Science

Ancient civilizations may have been more connected than previously thought

Energy consumption was used to measure the extent of globalization for early civilizations
Energy consumption was used to measure the extent of globalization for early civilizations
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Energy consumption was used to measure the extent of globalization for early civilizations
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Energy consumption was used to measure the extent of globalization for early civilizations

Ancient civilizations could have benefited, and at times suffered from belonging to an interconnected global economy, according to evidence presented in a newly-published study. The international team behind the research hope that the work could help present-day society learn from the mistakes of early globalism.

It is a sad but unavoidable fact that flourishing civilizations use up vast amounts of raw materials, and, subsequently, produce prodigious amounts of waste. By observing the amount of waste produced by an ancient society, researchers can estimate the amount of energy used, and attempt to track periods of growth, prosperity and decline.

This was the approach used in a new study, which attempted to determine whether historical civilizations ranging back 10,000 years were connected by a global economy. If this were the case, the fortunes of contemporary societies would be observed to rise and fall in tandem. This is known as synchrony.

Joining an interdependent global network can bring significant benefits. This could include an increase in wealth from trade goods, and other resources that allow a society to increase its carrying capacity, or maximum population, beyond the limits of an isolated people.

However, it would also render the societies involved susceptible to the maladies of their partners. For example, open trade and movement of peoples could encourage the spread of disease, and lead to detrimental changes to a nation's ecosystem and social system.

"The more tightly connected and interdependent we become, the more vulnerable we are to a major social or ecological crisis in another country spreading to our country," said Rick Robinson, a postdoctoral assistant research scientists at the University of Wyoming, and co-author of the new study. "The more we are synced, the more we put all our eggs in one basket, the less adaptive to unforeseen changes we become."

In the new study, researchers tracked the energy use of civilizations spread across the world using a combination of radiocarbon dating and historical records. Energy, in this case, refers to the amount of biomass that was converted into work and waste.

To determine the amount of energy used, the team carbon-dated the trash of ancient civilizations, including animal bones, charcoal, wood, and small seeds. The scientists were able to provide energy-use estimates for a diverse range of societies ranging from roughly 10,000 years in the past, to 400 years ago.

The more recent historical records were used to provide a frame of reference for the estimates made by the radiocarbon dating technique.

It was discovered that there were significant levels of long-term synchrony regarding the booms and busts of ancient civilizations. This suggests that there was a greater level of early globalization than had previously been believed.

The team hopes that the research will help modern day policy makers learn from long standing trends in globalization, including how past societies reacted to its positive and negative effects.

A paper detailing the findings has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Central Florida

9 comments
BeinThayer
The conclusion drawn seems to rely on a lack of imagination; no consideration of factors other than greater-than-previously-thought levels of globalization that could have resulted in similar indications of synchrony. Global changes that could have pervasive subtle effects on food production, health or level of activity of people worldwide. Another option is that there might be very little spread in typical times from bust to boom to bust, and that some worldwide event (drought, famine from volcanic dust limiting sun, worldwide avian spread flu, etc) reset the global scale, essentially synchronizing civilization development of the worlds populations. . Additionally it seems th level of globalization would need to be, not just significant, but a large part of each economy to bring rise to synchronizing booms and busts across the world.
SimonClarke
While this study can give a good indication of transglobilisation by humans, there is already overwhelming evidence suggesting this going back at least 50,000 years. Although not mentioned very often, finding Tobacco and Cocaine in Tutankhamen tomb is very significant and an indication of worldwide trade thousands of years before mentioned in current history books.
Nik
If you find this article interesting, as I did, you may find these two youtube documentaries of complimentary interest, which coincidentally, I'm just watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2z6PlYiQSTs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-HhfbCk2oU They also show that there was global movement of peoples in the past, supported by genetic studies, that occurred, in some cases, more than 10,000 years ago, as well as more recently. They also show how interconnected humans have been in the past, and how several natural disasters broke up those interconnections. Very enlightening.
b@man
"The more we are synced, the more we put all our eggs in one basket, the less adaptive to unforeseen changes we become." ...It is hard for me to imagine a more ignorant... no stupid, conclusion:)
ArdisLille
I had a similar response to b@man regarding the eggs-in-one-basket comment. Also, what COULD modern day policy makers gain from past globalization trends? The article would have been more compelling if it contained a few examples. Looking forward to more substance on this fascinating subject!
Aross
Regarding the eggs-in-one-basket comment. Don't knock it. Having traveled over a large part of Europe and Asia over the last 50 years I have seen a lot of changes due to globalization and not all for the better. All we have to do is look at Walmart and other big box store, fast food chains etc. They are destroying the face of local culture and economy. They are changing the shopping and eating habits of many cultures and, given the rise in health issues and obesity not for the better.
Ichabod Ebenezer
It would have been useful to mention which ancient civilizations were used in the study. The natural inclination of readers seems to be that we're talking about Mayans and Egyptians where it could just be Mesopotamians and Mongols, Russians and Gauls.
Bob SpencerSpencer
The article in PNAS provides the details noted lacking in some of the comments. The sample sites seem adequate for the statistical comparison of the Americas and Europe and Asia Minor, thus showing grounds for some extensive thinking about the trans-Atlantic communication and transfer technologies. I would wish a bit more data to make reasonable similar thinking about the Pacific region. I look forward to continuing developments in this idea of global activities in ancient times.
JagtygerII
There are many examples of oop-arts in anthropology, items that do not fit into so called modern historical models. Items like the Baghdad battery bas relief sculptures in Europe depicting new world pineapples and corn, nicotine and cocaine in Ramses II mummy, new world cotton in Egypt and India 5000 years ago, bronze age copper ingots from Europe in the Mound builder/s mounds in the North American continent, linguistic and genetic traces from Europe in Native American populations dating back more than 10000 years and my all time favorite, the Prir Riese map which depicts the dual island continent of Antarctica, accurate to 2 degrees of latitude and longitude and Ice Free something that has not been a fact for over ten centuries and was not known to our science to be two pieces until the 1960's. There are numerous examples, but they have been suppressed by contemporary "approved" Anthropology and History going back to the Vatican declaring any support for pre Columbus and DeGama contact with the New World was heresy which justified the inquisition burning the heritic at the stake (partly because the Pope divided the world between Spain and Portugal