Earthquakes → progress?

By Razib Khan | August 27, 2008 3:22 pm

Tectonic environments of ancient civilizations in the eastern hemisphere:

The map distribution of ancient civilizations shows a remarkable correspondence with tectonic boundaries related to the southern margin of the Eurasian plate. Quantification of this observation shows that the association is indeed significant, and both historical records and archaeoseismological work show that these civilizations commonly suffered earthquake damage. Close association of ancient civilizations with tectonic activity seems to be a pattern of some kind. In the hope that dividing the civilizations into subsets might clarify the meaning of this relation, primary and derivative civilizations were compared. Derivative civilizations prove to be far more closely related to the tectonic boundaries. Similarly, the civilizations that endured the longest (and that have been described as most static) are systematically the farthest from plate boundaries. It is still unclear how the relation actually worked in ancient cultures, i.e., what aspects of tectonism promoted complexity. Linkages to water and other resources, trade (broadly construed), and societal response seem likely. Volcanism appears not to be involved.

tectonic.jpgScienceNow, Did Rumbling Give Rise to Rome? has a nice map. Exogenous shocks playing a critical role in cultural creativity? Remember that earthquakes were often interpreted as negative divine omens and elicited a drive toward soul searching….

  • Lassi Hippeläinen

    Water. That is the main point. The correlation of cultures and tectonic boundaries isn’t random, because there is a dependency between water and tectonics. Tectonic boundaries have height differences, and gravity pulls water to the lowest local feature, i.e. close to the boundary. Either as rivers (Mesopotamia, Indus, Ganga) or as seas and bays (the Med, Red Sea, the Gulf).
    You can notice that the two “non-tectonic” cultures – China and Egypt – are on river banks. Water again.

  • yogi-one

    Yeah, I’m not sure the link is causative. I think water is a factor, and also exploitable environments. Rift valleys, for example, tend to be good farming locations and/or contain rivers. Many tectonic plate boundaries are near coastal environments, which is where civilization has also sprung up due to water, which provides food as well as a means to travel for marketing and empire purposes.
    I myself live in a place where three tectonic plates meet (Pacific Northwest). There is earthquake activity, and volcanism too, but the reasons people settled here are because of the rich environments, and in the case of Seattle, Puget Sound provides a great protected port. Also the way the mountains and sound are structured protect the area from extreme weather.
    So yes, there are earthquakes and volcanoes, with the resulting big disturbances every 500 – 1000 years or so, but during the long calm periods in between, there are so many other factors that attract human habitation, that I can’t see naming earthquakes as a factor.
    The humans are here for other reasons, and the earthquakes are a reality they have to encounter occasionally if they want to live here.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar