Letter to Experts

Dear Colleague,

We are writing to ask you to join us in a major collaborative initiative to uncover major patterns in world history that have hitherto been impossible to identify or explain.

Beginning in 2011 an international interdisciplinary research consortium has begun to build a historical database of sociocultural evolution. This consortium, called Seshat after the Ancient Egyptian knowledge deity, is spearheaded by Professor Peter Turchin (evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut and the Evolution Institute), Professor Harvey Whitehouse (anthropologist at the University of Oxford), Dr. Pieter François (historian at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Oxford), Professor Thomas Currie (anthropologist at the University of Exeter), and Dr. Kevin Feeney (computer scientist at the Trinity College Dublin). The project is supported by the Evolution Institute and is currently funded by several large grants from the UK (ESRC), the US (John Templeton Foundation, Tricoastal Foundation), and the EU (Horizon 2020).

The database brings together data on social complexity, warfare, ritual, religion, institutions, and resources from across the globe and for the past 10,000 years, allowing systematic statistical analysis that will enable us to discover new patterns in world history and to test novel hypotheses about the evolution of social complexity.

A detailed description of our aims, methodology and the type of data we collect can be found in our methodology paper.

Please note that a coding template including the variables we are interested in can be viewed here.

Since its inception in 2011, the project has developed and matured, and a growing number of distinguished historians have agreed to help us with the data collection in their respective fields of expertise with the support of our regional and temporal editors. A list of the experts already collaborating can be found here.

Scholarly contributions are recognized both on the database website and as a formal publication. Because our database is essentially an electronic encyclopedia, we are planning to use the following form of citation that acknowledges the input of the experts (using one of our early contributors at Yale University as an example):

Manning, J.G. 2013. Egypt, Ptolemaic Kingdom (305 CE – 30 BCE): Social Complexity, Warfare and Military Technology, and Ritual Variables. SESHAT: Global History Databank (http://seshat.info/). Evolution Institute, Tampa, FL.

Additionally, we are very open to collaborating historians becoming involved in the publications resulting from the analysis of the database. All publications that make use of Seshat data follow conventional social sciences rules regarding authorship and thus use a format that distinguishes between first (or lead), second, third, etc. authors. This structure reflects the collaborative nature of the Seshat project and allows for recognition of major intellectual and time commitments by contributing experts. Generally speaking, members of the core team are responsible for taking a lead on publications that analyze the database as a whole, but experts who contributed heavily to the analyzed data can be invited as co-authors. Furthermore there is considerable scope for papers comparing a particular polity or society to a set of other polities/societies (however defined), or analyses focusing on a particular region and period (e.g., Ancient Mediterranean, Early-Modern Southeast Asia, etc.). Experts are very welcome to head an authorial team of other experts and Seshat core team members and to become lead authors of the resulting papers.

The Seshat database supports a much more rigorous, comprehensive and quantitative methodology than has been available to historians up until now. Our ultimate goal is to include in the database information about all historical societies known to historians and archaeologists, but such an ambitious goal will, of course, require many years (and will never be truly completed). Thus, our more immediate goal is to code a stratified sample of 30 geographic areas (3 in each of 10 world macroregions), going back in time as far as data allow.

Our interactions with experts can take different forms. One common format we use is arranging for an interview between an expert and a member of the project (who could be a postdoc or a research assistant). The interview is conducted by Skype or telephone. Before the interview we send to the expert (1) a document explaining our coding approach and definitions of variables, (2) a preliminary coded sheet with as much data entered by the project personnel as is possible to do by using easy-to-get sources, and (3) a list of questions highlighting gaps and uncertainties in the coding process. After the interview we will be in touch with a typed-up version of the collected data and will ask the expert to go over it for accuracy, appropriateness of references, and for any suggestions about other historians who would be able to address variables that may be outside of the expert’s area.

The data are stored in two different formats addressing different uses and audiences. Currently the data are stored in text format using the Wiki concept. In 2017 we are making a transition to an online RDF (resource description framework) database that will allow for easy querying and statistical analysis. We will use the Linked Data method to connect Seshat to other historical databases. Eventually, data collection and analysis will be moved to the RDF database, while Wiki Archive will serve as a public face of the database.

Data in Seshat are continually checked for errors and updated as more and more scholars use it so it’s not a problem if the initial data are imperfect. We can regard the database as work in progress. Once it reaches a ‘critical mass’ it will be made available to all free of charge. However, the work on it will not stop in the nearby future, so we expect to upload both amended and new data in years to come. Eventually, we expect, Seshat will become a major historical resource used for research and educational purposes.

We don’t want to change the way historiography is produced. But we do want to revolutionize our capacity to use that knowledge scientifically, by allowing us to quantify the data, observe patterns cross-culturally and over time, and test a host of hypotheses that have gained plausibility through other methods of empirical investigation (e.g. lab studies, naturalistic experiments, agent based models, etc.). Please join us in this enterprise aimed at not only analyzing but making history!

Thank you very much in advance,

The Editors