t wear their hair in this style. The headdress might not even come from a human, but from a mythical creature like a sphynx.

Now, although the Prince of the Lilies is a complete fabrication, it’s a relatively harmless one. And even, on balance, it may do some good. Surely, this fanciful image has increased the enjoyment of the site for the 99 percent of visitors to Knossos, who don’t know anything about the Minoans, nor care too much about them.

The second reconstruction is more consequential: the “Minoan Peace” (Pax Minoica). Sir Arthur assumed that there was little, if any, war on Crete during the Minoan period. Apparently, even though this idea was challenged subsequently, the majority of archaeologists continue to accept it in one or another form.

But one can accept the Minoan Peace only by ignoring copious and varied evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion.

First, the so-called Minoan “palaces”, which should properly be called fortresses, were located on the tops of hills. Living on a hill top is really inconvenient (if you have no modern transport), because you have a long way to travel to your fields and you have to climb up a steep slope after a hard day’s work. Usually, people prefer not to expend so much effort, unless there is a compelling reason to do so. This compelling reason is security.

The defensive advantages of these hilltop locations were especially apparent on our visit to one of the other great Minoan centers at Phaistos, which, unlike Knossos, is not surrounded by a town.

The hill of Phaistos. The palace ruins are just behind the summit.

The hill of Phaistos. The palace ruins are just behind the summit.


The archaeological site of Phaistos. The hill-top palace dominated the agricultural fields surrounding the hill on which it was built.

The archaeological site of Phaistos. The hill-top palace dominated the agricultural fields surrounding the hill on which it was built.

There is a very strong macrohistorical pattern: people enjoying a secure environment tend to build villages and towns in the lowlands. When threatened, they move them to the hilltops (if there are hills, otherwise they move to river islands, into the marshes, or build walls, stockades, and dig ditches and moats). This is the pattern we see from Peru to Italy. After the Roman Empire fell, and the Pax Romana with it, Italians moved up to the hilltop villages, like San Gimignano, that we enjoy visiting so much today.

On Crete, we see the same pattern: the Minoan palace of Gortyn was built on a hill, but when Gortyn became the capital of Crete during Roman times, the town was moved down to the plain.

Second, we know that Minoan towns were periodically destroyed and burned down. You can still see the evidence of this today:


The black coloration of this limestone slab in Knossos is soot, resulting from a fire that destroyed the palace. Minoan palaces were all destroyed at least twice, in 1700 BCE and again 1450 BCE.

Third, there are hundreds of weapons, like swords and rapiers, exhibited in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which is clearly only a small fraction of those excavated, and those are a small fraction of the weapons used during the Bronze Age. A rapier is only good for one thing: stabbing people.


Other signs of unsettled times include hoards, like this one:


and extensive storage magazines with huge jars:


Traditionally, these storage facilities were interpreted as signs of a redistributive palatial economy. But why would you establish a storage depot on a hill top? Furthermore, a quick calculation shows that this storage couldn’t be used to address the needs of the general population.

There were roughly 400 jars each with 5 hektoliters of volume. That’s 2,000 hektoliters. Assuming they stored grain, oil, and wine, that’s not even enough for 1,000 annual rations (a person needs 2-3 hektoliters of just grain to survive). That’s not enough to feed the town of Knossos, which covered 70 ha and had an estimated population of 20,000 – 30,000.

This food (if food it was, we don’t know for certain) could have been used for feasts. However, historical analogies suggest that food stored in fortresses was usually meant as emergency supply in case of siege. This is just a suggestion, but such a use would fit well with other evidence of warfare from the area.

Although I have been beating up on Sir Arthur in this post, I actually sympathize with his position. He clearly loved the Minoan culture and wanted to think the best of it. And I also want human cultures to be peaceful. But we cannot get to the point where we will understand how to abolish wars by ignoring evidence of past warfare.

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The link between ant agriculture and early social complexity

Farming was invented independently by ancient humans at least nine times in different regions throughout the globe. The invention of farming is linked by experts to the evolution of early social complexity. Here is a visualization of the original ancient centers of agriculture production:

Millions of years before the first humans began farming, ants had already mastered their own version.

Leafcutter ants use leaves to farm fungus that they then consume. In many ways, the processes of leafcutter ants resemble human farming. While several types of ants farm fungus, leafcutter ants have some of the most complex societies in nature, with colonies of millions of ants. The farming of fungus allowed leafcutter ants to evolve and maintain huge, complex populations—an interesting analogy for the evolution of human civilization.

Modern diversified human agriculture does not resemble the one-crop subsistence version practiced by ants. However, some researchers believe that the effects of ant agriculture on colony size and complexity could be used to better understand these same dynamics in humans. Seshat editor, Lawrence University professor, and Santa Fe Institute researcher Dr. Peter Peregrine founded the group Convergent Evolution of Agriculture in Insects and Humans in 2014. The academic organization studies the evolution, practices, and social effects of farming.

leafcutter ants

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Peregrine’s work was recently featured on science website “If you can hit upon an adaptation that’s a really good one, like agriculture, then you’re apparently tremendously successful [as a species],” Dr. Peregrine told the website. Early agricultural areas like China’s Middle Yellow River Valley and the Fertile Crescent in modern-day Iraq soon became the largest, most complex societies in the ancient world.

Dr. Peregrine hopes that studying ant agriculture will lead to important insights on how to improve our farming methods and technology.

Citations (Map):

Bower, John. 1991. The Pastoral Neolithic of East Africa. Journal of World Prehistory, 5(1): 49-82.

Boyd, Melanie. 2014. “The different paths of the Neolithic revolution in Egypt and Sudan.” The Collegiate Journal of Anthropology, 2.

Choi, Charles. 2015. “Ancient Amazon Rainforest Was Once Used for Agriculture.” Live Science. Retrieved May 11, 2016.

Coe, Michael; Koontz, Rex. 2013. Mexico: From the Olemcs to the Aztecs. Thames & Hudson.

Diamond, Jared. 2002. “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication.” Nature, 418, 700-707. doi: 10.1038/nature01019

Hansen, Valerie; Curtis, Kenneth. 2008. Voyages in World History. Cengage Learning.

Neumann, Katharina. 1999. Early Plant Food Production in the West African Sahel. in ed. van der Veen, Marijike. The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa. Springer US. 73–80.

Roach, John. 2003. “Was Papua New Guinea an Early Agriculture Pioneer?” National Geographic News. Retrieved May 11, 2016.

Seshat: Global History Databank, 2016. Retrieved May 11, 2016.

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Seshat contributors teach Academy Award winning actor about the origins of religion

In National Geographic’s The Story of God, host Morgan Freeman travels to Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic proto-city settlement in Anatolia, Turkey to investigate whether early farming civilizations believed in God. At the Çatalhöyük site, Freeman interviews two members of the Seshat: Global History Databank team, founding editor and University of Oxford anthropologist Prof. Harvey Whitehouse and expert contributor and University of Oxford archaeologist Prof. Amy Bogaard.”

Dr. Bogaard points out burial pits uncovered under the ancient homes, a crucial ritual practice which allowed residents to share their dwellings with their ancestors. Dr. Whitehouse describes rituals in which ancestor remains are removed and later replaced carefully. “It’s almost as if this isn’t just a domestic dwelling, this is like a kind of living temple,” he tells Freeman.

Freeman concludes that the evidence for community ritual practices in Çatalhöyük is not necessarily evidence for belief in God.

Watch an extended clip of the scene here.


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“Once upon a time”: when did works of fiction appear around the world? Interrogating Seshat to make global historical comparisons.

Stories have seemingly always inspired people — examples such as the epic of Gilgamesh, 13th century Icelandic sagas, or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey show us their apparently ubiquitous character. To what extent is storytelling a core part of the human experience?

“If we begin to look at the emergence of written fiction in a comparative perspective, interesting research questions pop up: for instance, could we entertain the possibility of  fiction being one of the ‘human universals’ (while recognising the  particularity of local contexts?).” Within anthropological thinking, debates have raged between proponents of ‘universality’, of a ‘shared human grammar’ such as Lévi-Strauss, and advocates of individual local historical trajectories such as Boas. As an archaeologist, I consider context to be key in understanding past human actions. Because of the way we are trained, historians and archaeologists tend to specialise regionally and gain in-depth expertise of a distinct area or period. Context is needed to understand the emergence of idiosyncrasies as well as their relevance and impact. However, there is much to be learned from making comparisons across time and space: what are the conditions that surround the emergence of a specific human characteristic? Are there even necessary conditions without which a given characteristic could not develop, or sufficient conditions that guarantee its existence? Is there a ‘typical’ trajectory that can be observed in several times and places leading to the emergence of such characteristics?  Theories about human development can also be tested against empirical data, and go beyond the case studies or cherry-picked examples usually proposed by scholars when offering new explanations for the emergence of social complexity.

One of the main strengths of the SESHAT dabatank is that Seshat facts come with context since they are situated within dedicated pages focusing on discrete historical geopolitical formations. Besides, the way they are coded allows for more than information about presence or absence but also specific empirical measurements and explanatory paragraphs (for more details see “The Anatomy of a Seshat Fact” ); To complement this context-rich approach, the structure of the database also enables us to compare variables easily across time and space. Thus, we can gain easy access to a breadth of data without losing the nuance needed to understand how certain traits evolved in particular localities with particular histories.

Fiction writing appears to be one of these ‘universals’ that can be witnessed at different times around the world. Using Seshat, we can trace when stories started to be transcribed. Although writing existed in Egypt since the Naqada III period (3300-3200 BCE), the first attested examples of fictional tales are found in the Middle Kingdom (2016-1700 BCE), around the time that the great Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh appeared in Mesopotamia. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor recounts the tale of a man returning to his king after a sea voyage in which he encountered a talking serpent who gave him precious gifts. Traveling stories seem to be popular in this period, and the Tale of Sinuhe describes a man’s exile to the East and his adventures there before his eventual return to Egypt. Many more tales exist in the Middle Kingdom, including ‘wisdom literature’ and biographies, and it seems that a significant number of them were written in verse.

The first page of the Shijing or Book of Odes, copied by the Qianlong Emperor of China's Qing Dynasty in the 18th century CE. Source:

The first page of the Shijing or Book of Odes, copied by the Qianlong Emperor of China’s Qing Dynasty in the 18th century CE. Source:

Fiction and verse go hand in hand in these Eastern Mediterranean examples, but the Western Zhou of China (1040-771 BCE) offer a prime example of non-epic poetry, concerned with lyricism rather than narrating an epic. The Shijing, or Book of Odes, started to be compiled in the 11th century BCE and songs and poems kept on being added until the 7th century BCE. It has retained extreme cultural significance, being regarded as one of the canonical texts of Confucianism.

In India, epics and poetry also developed, albeit a few centuries after the Vedas, which are symbolic and religious texts. Two epics were completed during Ashoka’s reign, in the 3rd century BCE: while the Mahabarata spins tales of divine wars, the Ramayana focuses on the trials of one man, Rama.

Some of the world’s first novels emerged in Greece, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, a pastoral tale written in the 2nd century CE. Outside the Greco-Roman world, one of the earliest examples of a ‘modern’ novel, written primarily in prose and concerned with the development of its main character, would be the Tale of Genji, written by noblewoman Murasaki Shipibu in 11th century CE Japan. This account of the times and life of a Heian courtier does include poetical excerpts, but pertains to a genre which focuses on the lives of individuals rather than epic deeds and is still considered a classic today. Again, writing appeared in Japan early in the 5th century CE, but was not used for fictional prose until a few hundred years later.

Scenes from three chapters of the Tale of Genji, illustrated in the 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Scenes from three chapters of the Tale of Genji, illustrated in the 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Gathering such data highlights gaps in our knowledge: for instance, why do some societies with an abundance of written records have no known examples of fictional texts? Of course, the loss of evidence is a very likely scenario, especially as some of these societies are primarily known from an archaeological perspective, with the preservation problems that this entails. However, other interesting questions could be raised. As we see in most of these cases, there is a discrepancy between when writing first emerged and the appearance of fiction. For instance, there is no evidence yet that Old Kingdom Egyptians recorded fictional stories. Perhaps one of the earliest applications of writing was economic recordkeeping, and it only became considered a suitable format for stories later, moving from the spoken to the written word. Maybe stories were first confined to the private sphere before being recorded by scribes in a more formalised setting.  This harks back to the question of where fiction comes from: did it develop independently or did it go hand in hand with the diffusion of writing?

Fiction emanates from the creative use of an already existing medium, in this case writing, to convey well-known oral stories: could this idea also diffuse? Writing seems to have emerged independently in several areas of the world, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India and Mesoamerica, before spreading across the globe. Fiction, as we have seen, developed much later than writing in areas such as Egypt or India, and did so in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Sometimes writing only appeared through exposure to new religions, but fiction did not automatically follow.  Norwegian missionaries were sent to Iceland and the catholic religion was rapidly implanted in the 11th century CE. From the 12th and especially the 13th century, Icelanders began to write sagas such as the Eyrbyggja saga. It does seem that even when writing appears through diffusion, the idea to write down stories could be a later development, which may have stemmed from individual initiative.

The fact that fictional works of prose seem to have evolved independently in the areas that we have briefly touched upon tells us a lot about the human propensity to weave tales and record them so that they may endure through time. Hence, perhaps it is indeed an intrinsic human quality, with various speeds of adaptation to the relatively new technique that was writing. This technique did not come as a neat package, but was creatively used depending on the local context.

As the Seshat databank grows, we hope to code more Natural Geographic Areas  and doubtlessly our views on this question will change as more data comes to reinforce or disprove these ideas. It will be particularly interesting to get insights from Central America, an area that was completely disconnected from the rest of the world before the conquest but where fictional tales such as the Maya myth of the Hero Twins appeared. A similar approach can be conducted on many other variables, not just fiction. Seshat, hence, proves to be a formidable analytic tool, which can examine fundamental questions about humans across a variety of regional and temporal specialisations through a new lens.


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ALIGNED receives Cliodynamics funding from the Irish Research Council


ALIGNED has received funding from the Irish Research Council to help build the Cliodynamics research network.

ALIGNED received an award from the Irish Research Council’s New Foundations scheme for “Cliodynamics Research Network Ireland II”. This award will support the building of an international interdisciplinary network of researchers who are interested in Cliodynamics – the study of historical dynamics through data-driven history and mathematical modelling. It will bring together researchers of all stripes to drive further development and research in this area – computer scientists, archaeologists, social scientists, archivists, and historians.

This post was originally published on ALIGNED’s website


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Victor Mair explains the linguistic origins of Archaic Chinese weapon terms

Ming arrows

Ming dynasty “divine” arrows. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Seshat expert contributor and University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Mair recently published his fifth post in a series on reconstructing Old Sinitic (Archaic Chinese) terms for weapons. The posts are available on UPenn’s Language Log linguistics blog. Mair explores various themes in the series, including the Chinese translation of the term “Excalibur” and the origin of the term for axe. These interesting posts show how a close scrutiny of how a language develops a terminology and sign systems for different artifacts over time– such as the important military technologies Mair talks about here – reflects the artifacts’ origins and various uses over time.The most recent post, on the Tocharian roots of the ancient Chinese word for arrow (箭), is available here: Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions part 5.

Previous posts in the series:

Of previous swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions

Of previous swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions part 2

Of previous swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions part 3

Of previous swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions part 4


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Shared suffering, not religious dogma, may be the real cause of suicide attacks, argues Whitehouse

The shared suffering and conflict of children by a large tank in Misrata Libya 2011

Conflict in Misrata, Libya 2011 (credit: Harvey Whitehouse)

Prof Harvey Whitehouse, a Seshat Founding Editor at the University of Oxford, questions the widely held belief that extreme forms of sacrifice such as martyrdom are a consequence of a virulent religious dogmatism. Citing new anthropological evidence from around the globe, Whitehouse contends in his recent article in the Pacific Standard that extreme Islamist teachings may not be sufficient to motivate acts of terrorism.

Instead, argues Whitehouse, every human being contains the potential for violent self-sacrifice. Experimental psychological evidence suggests that we humans have a powerful drive to save the members of our group. Bonding between individuals through group-building behaviors like painful rituals or a sense that others have suffered as we have suffered produce a strong desire to protect members of the group. When the group is threatened, we feel threatened, potentially motivating extreme forms of pro-group action. This effect is so strong that our affinity to protect our social group sometimes supersedes the bonds of family. Read Prof Harvey Whitehouse’s article in the Pacific Standard to learn more.

Whitehouse suggests that shared suffering is the real cause of extreme self-sacrifice

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The Anatomy of a Seshat Fact

This week I gave a talk at the workshop, organized by Chris Chase-Dunn and Hiroko Inoue at the University of California in Riverside. The talk was about the current status of Seshat: Global History Databank. As I was preparing the talk, I read an article in the Atlantic about digital archaeology, Archaeology’s Information Revolution. Among other things, the article discussed a huge database of Biblical-era pottery, led by Thomas Levy, an archaeologist at the University of California, San Diego.

“We’re collecting billions of those data points,” Levy told Adrienne Lafrance, the author of the story. Later Lafrance writes,

It’s mind-boggling to think of the amount of data now flowing into the annals of archaeology. But the same thing that makes all this data useful—the sheer volume of information—presents difficult new challenges. Archaeologists aren’t yet sure about the best way to preserve these datasets, and they don’t know how, and in what format, they should be shared across networks.

After reading this article I went back to putting together my talk. One slide in it reported on where we are in Seshat—we are coding roughly 1500 variables for over 400 polities (a polity is an independent political unit, which includes not only states and empires, but also city-states, chiefdoms, and even politically independent villages). As those of you who follow Seshat on Twitter know, we currently have over 115,000 coded data points. This is a truly massive amount of data.

But as I finished this summary slide, I thought, will my colleagues be impressed by the scale of Seshat? After all, what are a mere 100,000 data points compared to billions and billions of data that digital archaeologists and digital historians deal with. The Atlantic article mentioned another data project by Sarah Parcak, a “space archaeologist” (I love that moniker), who analyzes satellite imagery of Earth to find unknown archaeological sites. Who knows how many gigabytes, terabytes, or perhaps even petabytes of information she deals with every day?

But as the Atlantic article makes it very clear, there is a big difference between those billions of data and the data in Seshat. What we have in Seshat is really not data, but facts, each being a complex of curated information. Let me illustrate this with one such fact. I will use the coded value of one particular variable, population of the largest settlement, for a particular polity, New Kingdom of Egypt in the Ramesside period. The bare fact looks like this:

♠ Population of the largest settlement ♣ [250,000-300,000] ♥

The square brackets indicate that the precise value for this variable lies somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 people. In other words, Seshat “knows” not only how big this city was, but also that there is some uncertainty about this estimate, and what are the limits of this uncertainty. In addition, Seshat can record when there is not only uncertainty, but disagreement among experts. For example, there are two schools on what was the population of Italy under the first Roman emperor, Augustus. These estimates differ by a a factor of three. Seshat takes note of such disagreements.

And this is not all. Seshat also knows which city we are talking about—it’s Pi-Ramesses, which was located in the eastern delta of the Nile. There is a descriptive paragraph following the numerical estimate, which explains where it comes from:

“the later Ramesside period marked a new era, when Pi-Ramesses, in the eastern Delta, became the main capital of the kingdom. The Austrian excavations are gradually revealing the huge dimensions and complexity of this metropolis of about 18km2 and 250,000–300,000 dwellers.” [68]

Pi-Ramesses within Egypt. Source: Wikipedia

Pi-Ramesses within Egypt. Source: Wikipedia

This paragraph is a quote from the reference [68], which a Seshat research assistant located in the process of searching information about New Kingdom. The RA also found another article, which reported the results of excavations of Pi-Ramesses, and there is a link to the article, which maps Pi-Ramesses topography and reports the extent of the city in hectares.

Today the link is simply the citation of the article. But in not too distant future, we will have a live link that you could follow to an archaeological database and view the excavation map and many other things we know about this city.

Finally, there is additional information coming from expert historians. Eventually all facts in Seshat will be vetted by at least one academic historian or archaeologist, who is an expert on the coded society. In this case, the population estimate of Pi-Ramesses was discussed in a workshop we ran a year and a half ago in Oxford, which brought together five world-famous experts on Ancient Egypt, so our degree of confidence in this information is quite high.

The ruins of a Ramses II statue at Pi-Ramesses. Source: Wikipedia

The ruins of a Ramses II statue at Pi-Ramesses. Source: Wikipedia

This is what I mean by the difference between a fact and a mere “datum” (a singular of data).

So I think you can see now that 115,000 such facts is, indeed, a very impressive number.

I am currently analyzing the variables in Seshat related to social complexity of past societies, and I will soon blog about these preliminary results. And that’s another huge advantage of structured data in Seshat: we are using them to test theories about historical dynamics and cultural evolution. In contrast, the mind-boggling amount of data flowing into archaeological databases is precisely that—mind-boggling. The sheer volume actually makes them very hard to use. It’s akin to drinking from the firehose.


Source: Public Domain

Not a terribly convenient way to slake your thirst. Whereas Seshat is like bottled water: a much smaller volume, but infinitely more useful for understanding the cultural evolution of past societies.

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

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Forget memes. You should be studying cultural evolution

Alex Mesoudi meme style image with text

Internet memes abound. Those active on social media will see dozens if not hundreds of them a day. The funniest internet memes are shared widely and old memes are often dusted off and adapted to new situations to take on a life of their own. Facebook and Twitter are currently overflowing with Donald Trump memes. Trump memes are so popular that an entire website has been created to generate them! I’ll resist the urge to join in. Instead, here’s a new meme from me using a quote from Alex Mesoudi, a professor of cultural evolution at the University of Exeter:

Behind the quick laugh caused by internet meme, there is a profound lesson to be learned about what makes us human—we are the ultimate knowledge sharers. Two of the things that make our species special is our collective intelligence and our cumulative culture. Our intelligence is collective because we live in large social networks. From avoiding the misery of boredom and isolation to solving complex problems, we actively seek to learn from others in important ways. Our culture is cumulative because we are born into highly constructed environments full of amazing gadgets like language and literacy. Without language, our entire species would be plunged into a perpetual and horrifying version of charades. We didn’t create these things, we inherited them. More precisely, we learned them. We accumulated whole swathes of cultural packages from our ancestors and the large, collective intelligence of their communities. Everything from fire-making and food processing techniques like baking and milling to hunting techniques, religious rituals, military technologies, and gender roles is a product of cultural evolution. These cultural gadgets were modified and refined over many generations to provide some of our most powerful tools for success in our natural and social environments.

What makes humans so different from other animals is our collective intelligence and our cumulative culture, not our uniformly superior intelligence. In fact, we’re not that smart. As Joe Henrich points out in his recent and excellent book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, when compared with chimpanzees and orangutans, our species only clearly excels in one form of intelligence known as social intelligence. A few days ago, one of Henrich’s recent collaborators summarized this argument in this short video:

Given that collective intelligence and cumulative culture are some of our species’ most defining features, several important questions arise:

  • How should we study culture?
  • How do we come to inherit culture?
  • Can the study of culture be Darwinian?
  • What is the future of human evolution?

These four questions provided the structure of a discussion that I attended Monday night at the London School of Economics (LSE) entitled ‘Darwinism and the Social Sciences’. Addressing these questions were three professors: Exeter’s Alex Mesoudi, Cambridge’s Tim Lewens, and St. Andrew’s Christina Toren.

As one might expect about such a broad topic, the conversation between these scholars ranged widely–Lewens reflected on how he learned to cook kedgeree and Toren provided an eyebrow-raising anecdote about how one particular group’s cosmology was thought to be ‘shitted out’. Despite this range of topics, there are several central points worth summarizing. To me, three of the best quotes of the night came from philosopher of science Tim Lewens.FullSizeRender (2)

First, Lewens provided a nice background of cultural evolutionary thought, as follows [see below for transcriptions]:

Next, Lewens responded to the question, “What can we learn from our acquired knowledge of biology that we can transfer to help understand inheritance in a cultural realm?” with the following:

Lewens then discussed the analytical granularity of cultural evolutionary approaches:

As it turns out, avoiding a reference to Donald Trump is an impossible task!

Finally, Alex Mesoudi concluded by explaining his long-term commitment to interdisciplinary approaches across the social and physical sciences, an approach that is very sympathetic to the goals and orientation of Seshat: The Global History Databank.

As the questions from the audience made clear, many walked away from the event with a better understanding of why the study of cultural evolution is essential to explaining what it means to be human. Listen to the entire discussion on LSE’s website here to hear a discussion about the analytical utility of the category of “culture”, cultural evolution’s similarities with biological evolution, gene-culture coevolution, developmental systems theory, ethnocentrism, and much more.

Read the audio transcriptions from above here:

[Tim Lewens 1:16:52-1:19:02] I think it really important to be quite clear about where these cultural evolutionary theories are on their strongest ground. I think that by-and-large what they are trying to do […] is to step a very long way back and take a very high-level view of long periods of human history and start to ask very big comparative questions. Questions like, “Well, since on the face of it there are big risks to be had from learning from other people, why is it that we are able to do this at all? How come our species got to be so good at accumulating large bodies of know-how whereas others species can do it, but seem to be so much worse than we are?” And you can’t begin to ask those big questions about, roughly how we got to be so good at culture, sociality, accumulating knowledge unless you also start asking things like, “How’s a species going to change over time? What’s going to happen in a species if that species is able to learn? What are going to be the pros and the cons of those ways of learning?” So that’s why cultural evolutionary theorists need to a way of integrating culture into evolutionary models. Its in order to ask these big questions about why humans are different from other species. Now, even if cultural evolutionary theorists are really good at providing answers to those kinds of questions, “How come we got to be so good at culture in the first place?” It does not follow for a minute that they’ll also be good at saying things like, “How come we have Donald Trump?” It doesn’t follow for minute that they’ll be good at answering questions like, “How can we explain the demise of the trade union movement in the UK?” Different questions at different grains of analysis need quite different kinds of answers and cultural evolutionary models are often in the business of giving very broad grain answers to very broad grain questions and then you start asking finer grain questions they don’t do so well.

[Tim Lewens 29:09-34:37] Its not always the case that when we think about culture or evolution that one has to think about this in terms of a distinct inheritance system. I mean, I’ve already alluded to that in a way. The sense that culture is something that you can study on its own, separable from aspects of physiology and anatomy is one that you might want to problematize. Running gait, for example, is that a matter of culture or the matter of a natural trait. Its very unclear how we decide that. These issues about applying evolutionary thinking to cultural change or social change have gone back a very long time and people have thought about them in a markedly different kinds of ways. So, I mean Alex has already mentioned Darwin. If you look back to Darwin’s work on what he called the human moral sense in the Descent of Man, Darwin was very keen to give an evolutionary explanation for the ways in which we interact with each other and particularly for the ways in which we interact and conceive of each other in ethical terms, particularly interested in the ways in which we tend to sacrifice ourselves for other people even when those others are not related to us. Now, in the Descent of Man, for sure, Darwin tells a story about how it is that we come to acquire these forms of moral behavior, how those forms of moral behavior become more and more elaborated over time. But, Darwin’s story there is primarily a gradualist one. For Darwin, evolution in its most general sense is a matter of small steps taking place over very large historical periods. Its not always a matter of the action of natural selection. So when Darwin talks about the evolution of the moral sense, sometimes he is indeed he is talking about natural selection acting on individuals. Sometimes he is talking about natural selection acting on groups of humans, particularly he thinks warring against each other. But sometimes natural selection is just not a part of the story at all. Instead its about communication, brining about gradual changes in moral norms in particular societies, feedback loops as people learn what works and what doesn’t and as those things that work become more taught more broadly in the population. So, for Darwin the main way he thinks about cultural evolution is simply gradual processes, whether it involves selection or not. Of course, more recently modern theorists have done something rather different. They’ve begun to talk in the way that Alex has done. So they’ve said things like, “Well, we know that in the organic world you have organisms that vary in terms of their fitness. They can pass valuable traits onto their offspring and in that kind of way, it doesn’t matter what species your talking about, they can evolve over time”. But some people have said, “Well human culture has a similar set of features as well, so that it makes sense to talk about natural selection acting on cultural entities too. You’ve got variation because, after all, there are many many different tools on the market. Or, there are many many different beliefs on the market. Some of these tools do better at making copies of themselves than others. Or some of these beliefs do a better job of persisting into future generations than others do, depending on how attractive people find them or how useful people find them.” And so the thought goes, in that way, something like natural selection can act on cultural entities as well. Whether we are talking about skills. Whether we are talking about artifacts. Whether we are talking about ideas, beliefs systems, scientific theories, it doesn’t really matter. In every case you’ve got variation and in every case you’ve got differential survival because what was around in great supply in the 1940s may not be quite the same as what’s around in great supply right now. And bang! hey presto!, there you’ve got a full-blown theory of cultural evolution. […] I think that we should agree that in some sense there is something much like natural selection going on in the cultural domain. Where people will jump in and start causing trouble for these kinds of views is they say, “To what extent does the analogy really run close? Between what you might think about as classic genetic evolution on the one hand and these cultural processes that I’ve mentioned on the other.” And there certainly are some disanalogies. So when Darwin used to set up his kind of illustrative example of natural selection in the Origin of Species, he would often mention wolves. So, a baby wolf has two parents and all baby wolves will have two parents and any baby wolf that you like will have inherited its genes from two different parents. Now, its not so clear that we when you talk about cultural traits you can assign to them a nice neat stable number of parents in the same kind of way.

[Tim Lewens 1:16:52-1:19:02] I think it really important to be quite clear about where these cultural evolutionary theories are on their strongest ground. I think that by-and-large what they are trying to do […] is to step a very long way back and take a very high-level view of long periods of human history and start to ask very big comparative questions. Questions like, “Well, since on the face of it there are big risks to be had from learning from other people, why is it that we are able to do this at all? How come our species got to be so good at accumulating large bodies of know-how whereas others species can do it, but seem to be so much worse than we are?” And you can’t begin to ask those big questions about, roughly how we got to be so good at culture, sociality, accumulating knowledge unless you also start asking things like, “How’s a species going to change over time? What’s going to happen in a species if that species is able to learn? What are going to be the pros and the cons of those ways of learning?” So that’s why cultural evolutionary theorists need to a way of integrating culture into evolutionary models. Its in order to ask these big questions about why humans are different from other species. Now, even if cultural evolutionary theorists are really good at providing answers to those kinds of questions, “How come we got to be so good at culture in the first place?” It does not follow for a minute that they’ll also be good at saying things like, “How come we have Donald Trump?” It doesn’t follow for minute that they’ll be good at answering questions like, “How can we explain the demise of the trade union movement in the UK?” Different questions at different grains of analysis need quite different kinds of answers and cultural evolutionary models are often in the business of giving very broad grain answers to very broad grain questions and then you start asking finer grain questions they don’t do so well.

[Alex Mesoudi 1:12:03-1:13:55] Interdisciplinarity. If you’re interested in explaining historical change, then history and archaeology are the disciplines that you have to start with. My point about interdisciplinarity is that often historians and archeologists go about their history and their archaeology in a way separate to other disciplines. So my own background is in psychology. I did my undergraduate down the road at UCL. I did my PhD up in St Andrews in psychology. Then I went to work with an archaeologists over in Missouri where I was running lab experience simulating archaeological change. I was getting people to design arrow heads and copy the arrowheads. So we were trying to use principles from psychology about social learning and who people learn from. Do you learn from the most successful arrowhead maker. Do you go for the most popular arrowhead design in your group. Do you just ignore everybody else and use trial-and-error, instrumental conditioning, using these psychology ideas to try and explain, or simulate in the lab historical change. So that’s what I was trying to get at: this idea of using different, not just having lots just different disciplines all working on their own separate problems with their own separate theories, but trying to work together, Trying to cross disciplines with methods and concepts. For me, a broader evolutionary perspective kind of lends itself to that cross-disciplinary fertilizations because that;s what biologists do. They have an overarching theory of evolution. And then you’ve not palaeobiologists who study the fossil record. You’ve got lab people who study drosophila or E. coli. You’ve got field biologists and so on. They’re all each working on different bits of the picture. Whereas in the social scientists I think its completely different. People working in different silos, which I think is a shame.


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The end of her-story: close-knit fraternal networks as an evolutionary response to powerful archaic women

Author: Edward Turner

In Ultrasociety (2015) Peter Turchin memorably uses the label alpha male states to describe the first polities in history. This is, he says, because of their structural inequality with a “god-king” dominating cowering subjects; true, perhaps, but these societies weren’t literally dominated by men. Queens, priestesses and princesses held together the key palace, temple and diplomatic networks. Interestingly, after the archaic states (3000-1000 BCE) fell, the new states were networked almost entirely by men.


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A codebook view of history: reflections on working with Seshat

Author: Eva Brandl

I am a graduate student in social anthropology at the University of Oxford and have been involved with Seshat: Global History Databank as a research assistant since the summer of 2015.

Assistants conduct literature reviews, working with university collections and external databases such as the Human Relations Area Files compendium of ethnographic texts. We extract information relevant to the project and code variables for the different polities that have governed a particular geographic area over time, tracking changes in sociopolitical organization, means of communication, the built environment, warfare, ritual, and the means of production. We also add the contextual information needed to interpret a code.


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How we created an ultrasociety—six big questions answered

Author: Daniel Mullins

The U.S. Eastern Seaboard at night from the International Space Station. Source: Creative Commons

The U.S. Eastern Seaboard at night from the International Space Station. Source: Creative Commons

Professor Turchin’s Ultrasociety constructs a new theory to produce an explanatory account of human history. He explains why historical events (e.g., the fall of the Roman Empire) make sense given what we know about how and why humans cooperate and compete in groups. Ultrasociety tells us not only what occurred, but why these things happened in the first place, not the kind of historical trivia that I might use at dinner parties (‘You think your rent is sky high, let me tell you what poor families in imperial Rome’s insular had to put up with!’). For example, instead of detailing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (as so many scholars have attempted to do), Ultrasociety takes a scientific approach to create a general theory of empires, answering questions like Why did humans create empires in the first place? and How did empires stick together? and Why do they crumble so dramatically? Not limited to a particular historical period, Ultrasociety hurdles through human history with an Olympic pace.


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Book Review: “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth.”

Author: Cameron K. Murray

Professor Turchin’s new book Ultrasociety identifies the causal mechanisms hidden in the twists and turns of human civilisation by quantifying the rise and fall of empires. The book translates some of Turchin’s academic work on cliodynamics, making it accessible to the interested lay reader. What is cliodynamics? My best translation is that it is the scientific study of history that seeks to use quantification to test, eliminate and open new competing hypotheses about the evolution of human civilisation.


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From pristine state to mega-empire to People’s Republic: accounting for North China’s deep history through collaborate effort

North China Workshop, Tampa, Florida. January 15-17, 2016

Northern China stands one of the most important regions in world history. The fertile loess lands of the Middle Yellow River valley were among the world’s first regions to witness the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of complex societies; the Yangshao and Longshan cultures developed in the heart of northern China during roughly 5,000-2,000 BCE. By the end of the first millennium BCE, the small states that succeeded these early cultures had grown through nearly constant conflict into major powers.


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Gary Feinman reflects on Seshat’s North China Workshop

Author: Gary M. Feinman

The North China Workshop held by Seshat was a great pleasure to attend. It was well organized and thoughtfully run. It afforded me a chance to avoid a few days of Chicago’s winter. Yet most importantly, it was a valued opportunity to meet and deepen acquaintances with a number of highly knowledgeable colleagues in an open, small meeting format. I enjoyed the chance to listen to and get feedback from my companions in the workshop who belong to a series of different disciplines, but who share a deep interest in Chinese history.


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How to predict a revolution using the center-periphery dissonance factor

Author: Jill Levine

From Ukraine to Egypt to Venezuela, images of protest and revolution filled our streets and our screens in 2013 and 2014. The revolutionary wave was in the end quite weak, but the protests were similar in nature despite having no concrete links. Protests in Cairo, Kiev, and Bangkok led to the collapse of regimes, with military stepping in in Cairo and Bangkok. Protests also broke out in Tunis, Caracas, Istanbul-Ankara, and Sarajevo which challenged the political status-quo.


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Digital ethnography is needed to study our digital societies

Author: Daniel Mullins

The way that people behave is being radically changed by recent technological advances, and the way that we study how people behave now has to work to catch up, according to ethnographers Alan Howard and Alexander Mawyer. Their ambitious and forward-looking chapter in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2015) outlines the many ways in which technological changes are affecting the process of creating and using ethnographies as well as the objects and objectives of ethnographic inquiry. Howard and Mawyer provide four key categories in which the exciting and important area of digital ethnography can be fruitfully explored, summarized in the following graphic (click to enlarge).

Infographic summary of digital ethnography


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