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Mongol photo.
Mongol horsemen. Intense warfare is the evolutionary driver of large complex societies, according to a new mathematical model whose findings accurately match those of the historical record in the ancient world.

Math Explains History

Simulation accurately captures the evolution of ancient complex societies

23 September 2013

The question of how human societies evolve from small groups to the huge, anonymous and complex societies of today has been answered mathematically, accurately matching the historical record on the emergence of complex states in the ancient world.

Intense warfare is the evolutionary driver of large complex societies, according to new research from a trans-disciplinary team at the University of Connecticut, the University of Exeter in England, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS). The study appears this week as an open-access article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study's cultural evolutionary model predicts where and when the largest-scale complex societies arose in human history.

Simulated within a realistic landscape of the Afro-Eurasian landmass during 1,500 BCE to 1,500 CE, the mathematical model was tested against the historical record. During the time period, horse-related military innovations, such as chariots and cavalry, dominated warfare within Afro-Eurasia. Geography also mattered, as nomads living in the Eurasian Steppe influenced nearby agrarian societies, thereby spreading intense forms of offensive warfare out from the steppe belt.

The study focuses on the interaction of ecology and geography as well as the spread of military innovations and predicts that selection for ultra-social institutions that allow for cooperation in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals and large-scale complex states, is greater where warfare is more intense.

While existing theories on why there is so much variation in the ability of different human populations to construct viable states are usually formulated verbally, by contrast, the authors' work leads to sharply defined quantitative predictions, which can be tested empirically.

The model-predicted spread of large-scale societies was very similar to the observed one; the model was able to explain two-thirds of the variation in determining the rise of large-scale societies.

"What's so exciting about this area of research is that instead of just telling stories or describing what occurred, we can now explain general historical patterns with quantitative accuracy. Explaining historical events helps us better understand the present, and ultimately may help us predict the future," said the study's co-author Sergey Gavrilets, NIMBioS director for scientific activities.

The animation below shows how the distributions of large-scale polities in the mathematical simulation are remarkably similar to the historical record for each time slice over the period 1,500 BCE to 1,500 CE. (43 sec.)


Citation: Turchin P, Currie T, Turner E, Gavrilets S. 2013. War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies. PNAS. [Online]

CONTACT: Catherine Crawley, NIMBioS – (865) 974-9350 ccrawley@nimbios.org

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The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. NIMBioS is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Media Coverage Highlights

Los Angeles Times: Scientists use math -- and computer war games -- to show how society evolved

Popular Mechanics: Can math predict the rise and fall of empires?

Huffington Post: Mathematical model of human history 'explains rise Of civilisation' claims study

Wired: Data geeks say war, not agriculture, spawned complex societies

Pacific Standard: Count on war to build a society

Nature: Empires, bureaucracies and religion arise from war

National Monitor: Mystery behind evolution of complex societies solved using math model

Science World Report: New math model predicts evolution of large complex human societies

El Mundo: La guerra, 'madre' de la civilización humana

Austrian Tribune: What led to the rise of civilizations?

The Conversation: Computer simulations reveal war drove the rise of civilisations

Smithsonian: 3,000 years of human history described in one set of mathematical equations

Popular Archaeology: Warfare the key to evolution of complex society?

Red Orbit: Mathematical simulation accurately predicts rise of complex societies

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