Duration of agriculture and distance from the steppe predict the evolution of large-scale human societies in Afro-Eurasia

Thomas E. Currie, Peter Turchin, Edward Turner, Sergey Gavrilets
Nature July 14, 2020 Journal Link


Understanding why large, complex human societies have emerged and persisted more readily in certain regions of the world than others is an issue of long-standing debate. Here, we systematically test different hypotheses involving the social and ecological factors that may ultimately promote or inhibit the formation of large, complex human societies. We employ spatially explicit statistical analyses using data on the geographical and temporal distribution of the largest human groups over a 3000-year period of history. The results support the predictions of two complementary hypotheses, indicating that large-scale societies developed more commonly in regions where (i) agriculture has been practiced for longer (thus providing more time for the norms and institutions that facilitate large-scale organisation to emerge), and (ii) warfare was more intense (as proxied by distance from the Eurasian steppe), thus creating a stronger selection pressure for societies to scale up. We found no support for the influential idea that large-scale societies were more common in those regions naturally endowed with a higher potential for productive agriculture. Our study highlights how modern cultural evolutionary theory can be used to organise and synthesise alternative hypotheses and shed light on the ways ecological and social processes have interacted to shape the complex social world we live in today.
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