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.