Thousands of years ago, humans lived in predominantly small-scale societies, interacting with few other communities at most a few hundred kilometers away; today, we live primarily in large states with hundreds of millions, exchanging goods and information globally with often anonymous individuals that we may never interact with more than once. What drove this enormous expansion of trade networks, their periodic contractions, and what have been the consequences for economic and social development and interstate conflict? How have negative side-effects been mitigated in the past, and how can we manage the continuing expansion of global exchange in the future?
We formed a multidisciplinary research group to being exploring these critical questions. Our goal is to curate a unique, large-scale historical dataset on exchange networks and the institutions and cultural practices that support them. This exciting work will create the first dataset of its type. Moreover, while the literature has recorded case studies and advanced a few hypotheses (e.g., on the role of contracts, or specific institutions like record-keeping or money), it lacks systematic evaluation of drivers and consequences of changes in exchange networks. Utilizing methods developed by the Seshat Databank, our novel dataset will allow us for the first time to systematically test hypotheses on the policies and institutions supporting trade expansion or leading to its contraction – and their impact on social functioning. Thus, our project will create a major new resource for the study of cultural evolution and the evolution of exchange networks, and will answer key questions about our shared past and our potential future.