War in Pre-Columbian Sumeria

By Razib Khan | July 26, 2011 12:05 am

For most of my life I have had an implicit directional view of Holocene human culture. And that direction was toward more social complexity and cultural proteanism. Ancient Egypt traversed ~2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the fall of the New Kingdom. But it s rather clear that the cultural distance which separated the Egypt of Ramesses and that of Khufu was smaller than the cultural distance which separates that of the Italy of Berlusconi and the Italy of Augustus. Not only is the pace of change more rapid, but the change seems to tend toward complexity and scale. For most of history most humans were primary producers (or consumers as hunter-gatherers). Today primary producers are only a proportion of the labor force (less than 2% in the USA), and there are whole specialized sectors of secondary producers, service workers, as well as professionals whose duty is to “intermediate” between other sectors and smooth the functioning of society. The machine is more complex than it was, and it has gotten more complex faster and faster.

This is a accurate model as far as it goes, but of late I have started to wonder if simply describing in the most summary terms the transition from point A to Z and omitting the jumps from B to C to … Y may hide a great of the “action” of human historical process. My post “The punctuated equilibrium of culture” was inspired by my deeper reflection about the somewhat staccato character of cultural evolution. Granting that the perception of discontinuity is a function the grain at which we examine a phenomenon, I think one can argue that to a great extent imagining the change of cultural forms as analogous to gradualistic evolution or the smooth descent of a ball toward the center of the earth is deceptive. The theories of history which many pre-modern peoples espoused can give us a window into perception of changes in the past: history was quite often conceived of as cyclical, rising and falling and rising. And yet even in the days of yore there were changes and increases in complexity. The Roman legions of Theodosius the Great in 390 A.D. were more complex institutions than those of Scipio Africanus in 200 B.C. The perception of stasis, and even decline, is due to the fact that the character and complexity of societies did not seem to exhibit direction over the short term toward progress. And that short term can be evaluated over centuries. Far longer than any plausible human lifetime. So while it is all well and fine to focus on the long term trend line, the details of how the trend emerged matter a great deal when attempting to construct a model of the past which can allow us to make robust and rich inferences. The people of the past made robust inferences over any scale of time which mattered to them. The world was nearly as likely to get less rich as more rich.

This sort of general model is particularly important for prehistory. Prehistory is the domain of archaeologists, who are extremely empirical, but often theory poor. And there’s a reason they’re theory poor: it’s hard to get a clear sense of the structure of interrelated facts which characterize the past. It’s one thing to say that this pottery style was common in location X and that cremation was the norm in location Y, but integrating it into a seamless and plausible whole which will stand the test of fashion and fad is a different thing altogether.

The integration of facts into a system without the guiding hand of texts is all the more difficult when the systems have scale, in both time and space. One can construct a plausible model of the workings of a village 6,000 years ago in Spain, but it is far more difficult to imagine reconstructing the nature of a polity, at least if you want to be more than a fantasist. Too often this inability to infer specific large scale cultural constructs because of the limitations of method slides into agnosticism or skepticism of the existence of such constructs at all! This is where the lack of the theory of the origin and evolution of cultures with complex institutions independent of and prior to writing becomes such a problem.

Setting aside the issue of theory, one way we can avoid some of the worst problems with the obscuring of the past by intervening years is focus on regions where the past is closer to the present. The New World is just such a case. The descriptions of the Spaniards and the material remains suggest strongly that the societies of Mesoamerica and the Andes were analogs not to their Old World contemporaries, the Gunpowder Empires, but rather to more antique societies, even before the Classical Greeks. The Aztecs and the Inca were the Sumerians, Mycenaeans, and Assyrians of the New World. Perhaps if the Spaniards had not come when they did the Inca would have evolved into a New World Rome, becoming the first universal empire and civilization of this hemisphere.

Because the past is so much closer in the New World there is a better correspondence between oral history and archaeology. The former can tell us something concrete and genuine about the latter (in contrast, Iraqi peasants probably would not be able to tell you anything that might give insights into the Third Dynasty of Ur). A new paper in PNAS focuses on the emergence of “pristine states” in the highlands of the Andes, and the catalytic effect of warfare on the rise of complex polities. War and early state formation in the northern Titicaca Basin, Peru:

Excavations at the site of Taraco in the northern Titicaca Basin of southern Peru indicate a 2,600-y sequence of human occupation beginning ca. 1100 B.C.E. Previous research has identified several political centers in the region in the latter part of the first millennium B.C.E. The two largest centers were Taraco, located near the northern lake edge, and Pukara, located 50 km to the northwest in the grassland pampas. Our data reveal that a high-status residential section of Taraco was burned in the first century A.D., after which economic activity in the area dramatically declined. Coincident with this massive fire at Taraco, Pukara adopted many of the characteristics of state societies and emerged as an expanding regional polity. We conclude that organized conflict, beginning approximately 500 B.C.E., is a significant factor in the evolution of the archaic state in the northern Titicaca Basin.

It has been argued that the rise and spread of farming at the expense of hunter-gathering had more to do with aggression, conflict, and mobilization of large numbers, than the former’s greater per unit productivity in relation to the latter. This is a rather low and pessimistic view of how social complexity arose, but I can’t find much to object to it on a priori grounds. When history begins to shed light on the nature of early human polities much of it is concerned with war, sacrifice, and plunder. The Mahabharata and Iliad are epics of war.

The paper in PNAS is a strange hodgepodge to me. On the one hand there’s the standard archaeological bias toward assaulting the senses with facts. But the authors also attempt to flesh out a thin theoretical model of exogenous and endogenous forces producing a series of oscillations of complexity punctuated by collapses. Exogenous in this context probably refers to environmental “shocks,” from famine to pestilence. Endogenous factors would be those internal to any social system, independent of exterior inputs. Ruling elites generally decay in their asabiyyah. And just as the first “break out” hit by a music artist is more memorable than later attempts, so the first few rulers of a dynasty are almost always more exceptional individuals in terms of competence and efficiency than their heirs. That’s just regression toward the mean.

Our species’ recent past was different from the present insofar as the rate of cultural and technological change was on average far less than it is now. That’s one reason that peasants the world over tend to be so conservative. There isn’t utopia just around the corner in most cases. As a species our inclination is to muddle on, because that’s what biological and cultural evolution drill into us. The cornucopian consumer world of the present is radically different from anything that has come before. But change did occur. Over the lifetime of Cassiodorus the city of Rome went from being a quasi-pagan cultural mecca of hundreds of thousands to a Christian provincial backwater of tens of thousands. Yes, in some ways the past was characterized by a slower pace of change, but the character of that change was often not gradual, but punctuated. A difference of degree, not kind.

That’s the major insight that papers like the one above push us toward. The prehistoric past was not one of mass action as individuals slowly gained human capital and accumulated sophistication over the generations through family lineages. Rather, just like the historic past there were pulses of rapid cultural change and aggregation of political power into central units, and later regressions and collapses. This might imply that we should be less than optimistic about the continuous stability of the complex social systems which have evolved over the past few centuries. We may not know when we approach the knife’s edge of cultural instability, at which point the integrated web of trust and reciprocity explodes, and the walls come crashing down. Assyria looked oh so stable during the reign of Ashurbanipal.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: Anthropology, History, War
  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    Sincerely, I would not compare the pre-Columbian civilizations of America with Assyria (Iron Age) or even Mycenae (Bronze Age) but with early Ancient Egypt and Sumer and some realms whose name we don’t even retain: the Karanovo-Gumelnita culture of Bulgaria and surroundings, probably the first European realm of any size and relevance, the Iberian civilizations of Los Millares and Zambujal, the peoples who raised Stonehenge and Carnac, the early Indoeuropean invaders of the steppes, the late Danubian farmers, etc…

    Pre-Columbian America was not yet in the Bronze Age, so it can only be compared with Chalcolithic, pre-metals Neolithic and even Epipaleolithic cultural stages in Europe. AFAIK only an ethnicity of NW Mexico was already in the Bronze Age in all America: the Tarascan state.

    Also it is difficult to imagine the Incas evolving into some sort of “Roman Empire”, the same that the real Romans or Latins had nothing to do with the Assyrians you mention but were a lesser ethnic group in a backwater region. Nobody could have predicted the rise of Rome just a few centuries before it happened (unless they had true magical powers of prophecy, quite unlikely).

    This actually makes uncertainty, Chaos and punctuated equilibrium all the more important. Surely Rome arose the way it did largely because of mere chance (or, if you prefer, sheer willpower – plus lots of luck anyhow). A key element I’d say is that it was a frontier region between the decadent Eastern Mediterranean civilization and the barbaric West, where they could expand first of all before turning onto the East. However that was also the situation of Etruria, Carthage or even Marseilles…

  • Handle

    I think some support for a punctuated theory of the historical evolution of civilizational institutions can be gleaned from observing how our current human organizations adapt and respond to new circumstances. It’s a cliche (in the “funny because its true” category) to say we refuse to deal with predictable problem until they manifest into some calamity, but many of our own institutions tend to settle into a comfortable stagnation until the deep psychological and social trauma of some catastrophe causes an overreaction in the direction of an obsessive focus of preventing an identical crisis.

    Consider floods. One can observe how our government acted both before the event of the Hurricane Katrina deluge and following its aftermath. Now imagine how a primitive river-valley agricultural civilization might respond to its own inundations or droughts. A culture that had rested on its laurels for several generations would suddenly become preoccupied with building levees and/or irrigation canals.

    But that response itself produces major secondary social changes (just as preparation for large-scale warfare would). Projects must be designed. Labor must be organized, divided into specialized tasks, and directed by a hierarchy of authority. And the productivity improvement and risk-management impact of water management will allow a society to grow in size and strength.

    That sets them up well to absorb the shock and survive the next unexpected and unavoidable catastrophe, to which they also respond with another punctuated innovation and recover in an even more advanced state.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Sincerely, I would not compare the pre-Columbian civilizations of America with Assyria (Iron Age) or even Mycenae (Bronze Age) but with early Ancient Egypt and Sumer and some realms whose name we don’t even retain:.


    Also it is difficult to imagine the Incas evolving into some sort of “Roman Empire”, the same that the real Romans or Latins had nothing to do with the Assyrians you mention but were a lesser ethnic group in a backwater region. Nobody could have predicted the rise of Rome just a few centuries before it happened (unless they had true magical powers of prophecy, quite unlikely).

    just to be clear, the rise of rome was not unpredictable, but in hindsight it looks like the rise ofa rome was predictable. the persians, alexander, maurya and chin-han had already achieved civilizational empire before the republic became equivalent.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    One example of cyclicality that continues to today is the practice of law. The basic principles of Roman private law and the complaints that people made about lawyers and litigation were remarkably similar in the 300s to what they are today.

  • Zora

    David Christian, in _Maps of Time_, goes into this thoroughly. Overall increase in complexity, but much smaller-scale variation.

    He points out that controlling a large empire requires technologies that only gradually develop. Over the centuries, rulers become more efficient parasites and are able to control larger and larger areas. One of those technologies is communication. The Persian empire, vast beyond all others, was held together by fast postal relays. The Romans built roads.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Over the centuries, rulers become more efficient parasites and are able to control larger and larger areas.

    and more GDP too. a modern totalitarian state would not be possible in the past.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    “it looks like the rise of a rome was predictable”…

    Hmmm… have you ever considered what would have meant if Hannibal won the II Punic War (which is a very reasonable alternative reality). It would have been “a rome” of sorts but for example neither Gaul nor Britain would have ever been conquered, much less the Hellenistic states (mostly because Phoenicians were not so interested in conquest as militarist Romans were). On the other hand it’s likely that America would have been discovered maybe 1000 years earlier (Phoenicians were excellent navigators and had already circumnavigated Africa probably) and that Germanics would have expanded earlier (Roman intervention in Gaul, etc. delayed their expansion quite a bit).

    Things would have been quite different, even if similar in some aspects. There was probably not any possible Rome that was not the Rome that we know, with its peculiarities (notably the emphasis in militarization and empire building vs. mere trade).

    “Romans built roads”.

    There were roads before the Romans even in remote ‘barbaric’ places like Britain. Rome is a bit over-hyped, sincerely. To Caesar what is of Caesar… but nothing more.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Hmmm… have you ever considered what would have meant if Hannibal won the II Punic War (which is a very reasonable alternative reality). It would have been “a rome” of sorts

    maju, 1) i used to be a pretty active participant in soc.history.what-if (some of my current readers on this weblog even date from my late 1990s participation in that forum), 2) i also used to read a lot of alternative history fiction, and some of it outlines “what if rome lost” (e.g., ‘hannibal’s children’). the “of sorts” is key. when i say rome was inevitable, i’m talking about a really general scenario here. basically a expansive social-political order whose collapse still leaves a meta-political or meta-ethnic penumbra which serves as a point of reference for subsequent populations. the maurya serve as such in south asia, despite their relative brevity. the chin-han did in china. i believe that as a matter of statistical probability the mediterranean during that period was ripe for the rise of such an entity. what if alexander had not died? he might have pushed west, at least to magna graecia. it may not have lasted for so many years as rome, or had the same geographical contours. but it would have played the same role as a integrative force for the mediterranean ekumene.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    Our high tech society is completely dependent on farming for food and naturally occurring climate fluctuations of the sort known to have occurred in the past can seriously limit food production in a hurry. The development and rapid spread of pathogens is making it impossible to grow many of our low diversity food crops without large amounts of toxic chemicals and genetic tinkering. Our farm land is suffering constant degradation.

    We are completely dependent on fossil fuels and no alternatives seem likely to take up all the slack despite the claims of optimists.

    Exhaustion of vital mineral supplies is an issue.

    What a major solar storm will eventually do to the electronics of at least one hemisphere is terrifying and of course we have weapon systems that can do the same thing. A major Electromagnetic Energy pulse is no joke in an unprotected world.

    Both the EU and the US are in the process of demonstrating what governments that are neither reasonable nor prudent can ruin the economies of what were once powerful and vibrant nations.

    At best I’m thanking we are about to enter a period of stagnation.

  • Tom Bri

    Dwight, what you are describing isn’t stagnation. Stagnation might be pretty nice for a while… The things you mention would all be world-wide disasters, with millions or billions dead. The solar storm is a major worry for me, simply because it is so likely, and could hit at any time. The others, not so much, except possibly the war.

    As far as natural resource depletion, technology has so far kept ahead and looks to continue to do so. Food is plentiful and cheap, because we are so very far away from maximal use. True, there are not a lot of new lands that can be easily brought into production, but there are other ways to increase production, and not as hard as you might imagine, if you are not keyed into agriculture. The US, for example still uses primarily extensive farming, rather than intensive. Visit Japan if you want to see what fairly low-tech intensive agriculture looks like.

    I admit, I’m a cornucopian.

  • ryanwc


    The Maya had syllabic writing, astronomy, large cities, a long history of agriculture, a multi-city-state competitive polity system. I don’t know why you’d limit the metaphor to Sumer and “realms whose name we don’t even retain.” I think you’re speaking from ignorance.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    @Razib: it is of course a very complex debate on which each one’s preferences, biases, fantasies… have a weight. Just that I find the centralization that happened under Rome very much anomalous considering all the rest, before and later. Even under Rome, Persia and the Germanic tribes remained unconquered (not that Rome did not try).

    The example of Alexander, like so many others (the Caliphate, Carolingian Empire, HRE…) is one of brief expansion and unification only to be fragmented shortly after. Rome is extremely anomalous in that it could unify much of West Eurasia (understood with North Africa) under centralized rule for many centuries.

    West Eurasia is not like China: we tend to fragment and compete among us and that has a good side: it prevents stagnation and hinders autocracy somewhat. Europe would have never expanded the way it did would it have been unified under an stagnating autocratic self-complacent unified authority: it was competition, with Islamic realms such as the Ottomans but also among Christians, what brought those carracks around the World, not conservative complacency. It’s tension what moves the World.

    (However in the current conditions of nuclear war risk, I’d rather avoid unnecessary tensions and foment unity within diversity).

    @Ryan: Sumerians could write and had an advanced astronomy, etc. So did early Ancient Egyptians, which I listed as well and you forgot about. My whole point is that American civilizations were in the Chalcolithic period at the most (some were still in Epipaleolithic or Subneolithic conditions in fact) and that therefore we should not compare with Bronze and Iron Age civilizations of the Old World like Mycenaean Greeks, Assyrians or Romans.

    There are important socio-economical changes happening between Paleolithic and Neolithic but also between Neolithic and Chalcolithic (“late Neolithic” in some countries, when civilization began in many places but when metallurgy was at best ornamental) and between Chalcolithic and Bronze (I think that there is a feudalization with the military power falling to the singular power of the alloyed sword rather than to the organized army). Bronze and Iron ages were much like each other because bronze and steel were not that different in practical terms.

    Native Americans never had the chance to reach this fully metallurgical stage and, when Europeans arrived, these were in very advanced stages of the Iron Age, almost industrial, so the technological shock was pretty strong.

  • Torrivent

    To all those people who know nothing about American archaeology (or rather: American Indigenous History, before and after 1492) but continue to speak about it, based on out of date, mostly 19 century (or even earlier) semi-scientific scholarship (praised by popular books like that from BIOLOGIST Jared Diamond…): PLEASE READ THE WORKS OF THE MODERN SPECIALISTS (from Dillehay to Solis & Oudijk… to name but a few)… and YES, that also means you have to read at least some Spanish, Portuguese and French.


    someone who actually got his Phd on this subject

  • Joe

    I wonder about an “expert” that uses the term “Sumeria.” Only someone with a rudimentary understanding of SUMER would use that term. There is no such thing as Sumeria. There was Cimmeria in Howard’s Conan novels. Perhaps that is what the author is thinking of? It certainly disqualifies the author from any comparison with another culture.

  • Justin Giancola

    Torrivent, thanks for the info dude, but do you think you could throw us a factoid or two?…preferably in English.

  • SirWilhelm

    The problem with trying to ascribe the theory of evolution to civilizations, is that it overlooks a basic component of civilization, the intelligence of it’s components, it’s people. Take his example of the Roman Legions, for example. He says they became more complex, because they “evolved”. But, that “evolution” was based on the experience of those that created the Legions that necessitated changes, because the weapons and tactics of their enemies changed, or were different from what they encountered initially. You could say the cells of the body of a civilization, all have the ablilty to affect it through, I know these are dirty words, intelligent design. When the cells work together, civilizations rise, when they fight each other, or are attacked by other civilizations, civilizations fall. Could it be that simple?

  • http://torrivent.blogspot.com Torrivent

    Hi Justin Giancola and others!

    What kind of “factoids” do you want to know.

    For example about American metallurgy, you can read the articles of Lechtman & Hosler. As you can imagine however, having (certain) metals is not necessary to built big civilizations. Neither are they necessarily “allowing” one. The Egyptian pyramids were built before the Egyptian Iron Age, “Old Europe” had metals but didn’t built a civilization like that in the Middle East. The “Celts” were perhaps the best Europeans in working with iron, but the Romans built huge cities and conquered most Celtic “tribes/peoples”. The Chinese state(s) knew a lot more about metal working, steel, etc than the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples north of them, still the later ones were a constant threat (from the Xiongnu to the Mongols and the Manchu) to the southern states. So we shouldn’t be too fixed on material culture and comparing civilizations itself, isn’t really an interesting thing to do (at least, that’s what the experts think)…

    So yeah, the Andean peoples had no steel, the European peoples no platinum or tumbaga… so what?

    The reason why people like to compare 1492-America with Europe is that we now look at the American continent and see a “defeated” native America and a “victorious” European America. Europe conquered America, not vice versa… The problem with this assumption is that it puts the 21st century picture on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18, and even 19th century.

    I already mentioned Oudijk. He and Matthew wrote a very good book on the so called European conquest of Meso America (southern half of Mexico, Guatemala and parts of neighboring countries). It’s called Indian Conquistadors, ISBN: 978-0806138541. Worth a read!

    Until the beginning of the 19th century, most peoples in the Americas still were natives. American countries became “Europeanized” only after the mass immigration of the 19th century.

    Just to name some things. More info on the Torrivent blogspot site!


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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 http://www.razib.com


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