Figuring Out the Past: The 3,495 Vital Statistics that Explain World History

Discover the world records that define our history and jump headfirst into the past using scientific data that reveals accurate and insightful answers to life’s biggest questions.

Publication Date:
November 17, 2020
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What was history’s biggest empire? Or the tallest building of the ancient world? What was the plumbing like in medieval Byzantium? The average wage in the Mughal Empire? Where did scientific writing first emerge? What was the bloodiest ever ritual human sacrifice?

We are used to thinking about history in terms of stories. Yet we understand our own world through data: cast arrays of statistics that reveal the workings of our societies.

In Figuring Out the Past, radical historians Peter Turchin and Dan Hoyer dive into the numbers that reveal the true shape of the past, drawing on their own Seshat project, a staggeringly ambitious attempt to log every data point that can be gathered for every society that has ever existed. This book does more than tell the story of humanity: it shows you the big picture, by the numbers.


Fascinating and illuminating book. As a reader of “The Economist”, I immediately recognized an approach familiar to their “Pocket World in Figures” – but while you probably can estimate the numbers for most of the current statistics, it can be mindblowing to be confronted with the data from a deep past.

It can be especially surprising for people educated in the West – this book masterly demolishes our Eurocentric views. For example in the listing of 10 most populous medieval cities not only there is none from Europe, but there are many which names it is possible that you have never heard. There are also delicious categories like “10 bloodiest human sacrifices in the entire preindustrial era” or “Adoption of state-run libraries by world region”. I just wish I could have such a book as a student!

Thanks to the publisher, Perseus Books, PublicAffairs (The Economist), and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.. – Ula Tardigrade Goodreads

Turchin and Daniel Hoyer created this book of data amassed by many into a site Seshat. They thought that life keeps moving and has been going on Planet Earth fot millenia so someone should start collecting data about our world. The data start at 3000 BCE, Ancient Egyptian (Afro-Asiatic) time and continue until now. It is just a book of data but I was reminded again how young the US is compared to some of the ancient cultures. It is interesting and I will go back to it when I am looking for more world data… – Peacejanz Goodreads



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