Ancient History Roundup and More

Given the fact that we recently looked at hydraulic empires and the role they played in forming ancient economies, this article is timely. Apparently, solid evidence has been found of massive flooding on the Yellow River in ancient China. These floods were dramatic – we’re talking vast amounts of water destroying communities with regularity. Subduing the waters is tied to the formation of the early Chinese state:

Rocks tell story of China’s great flood (BBC)

Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real. (Washington Post)

The Guardian is running a series on lost cities. What happened to ancient Cahokia?

Lost cities #8: mystery of Cahokia – why did North America’s largest city vanish? (The Guardian)

Via Ran Prieur – an academic paper formalizing something I’ve often speculated on this blog over the years: competitive feasting by early “big men” led to the cultivation of cereal grains not for food, but for fermentation into alcoholic beverages which were used in the collective rituals of the ancient Near East.

A hypothesis that is attracting increasing interest proposes that Epipaleolithic populations exploited and then cultivated cereals, not primarily for food but to brew alcohol for use in competitive feasting… In this view, aggrandizing individuals used alcohol to attract people to feasts and then to manipulate them to acquire political power via reciprocal feasting debts. This “alcohol model” when combined with feasting models explicitly addresses the co-occurrence of two key Neolithic phenomena – cereal agriculture and social inequality – and is supported by a range of archaeological and ethnographic data…The purpose of this paper is to use insights from pharmacology and related disciplines to explore, in more depth, the role of alcohol and other pharmacologically active comestibles in Neolithization such as coca, poppy, and tobacco. In our view, such crops probably constituted one of the important components of early aggrandizer “toolkits” for creating differential power.

Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition

See also Ran’s page on the origins of agriculture. Wikipedia also has a good page on the Neolithic transition.

Earlier this year, the world’s oldest beer was found in China:

Archaeologists discovered ancient beer-making tools in underground rooms, that were built somewhere between 3400 and 2900 B.C. The discovery was made at a dig site in the Central Plain of China and contained  pots, funnels and specially designed jugs. Objects suggest they were probably used for brewing, filtration and storage of beer…The beer recipe was found to contain broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears and tubers….This is the oldest beer-making “factory” ever discovered in China, suggesting that these initial brewers were already using specially designed beer-making tools and advanced techniques for the creation of “liquid gold” (beer).

This says a lot about what it was like in China 5,000 year ago. For one, researchers now know that years before barley was used in food in China, it was being used in drinks. This tells us that brewing beer did not come about because people had an excess of crops and were looking for new and creative ways to use every last bit. This explains that beer was a very important aspect to ancient everyday life. Beer was so important, in fact, that crops were being planted in order to accommodate the growing demand.

5,000 Year Old Beer Recipe Found by Archaeologists (Sciencenews Journal)

We today associate China with rice, but foxtail and broomcorn millets were actually the earliest grains cultivated in ancient China:

Archaeological remains show that these millets became common in their north China heartland around 7,500 years ago. Seeds recovered from sites of different ages show signs of being domesticated and selected — namely, they got bigger and bigger over time. Human skeletons of the same age show that millets were a staple food source.

Later, these millets traveled from north China into Central Asia and Europe, and south through Thailand to India. And nomadic shepherd-farmers were instrumental in this spread, Jones says. He got a chance to see for himself how this might have occurred while in Mongolia. The herders there spend their lives on horseback, he tells The Salt, but they’ll often find a plot of land and scatter millet seeds onto it, returning after a few weeks to harvest the crop.

Millets, Jones says, make a perfect bridge between nomadic life and settled agriculture, because they have a very short growing season – just 45 days, compared to 100 or more for rice – and need very little attention, ideal for nomadic horsemen on the go. “They’d tread the seed in with their horses’ hooves and off they go,” Jones explains, “maybe leaving a couple of teenagers behind to keep an eye on it.”

Meanwhile, in other parts of China, local rice, and wheat and barley from the Near East, were being further domesticated. Roaming shepherds and herders from different regions would have encountered each other, exchanging grains and advice on how to grow them. Evidence of this knowledge-sharing shows up in the archeological record between 2,500 and 1,600 years ago, when “crops that have been there for thousands of years start moving around all over the place,” Jones says. Millets moved into the Fertile Crescent, where wheat and barley were predominant, and wheat and barley moved into northern China.

At the same, Jones’ research shows, agriculture in China moved out of the foot hills — where individual farmers could control the flow of water — and into the valley bottoms.  And as crops grew more diverse and moved downstream, farmers had to work together to manage their increasingly complex agriculture — a need that encouraged settlements and community-building.

Millet: How A Trendy Ancient Grain Turned Nomads Into Farmers (NPR)

Related: are sexual attitudes in China linked to cooperation required in rice cultivation?

For centuries, rice plantation has been prevalent in some provinces, while wheat agriculture has dominated others. The “rice theory” suggests that in China people who grow rice and those who grow wheat may think differently.

I found that people from rice-growing provinces such as Guizhou, Fujian and Sichuan, where a large proportion of farmland is devoted to rice paddies, are significantly more accepting of premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality, when compared with those from wheat-growing provinces such as Jilin and Shaanxi.

A major difference between rice and wheat plantations is the different levels of irrigation required. Rice paddies require a high level of irrigation, while wheat plantations require a substantially lower level. For centuries before the prevalence of modern machines, rice plantations relied heavily on close cooperation between farmers for the provision of irrigation, while wheat tended to be managed by people working alone.

The need of cooperation for the production of food—a necessity for survival —in rice-growing regions may have helped to cultivate a higher level of interpersonal dependence, mutual understanding and tolerance, which makes social marginalization less likely. In contrast, the same senses of interdependence and mutual understanding may be less valued in wheat-growing regions because people do not have to rely on each other for subsistence.

My research suggests that the tolerance of non-conventional sexual behaviors borne out by this need of interdependence in rice-growing areas is key to the liberalization of sexual attitudes.

Are Chinese Views on Sex Linked to the Crops They Grow? (Newsweek) Warning: ad-intense site

A good Reddit AskHistorians comment on: Why did the Australian Aboriginals never progress past hunter/gatherer tribes? Of course, “progress” is highly a matter of perspective.

Slaveholding plantations of the nineteenth century used scientific management techniques. I wonder what this tells us about Latifundia—the plantation system that dominated agriculture in the late Roman Empire. Was it really as “stagnant” was we have been led to believe?

Caitlin Rosenthal pored over hundreds of account books from U.S. and West Indian plantations that operated from 1750 to 1860. She found that their owners employed advanced accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves. After comparing their practices with those described in the account books of northern factories, Rosenthal concluded that many plantations took a more scientific approach to management than the factories did.

Speaking of which, the late ecologist Edward Goldsmith wrote a fascinating essay on the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire:

The fall of the Roman Empire: A social and ecological interpretation

More evidence for drought being the major factor in the collapse of the Lowland Classic Maya:

As it turns out, water reservoirs can actually provide substantial relief during short periods of drought. In the simulations without reservoirs the Mayan population declines after a drought, whereas it continues to grow if reservoirs provide extra water. However, the reservoirs may also make the population more vulnerable during prolonged dry spells. The water management behaviour may remain the same, and the water demand per person does not decrease, but the population continues to grow. This may then prove fatal if another drought occurs resulting in a decline in population that is more dramatic than without reservoirs.

The demise of the Maya civilization: Water shortage can destroy cultures (EurekaAlert!)

Here’s an older article that describes the changing monsoon cycle as the cause of the demise of the ancient Harappan civilization in the Indus River Valley.

Sprawling across what is now Pakistan, northwestern India and eastern Afghanistan, the Indus civilization encompassed more than 625,000 square miles, rivaling ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in its accomplishments. In its bustling hubs, there was indoor plumbing, gridded streets and a rich intellectual life.

Unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, who used irrigation systems to support crops, the Harappans relied on a gentle, dependable cycle of monsoons that fed local rivers and keyed seasonal floods.But as later generations would discover, it was what the researchers call a “Goldilocks civilization.” After about 2,000 years, the window for agricultural stability closed again.

As time passed, the monsoons continued to weaken until the rivers no longer flooded, and the crops failed. The surplus agriculture was longer there to support traders, artists, craftsmen and scholars. The Harappans’ distinct writing system, which still has not been deciphered, fell into disuse. People began abandoning the cities and moved eastward toward the Ganges basin, where rains were more dependable (though not dependable enough to sustain urban metropolises). The civilization dispersed, fracturing into small villages and towns.

An Ancient Civilization Upended by Climate Change (NYTimes) Interesting that the NYT closed down its green blog a while back. Uncomfortable conclusions?

In eastern North America, the advent of farming was preceded by a population boom, according to a new study.

Another thing I’ve speculated on over the years: North America was populated along the coast instead of following a corridor between the glaciers. I suspect many places on earth were colonized via boats along the coastline rather than overland.

Reddit – what sounds like a bullshit fact but is actually true? Top comment: “We had 50% less people in the world when JFK was prez”

Will skyscrapers outlast the pyramids? (BBC) Of course not. Our drive toward maximum “efficiency” will see to that.

Remarkably, Cleopatra lived closer in history to today’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – than she did to this monumental tomb. When the last mammoths died out, it was already 1,000 years old…

In fact, the impressive age of the pyramids is no accident. The ancient Egyptians believed the afterlife would last forever and took great pains to ensure their tombs would too. Pyramid design evolved over thousands of years, as they experimented with the materials and architecture that would live up to their ambitions.

“They were always saying this is a construction ‘for eternity’; ‘for ever and ever’ creeps into their vocabulary constantly,” says Redford, who currently works at Penn State University, Pennsylvania. They were so confident in their abilities, many pyramids were named with the suffix “of millions and millions of years”.

Despite their efforts and hyperbolic claims, the Egyptians didn’t really know what they were doing – and this may have been a distinct advantage. To make up for gaps in their understanding of the laws of physics, early pyramids were heavily over-engineered. They knew about columns, for example, but didn’t know that they could support a roof. They always added extra walls just in case.

Another explanation is sheer size. Take the Great Pyramid. It’s less a building than an artificial mountain, made of nearly six million tonnes of solid rock. Five millennia is no time whatsoever when you consider the limestone had been lying in the ground for 50 million or so.

Modern skyscrapers, in comparison, are positively flimsy. It took just 110,000 tonnes of concrete and 39,000 tonnes of steel to construct the Burj, which is more than six times the height of the Great Pyramid. “They designed these buildings to last forever – nowadays that’s not a priority. We’re designing practical buildings to be lived in,” says Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who worked on the Shard in London.

It reminds me of a great quote I once in reference to planned obsolescence: “Anyone can build a bridge that stands up, but only an engineer can build a bridge that barely stands up.”

To cope with the unemployment levels of the Great Depression, the United States sent many Mexican immigrants (and even some American citizens) back to Mexico to ensure adequate jobs for Americans.

With a scarcity of jobs during the Depression, more than a million people of Mexican descent were sent to Mexico. Author Francisco Balderrama estimates that 60 percent were American citizens.

America’s Forgotten History Of Mexican-American ‘Repatriation’ (NPR)

Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It’s Happened Before (NPR)

The “always plentiful jobs” orthodoxy spun by capitalist economists flies in the face of over 200 years of economic history (1811-2016). If immigration doesn’t hurt jobs, then why does literally no country on the face of the earth with a functioning economy have true open borders (no visa requirements, no restrictions on non-citizens, etc.)?

More evidence for Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis:

Large human brain evolved as a result of ‘sizing each other up’ (PsyPost)

Survival of the most Machiavellian certainly seems to be the order of the day in corporatized America. In market-based societies, it is evolutionarily highly advantageous to be a sociopath.

Must-see video that’s been making the rounds about why trains are so bad in America. Not mentioned is the fact that anything besides the private automobile is seen as helping poor people and minorities, and the related idea that anything that costs tax dollars is bad (roads are supposedly paid for by “user fees” – yeah, right).

Is our society beset by the “Behavioral Sink?” This comment by the mysterious Reddit Accountt1234 makes some interesting and disturbing points: Gazing into the behavioral sink.

Two political scientists look at failed states and conclude that “…failed states are not the exception but the norm in human history.”

Failed states seem a novelty only in relation to the bipolar world of the Cold War, …But failure has a long lineage. According to Charles Tilly, in early modern Europe, the very birthplace of the (Weberian) state, “the substantial majority of the units which got so far as to acquire a cognisable existence as states [from 1500 to 1850] still disappeared”

Failure is even more prominent in pre-modern times. While the rise of the homo sapiens occurred 200,000 years ago, civilisations emerged as recently as 6,000 years ago, and only in half a dozen selected world regions. Before the rise of Mesopotamia and Egypt, economic stagnation and conflict had been endemic. Moreover, civilisations were far from irreversible outcomes. By the end of the Bronze Age, major Eastern Mediterranean civilisations had collapsed under the pressure of invasions by less developed societies, the ‘Sea Peoples’. The re-emergence of a civilised order in Mediterranean Europe had to wait for another 500 years. The Roman Empire, the peak expression of the new order, also fell prey to invasions from the Goths, Huns, Vandals and other barbarian tribes.

The common denominator of successful societies, from early civilisations to modern states, is the dual ability to produce surplus (prosperity) and to protect surplus (security). Contemporary cases of state failure are just instances of the large class of societies that failed to produce surplus and protect it. The class is so large that it actually accounts for about 98% of the human timeline, and covers no less than a fifth of the contemporary world.

The perennial nature of state failure, as well as the exceptional character of state formation, is rooted in a simple but powerful paradox. Every society in the process of development faces a fundamental trade-off between prosperity and security. The efforts of a society to create wealth will undermine its own sovereignty if the new prosperity attracts predatory attacks from rival groups (either inside or outside the social territory).

In a recent paper, we introduce the ‘paradox of civilisation’ to characterise the dilemma shared by thousands of early agrarian settlements prior to the rise of pristine civilisations in Sumer and Egypt, hundreds of ports, cities, and villages in Medieval Europe and post-colonial Latin America, and current attempts at reconstruction in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of these societies, during most of their existence, were trapped between two bleak alternatives. On the one hand, the dangerous option of ‘self-defeating prosperity’, i.e. investment efforts that would induce predatory attacks, and on the other hand the safer but stagnant option of ‘backwardness by design’, which would prevent predation at the cost of keeping economic activity close to subsistence levels, hence shutting down the path toward civilisation.

The reader will have no problem in finding cases of self-defeating prosperity in history books, which are replete with examples of productive polities that, at different stages of development, fell prey to the voracity of economically simple but militarily aggressive societies. By contrast, cases of backwardness by design are ‘dogs that didn’t bark’. Their aborted development implies scarcity of historical traces…

Failed states and the paradox of civilization (VoxEU)

Someone on Reddit posted this paper from historian of technology Lynn White Jr., (PDF) who wrote extensively about how technology transformed the social structure of the Middle Ages:

Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in “advanced” societies; hence, any change in methods of tillage has much importance. Early plows, drawn by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod but merely scratched it. Thus, cross- plowing was needed and fields tended to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near East and Mediterranean, this worked well. But such a plow was inappropriate to the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe. By the latter part of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that crossplowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.

In the days of the scratch-plow, fields were distributed generally in units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?

This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world around them–plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master.

These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual patterns. What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny–that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.

This mental change was borne out in the history of the period, as Brian Fagan writes in The Great Warming:

The scale of deforestation during the warm centuries is mindboggling. In AD 500 perhaps four-fifths of temperate western and central Europe lay under forests and swamps. Half or even less of that coverage remained by 1200, and most of that clearing took place during the Medieval Warm Period in a massive onslaught on the environment…Stripping Europe of its primordial forests was an act thick with cultural, economic, and political overtones. The farmers who cleared the forest deprived themselves of the safety net that a Scandinavian proverb called “the mantle of the poor.” Forests provided building materials, timber, firewood and game, medicinal plants and food, and browse and grazing for farm animals. The medieval farmer used more iron than ever for axes, plows and weapons–the metal smelted with charcoal from the forest. Great trees provided timber for cathedrals and palaces, for ships and humble structures like mills. Water mills were the new machinery of the age, as were windmills constructed almost entirely with wood. There was so much demand for timer for windmill vanes in Northamptonshire, England, in 1322 that complaints arose about deforestation. By the twelfth century, forest use was subject to intricate regulations that covered everything from grazing rights to firewood collection. Many different stakeholders including the crown and the nobility, as well as humble folk, had rights in the forest, such as the right to hunt, to graze animals, and to use clearings. For example, many English peasants had the right to acquire construction timber and firewood, deadwood that was knocked or pulled off trees, “by hook or by crook.” The dense trees and undergrowth were a means for survival. Increasingly complex regulations surrounded the forest and the right to use and clear it, which involved balancing royal privileges and landowners’ rights against the long-established economic needs of the peasants.


Four hundred years of rapid population growth and relatively plentiful food supplies , or unbridled forest clearing and fast-growing towns and cities: Europe was a very different continent at the end of the warm period. By the late thirteenth century, however, Europe was facing serious economic problems, for population growth had outstripped the previous jumps in agricultural production. By 1300, much of the population was worse off than it had been a century earlier, as inflation undermined wealth and the upper classes placed ever greater demands on the commoners. The farmers responded by taking up marginal lands and by other shortcuts such as shortening fallow periods, which, in a time of relatively predictable summers, may have seemed logical ways of boosting crop yields. Inevitably, farmer’s indebtedness to landholders increased, while economic uncertainty also struck home in cities, where the vagaries of the wool trade and other industries could wreak havoc, and military blockades were a fact of life.

One thought on “Ancient History Roundup and More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.