There is an old South Asian story about six blind men who meet an elephant. One grabs its trunk, and says it is a snake; another feels its tail, and thinks it is a rope; a third leans against a leg, and concludes it is a tree; and so on. It is hard to avoid thinking of this fable when reading long-term lock-in or short-term accident theories of Western rule: like the blind men, long- termers and short-termers alike tend to seize one part of the beast and mistake it for the whole. An index of social development, by contrast, makes the scales fall from our eyes. There can be no more nonsense about snakes, ropes, and trees. Everyone has to recognize that he or she is hanging on to just one piece of a tusker.

Figure 4.1 sums up what we saw impressionistically in Chapter 2. At the end of the last ice age, climate and ecology conspired to set social development rising earlier in the West than in the East, and despite the climatic catastrophe of the Younger Dryas, the West maintained a clear lead. Admittedly, back in these early times before 10,000 BCE our chainsaw art is very rough-and-ready indeed. In the East it is hard to detect any measurable change in social development for more than four thousand years, and even in the West, where development was clearly higher by 11,000 BCE than it had been in 14,000, the subtleties of the changes are lost to us. Yet although the light the index casts is flickering and dim, a little light is better than none, and it reveals a very important fact: just as long-term lock-in theories predict, the West got a head start and held on to it.


Figure 4.1. The shape of things so far: the West’s early lead in social development between 14,000 and 5000 BCE, as described in Chapter 2

But Figure 4.2, continuing the story from 5000 through 1000 BCE, is less straightforward. It differs as much from Figure 4.1 as, say, a rope from a snake. Like ropes and snakes, the two graphs do have similarities: in both graphs the Eastern and Western scores close higher than they started and in both, Western scores are always higher than Eastern. The differences, though, are just as striking. First, the lines rise much faster in Figure 4.2 than in Figure 4.1. In the nine thousand years between 14,000 and 5000 BCE the Western score doubled and the Eastern score increased by two-thirds, but in the next four thousand years—less than half the period covered by Figure 4.1—the Western score tripled and the Eastern increased two-and-a-half times. The second difference is that for the first time in history, we actually see social development falling in the West after 1300 BCE.

In this chapter I try to explain these facts. I suggest that the acceleration and the West’s post-1300 BCE decline were in fact two sides of the same process, which I call the paradox of development. In the chapters that follow we will see that this paradox plays a major part in explaining why the West rules and in telling us what will happen next. But before we can get to that we need to look into exactly what happened between 5000 and 1000 BCE.


Figure 4.2. Onward, upward, farther apart, and closer together: the acceleration, divergence, and convergence of Eastern and Western social development, 5000–1000 BCE


Between 14,000 and 5000 BCE Western social development scores doubled and farming villages spread from their starting point in the Hilly Flanks deep into central Asia and to the shores of the Atlantic. Yet by 5000 BCE agriculture had hardly touched Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers” that we now call Iraq, even though it was just a few days’ walk from the Hilly Flanks (Figure 4.3).

In a way, that is not surprising. Since 2003 news flashes have made the world all too familiar with Iraq’s harsh environment. Summer temperatures soar over 120°F, it hardly ever rains, and deserts press in on every side. It is difficult to imagine farmers ever choosing to live there, and back around 5000 BCE Mesopotamia was even hotter. It was also wetter, though, and the main problem for farmers was not how to find water but how to manage it. Monsoon winds off the Indian Ocean brought some rain, though barely enough to support agriculture; but if farmers could control the summer floods of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers and bring the waters into their fields at the right time to fertilize their crops, the possibilities were endless.


Figure 4.3. The expansion of the Western core, 5000–1000 BCE: sites and regions mentioned in this chapter

The people who carried agricultural lifestyles over horizon after horizon across Europe, or who adopted agriculture from farming neighbors, were constantly tinkering with tradition to make farming work in new settings. Making techniques developed for rain-fed agriculture in the Hilly Flanks work for irrigated farming in Mesopotamia took more than tinkering, though. Farmers had to start almost from scratch. For twenty generations they improved their canals, ditches, and storage basins; and gradually they made Mesopotamia’s marginal lands not just livable, but actually more productive than the Hilly Flanks had ever been. They were changing the meaning of geography.

Economists sometimes call this process the discovery of advantages of backwardness. When people adapt techniques that worked in an advanced core to operate in a less-developed periphery, the changes they introduce sometimes make those techniques work so well that the periphery becomes a new core in its own right. By 5000 BCE this was happening in southern Mesopotamia, where elaborate canals supported some of the world’s biggest towns, with perhaps four thousand souls. Such crowds could build much more elaborate temples, and in one town, Eridu, we can trace superimposed temples on brick platforms from 5000 through 3000 BCE, always using the same basic architectural plan but getting bigger and more ornate through time.

So many advantages accrued to Mesopotamia that people in the old core back in the Hilly Flanks started emulating the dynamic new societies in the floodplains. Around 4000 BCE inhabitants of Susa, in a plain nestling in the Hilly Flanks in southwest Iran, outdid even Eridu by building a brick platform 250 feet long and 30 feet high. It probably supported a grand temple, although its nineteenth-century excavators, a little vague on the finer points of archaeological technique, hacked through the site and destroyed the evidence. But even they could not miss all the signs of increasingly complex organization, including some of the world’s earliest copper ornaments as well as stamps and clay impressions that may indicate administrative control of goods, and images that some scholars interpret as “priest-kings.” Archaeologists often imagine that a regional chief lived at Susa, which was much bigger than the villages around it. The outlying villagers may have come to Susa to worship the gods, acknowledge their lord, and exchange food for ornaments and weapons.

Or, of course, they may not have—it is hard to tell from such a poorly excavated site. But archaeologists are forced to rely on Susa to understand this period because contemporary Mesopotamian towns are deeply buried under silt from six thousand years of Euphrates and Tigris floods, making them hard to study (plus there has, for obvious reasons, been little new research in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution or in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait). Comparable changes were probably under way all along the Euphrates and Tigris after 4500 BCE, but only after 3800 do they become clearly visible to archaeologists.

Just why towns got bigger and more complex remains controversial. The sixth millennium BCE, when farmers first moved into Mesopotamia, saw Earth reaching the warmest, wettest point in its endlessly changing orbit round the sun and its wobbly rotation around its own axis, but by 3800 BCE the world was cooling again. Good news for Mesopotamian farmers, you might think; but you would be wrong. Cooler summers meant that the rain-bearing monsoons blowing off the Indian Ocean got weaker. Rain fell less often and less predictably, and Mesopotamia started looking more like the parched place we see on CNN. Problems compounded one another: declining spring rains meant shorter growing seasons, which meant that crops ripened before the Euphrates and Tigris flooded each summer. The systems Mesopotamian farmers had painstakingly built up across two thousand years no longer worked.

Climate change forced tough choices on Mesopotamians. They could bury their heads in the sand as it encroached on their fields and carry on as usual, but the price of doing nothing would be hunger, poverty, and perhaps starvation. Or they could migrate to regions less dependent on the monsoon; but it is no small thing for farmers to abandon their well-tended fields. In any case, the Hilly Flanks—the obvious place to go—was already packed with villages. In 2006 archaeologists at Tell Brak in northeast Syria uncovered two mass graves of young men dating to around 3800 BCE, apparently the victims of massacres. Moving back to the crowded, violent Hilly Flanks might not have been a very attractive option.

If enough Mesopotamians had done nothing or run away, this new core would have collapsed. However, a third possibility presented itself. People could abandon their villages but stay in Mesopotamia, congregating in a few big sites. That seems counterintuitive: if crop yields are falling, cramming more people into smaller spaces should make things worse. But some Mesopotamians seem to have figured out that if more of them worked together they could run larger irrigation systems and store floodwaters until the crops were ready. They could feed more miners to dig copper from the ground; more smiths to make ornaments, weapons, and tools; and more traders to carry these goods around. So successful were they that by 3000 BCE bronze (an alloy of copper and a little tin) had largely replaced stone for weapons and most tools, sharply increasing fighters’ and workers’ effectiveness.

Getting to that point, though, required organization. Centralized administration was the answer. By 3300 BCE people were scratching onto little clay tablets such sophisticated records of their activities that most archaeologists call the symbols writing (even if as yet only a tiny scribal elite could read them). Little villages that could not support such sophisticated activities went to the wall while one site, Uruk, turned into a true city with maybe twenty thousand residents.

Mesopotamians were inventing management, meetings, and memoranda—the curses of life for so many of us today, and hardly the stuff of soaring narratives of human achievement. Yet as will become clear in the next few chapters, these were often the most important motors of social development. Organization turned villages in the Hilly Flanks and along the banks of the Yellow River into cities, states, and empires; failures of organization caused their fall. Managers are simultaneously the heroes and the villains of our story.

The birth of management as the monsoons dried up must have been traumatic. We should probably picture bedraggled, defeated columns of the hungry slouching toward Uruk under a dusty sky, like Okies but without the jalopies, let alone the New Deal. We should probably also imagine angry villagers refusing to cede power to self-important bureaucrats who tried to requisition their fields or crops. Violence must often have been the outcome. Uruk could easily have broken apart; perhaps plenty of rival towns did.

We will never know the stories of the ancient managers who pulled Uruk through, but archaeologists suspect that they were tied to temples. Many pieces of evidence point this way, propping one another up like the poles in a tepee. For instance, excavations at temples have uncovered stacks of uniform-sized dishes known as “bevel-rimmed bowls,” probably for distributing food. The earliest clay tablets scratched with crude symbols come mostly from temples, and the symbol for “rations” on them is a sketch of a bevel-rimmed bowl. And when writing systems developed to the point they could record such information, they tell us that temples controlled broad acres of irrigated land and the labor to work them.

The temples themselves mushroomed into huge monuments, dwarfing the communities that built them. Long flights of stairs led to hundred-foot-high enclosures where specialists took counsel with the gods. If the tenth-millennium shrines that we saw in Chapter 2 were amplifiers for messages to the spirits, the mighty sanctuary of fourth-millennium Uruk was a public address system worthy of Led Zeppelin. The gods would have to be deaf not to hear.

It was these shouts to the gods that originally drew me to archaeology. In 1970 my parents took my sister and me to see a film of Edith Nesbit’s Edwardian classic The Railway Children. I think I liked it, but the short feature that ran before it blew my mind (as people used to say in those days). Until that evening I had been obsessed with Apollo 11 and wanted to be an astronaut, but the B movie—a documentary (of a sort) based on Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods?—made me realize that archaeology was the way to go.

Like Arthur C. Clarke in 2001 (which, like Chariots of the Gods?, was published in 1968), von Däniken claimed that space aliens had visited Earth in ancient times and taught humans great secrets. Von Däniken differed from Clarke, though, in insisting that (a) he was not making this up and (b) the aliens kept coming back. They had inspired Stonehenge and Egypt’s pyramids; the Hebrew Bible and Indian epics had described their spacecraft and nuclear weapons. The reason so many early civilizations had kings who claimed to talk to superhuman beings in the sky, von Däniken insisted, was that early kings did talk to superhuman beings in the sky.

While the evidence is thin (to put it mildly), the argument is certainly economical. Plenty of people believe it, and von Däniken sold 60 million books. He still has plenty of fans. Just a few years ago, while minding my own business standing over a barbeque, I was accused—in all seriousness—of belonging to a secret cabal of archaeologists that suppresses these facts.

Scientists are often criticized for taking the wonder out of the world, but they generally do so in the hope of putting truth in its place. In this case the truth of the matter is that we do not need spacemen to explain Mesopotamia’s godlike kings any more than we need a 2001 moment to explain the evolution of Homo sapiens. Religious specialists had been important since agriculture began, and all the signs are that now, when the mighty ones seemed to have forsaken humanity by taking rain away, Mesopotamians instinctively looked to priests claiming special access to the gods to tell them what to do. Organization was the key to survival in those tough times, so the more that people did what the priests said, the better things would go (provided the priests gave reasonably sound advice).

Two processes must have fed back on each other, their logic just as circular as von Däniken’s but even more convincing. Ambitious men claiming to have special access to the gods said they needed wonderful temples, elaborate ceremonies, and great wealth to make the gods hear them. Once they got these, they could turn around and point to their wonderful temples, elaborate ceremonies, and great wealth to prove that they were indeed close to the gods—after all, who but someone the gods loved would have such things? By the time scribes were recording such matters, around 2700 BCE, Mesopotamian kings even claimed gods as their ancestors. Sometimes, as (I suspect) at Uruk, entrusting power to men who had hotlines to the gods worked wonders; and when it failed, as it often must have done, it of course left little for archaeologists to dig up.

Uruk became not only a city but also a state, with centralized institutions imposing taxes, making decisions binding the whole community, and backing them up with force. A few men (but apparently no women) occupied the top positions, and a larger group of warriors, landowners, merchants, and literate bureaucrats assisted them. For nearly everyone the rise of the state meant surrendering freedoms, but that was the price of success in hard times. Communities that paid the price could muster more people, wealth, and power than pre-state societies.

Cities and states drove social development upward in Mesopotamia after 3500 BCE and then spread outward, just as farming villages had once done in the Hilly Flanks. Uruk-style material culture (bevel-rimmed bowls, writing tablets, lavish temples) spread into Syria and Iran. The debates over how this happened are much like those over the initial spread of farming. There was probably colonization from the densely populated, highly organized south of Mesopotamia to the lightly settled, less centralized north: Habuba Kabira in central Syria, for instance, looks like someone cloned an Uruk neighborhood and dropped it down a thousand miles away. Tell Brak, by contrast, which was a large town long before bevel-rimmed bowls were dreamed up, looks more like a local community picking and choosing among customs invented at Uruk. Villagers struggling to make ends meet and seeing Mesopotamian cities’ success may have allowed local priests to turn themselves into kings; and ambitious priests, seeing Uruk’s religious leaders flourishing, perhaps talked, tricked, or bullied fellow villagers into giving them similar powers. Either way, people who preferred village life must have found state formation just as hard to resist as foragers had found farming all those thousands of years before.


While the first farmers were sweating to make crops grow on Mesopotamia’s plains around 5000 BCE, even more intrepid folk were striking out from the Jordan Valley across the Sinai Desert to try their luck along the Nile River. Egypt had few domesticable native plants and had lagged behind the Hilly Flanks in adopting agriculture, but once the right seeds and animals were imported, the new lifestyle flourished. The Nile flooded at just the right time for crops each year, and large, rain-fed oases supported farming far into what is now desert.

These advantages meant, though, that the retreat of the monsoon around 3800 BCE hit Egypt even harder than Mesopotamia. Many Egyptians abandoned their oases and squeezed into the Nile Valley, where water was plentiful but land was scarce, particularly where the valley narrowed in Upper Egypt.* As in Mesopotamia, management was the answer. Excavated tombs suggest that Upper Egyptian village leaders had both military and religious roles. Successful chiefs grew rich as their villages captured more land; unsuccessful chiefs disappeared; and by 3300 BCE three small states had formed. Each had a rich cemetery where its early kings—if that is not too grand a title for them—were laid to rest in tombs that aped Mesopotamian architecture, accompanied by gold, weapons, and Mesopotamian imports.

The kingdoms fought until, by 3100 BCE, only one still stood. At that point, the scale of royal monuments exploded and the distinctive Egyptian hieroglyphic script abruptly appeared. Writing was probably limited to a narrow scribal group, as in Mesopotamia, but right from the beginning Egyptian texts contain narratives as well as bureaucratic accounts. One remarkable carving says that an Upper Egyptian king named Narmer conquered Lower Egypt around 3100 BCE, while another suggests the involvement of someone called the Scorpion King. Later texts also mention a conqueror named Menes (perhaps the same person as Narmer). But although the details are confused, the basic story is clear: around 3100 BCE the Nile Valley was united into the largest kingdom the world had yet seen, with maybe a million subjects.

Upper Egyptian material culture spread rapidly down the Nile Valley after 3100 BCE. As with the expansion of farming thousands of years earlier and the spread of Uruk culture in contemporary Mesopotamia, Lower Egyptians may (voluntarily or out of the need to compete) have emulated Upper Egyptian lifestyles. This time, though, there is also clear evidence that the Upper Egyptian population, organized into a state, had grown faster than the village-based peoples of Lower Egypt and that political unification consisted partly of south-to-north colonization.

Despite having so much in common, the Uruk expansion in Mesopotamia after 3500 BCE and the Upper Egyptian expansion after 3300 had different consequences. First, just as Narmer/Menes/the Scorpion King was subduing Lower Egypt around 3100 BCE, the Uruk expansion was abruptly ending. Uruk itself burned and most of the new sites with Uruk-style material culture were abandoned. Why is a mystery. When texts start recording more information, around 2700 BCE, the southern Mesopotamians, now calling themselves Sumerians, were divided into thirty-five city-states, each with its own godlike king. Uruk’s unraveling left unified Egypt as the major Western core.

Why Egypt and Mesopotamia diverged remains unexplained. Maybe Egypt, with its single river valley and delta, a few oases, and desert all around it was just easier to conquer and hold than Mesopotamia, with its two rivers, multiple tributaries where resistance could fester, and surrounding hills full of viable rivals. Or maybe Narmer et al. just made better decisions than the now-nameless kings of Uruk. Or maybe some entirely different factor was decisive. (I will come back to this question below.)

There is a further big difference between Mesopotamia and Egypt. While Sumerian kings claimed to be like gods, Egyptian kings claimed to be gods. The movie and TV series Stargate, spun off from von Däniken’s books, offer a simple explanation: Narmer and company really were spacemen, while Uruk’s kings were merely friends of spacemen. But appealingly straightforward as that is, there is just no evidence for it, and quite a lot suggesting that the pharaohs (as Egypt’s kings were called) in fact worked very hard to promote the image of their own divinity.

Self-divinization strikes most of us as psychotic, and was no trivial thing five thousand years ago either. So how did it happen? Narmer and his friends left no accounts (gods do not need to explain themselves), and our best clue comes from much later stories about Alexander the Great of Macedon. Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BCE and had himself proclaimed pharaoh. Caught up in a power struggle with his own generals, he found it useful to spread the rumor that he, like earlier pharaohs, really was a god. Few Macedonians took this very seriously, so Alexander raised the stakes. When his army reached what is now Pakistan, he rounded up ten local sages and ordered them—on pain of death—to answer his deepest questions. When he got to sage number seven, Alexander asked, “How can a man become a god?” The philosopher answered simply: “By doing something a man cannot do.” It is easy to imagine Alexander scratching his head and wondering: Do I know anyone who’s done something lately that no man could do? The answer, he may have told himself, was obvious: Yes. Me. I just overthrew the Persian Empire. No mere mortal could do that. I am a god and I should stop feeling bad about killing my friends when they contradict me.

Alternatively, Alexander or his supporters may have made the whole story up, but in a way its reality matters less than the fact that in the 320s BCE the best way for a king to sell the idea he was divine was through superhuman military prowess. We can only guess whether this was already the best way three thousand years earlier, but in unifying the Nile Valley the Scorpion King, Narmer, and/or Menes had certainly done things no mortal could be expected to do. Perhaps fusing a godlike king with a great conqueror made self-divinization plausible.

Nor was this the only coup the pharaohs pulled off. Upper Egypt’s first kings must have developed managerial skills like Uruk’s, getting people to give them resources and to accept central management, but the pharaohs now co-opted local elites from the whole Nile Valley to be their managers. The pharaohs built a new capital at Memphis, strategically placed between Upper and Lower Egypt, and had regional grandees come to them. At Memphis the pharaohs dispensed patronage, giving petty aristocrats who bought into the system incentives to keep it going. Local lords extracted revenues from the peasants, trying to take as much as they could without making the peasants’ lives impossible, then passed income up the chain, in return for which royal favor came back down it again.

The pharaohs’ success depended partly on politicking and back-scratching and partly on pageantry, and for that being gods, rather than just friends of gods, surely made things easier. What local bigwig would not want to work for a god? To be on the safe side, though, the pharaohs also created a powerful symbolic language. Soon after 2700 BCE the artists of King Djoser designed styles for carving hieroglyphs and representing god-kings that survived for five hundred years. Djoser understood the theological delicacy of an immortal being seen to die, and designed the ultimate symbol of Egyptian kingship—the pyramid—to hold the sacred corpse. King Khufu’s 450-foot-high Great Pyramid, built around 2550 BCE, remained the world’s tallest building until Cologne Cathedral in Germany nudged past it in 1880 CE. It is still the heaviest, weighing something like a million tons. Thousands of laborers worked on it for decades, quarrying stone, floating it down the Nile, and dragging it into place. The so-called workmen’s village at the foot of the pyramids was among the world’s biggest cities in its day. Feeding workers and moving them around required a quantum leap in the size and reach of the bureaucracy, and joining the gangs must have been a transformative experience for villagers who had perhaps never left home before. If anyone doubted pharaoh’s divinity before the pyramids, they surely did not afterward.

The Sumerian city-states in Mesopotamia moved in similar directions but more slowly and cautiously. Each city, the texts say, was divided into “households” containing many monogamous families. Each household had one family at its head, organizing its land and labor, with the other families ranked, some working in the fields and others in crafts, fulfilling quotas in return for rations. The biggest and richest households were theoretically headed by gods, and might command thousands of acres and hundreds of workers. The men who ran these households for the gods were normally the city’s leaders, with the king heading the household of the city’s patron god. It was the king’s job to promote his patron god’s interests. If the king did well, his god must be flourishing too; if he performed poorly, the god’s stock fell.

After 2500 BCE this began to be a problem. Improved agriculture allowed people to rear larger families, and population growth drove competition for good land and more effective ways to fight for it. Some cities defeated and took over others. The theological implications were as thorny as the death of Egyptian god-kings: if a king looked after his patron god’s interests, what did it mean if another king, acting for a different god, took over? Some priests proposed a “temple-city” theory, making the religious hierarchy and gods’ interests independent from kings. Successful kings responded by claiming to be more than merely gods’ representatives. Around 2440 BCE one king announced that he was his patron god’s son, and poems began circulating about how King Gilgamesh of Uruk had traveled beyond this world in search of immortality. These coalesced into the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest surviving literary masterpiece.

Rulers sought new venues to display their majesty, and the greatest archaeological find ever made in Mesopotamia, the Royal Cemetery of Ur, was probably one of these. Its spectacular gold and silver grave goods, like the pharaohs’ pyramids, hint at more-than-mortal stature for the dead; and the seventy-four people poisoned to accompany Queen Puabi to the next world suggest that struggles over rulers’ relationships to the gods could be bad news for ordinary Sumerians.

Conflict came to a head around 2350 BCE. There were violent coups, armed conquests, and revolutionary redistributions of property and sacred rights. In 2334 a man called Sargon (which, rather suspiciously, means “legitimate ruler”; he probably took this name after he seized power) founded a new city called Akkad. It may lie under Baghdad, and—no surprise—remains unexcavated, but clay tablets from other sites say that rather than fighting other Sumerian kings Sargon plundered Syria and Lebanon until he could pay for a full-time army of five thousand men. He then turned on the other Sumerians, subduing their cities through diplomacy and violence.

Textbooks often call Sargon the world’s first empire-builder, but what he and his Akkadian successors did was really not so different from what Egypt’s unifiers had done eight centuries earlier. Sargon himself did not become a god, but after defeating a rebellion around 2240 BCE his grandson Naram-Sin announced that eight of Sumer’s gods wanted him to join their ranks. Sumerian artists started representing Naram-Sin as horned and larger than life, traditional attributes of divinity.

By 2230 BCE the twin Western cores in Sumer and Egypt had massively eclipsed the original core in the Hilly Flanks. Responding to ecological problems, people had created cities; responding to competition between cities, they had created million-strong states, ruled by gods or godlike kings and managed by bureaucracies. As struggles in the core drove social development upward, a network of cities spread over the simpler farming villages of Syria and the Levant and through Iran to the borders of modern Turkmenistan. On Crete people would soon start building palaces too; imposing stone temples rose upward on Malta; and fortified towns began dotting the southeastern coast of Spain. Farther north and west farmers had filled every ecologically viable niche, and on the farthest fringe of the Western world, where the Atlantic pounds Britain’s cold shores, people invested an estimated 30 million hours of labor in the most enigmatic monument of all, Stonehenge. One of von Däniken’s spacemen visiting Earth around 2230BCE would probably have concluded that there was little further need for alien interventions: these clever chimps were pushing social development steadily upward.


A return trip fifty years later might have shocked the spaceman. From one end of the Western core to the other states were falling apart and people were fighting and leaving their homes. For the next thousand years a series of disruptions (a neutral-sounding word covering a horrible variety of massacres, misery, flight, and want) sent the West on a wild ride. And when we ask who or what disrupted social development, we get a surprising answer: social development was itself to blame.

One of the main ways people try to improve their lot has always been by moving information, goods, and themselves around. What is abundant here may be scarce—and valuable—over there. The result has been increasingly complex webs tying communities together, operating at every level of society. Four thousand years ago temples and palaces owned some of the best land, and instead of dividing it among peasant families, each trying to grow everything they needed, centralized bureaucracies hung on to this land and told people what to grow. A village with good cropland might grow just wheat, while one on a hillside could tend vines, with a third specializing in metalwork; and bureaucrats could redistribute the products, skimming off what they needed, storing some against emergencies and parceling the rest out as rations. This had begun at Uruk by 3500 BCE; a thousand years later it was the norm.

Kings also gave one another self-interested gifts. Egypt’s pharaohs, rich in gold and grain, gave these goods to minor rulers of Lebanese cities, who reciprocated with fragrant cedar, since Egypt lacked good wood. Failing to give an appropriate gift was a major faux pas. Gift exchange was rooted as much in psychology and status anxiety as in economics, but it moved goods, people, and ideas around quite effectively. The kings at each end of these chains and plenty of merchants in between got rich.

Nowadays we tend to assume that “command economies” with a king, dictator, or politburo telling everyone what to do must be inefficient, but most early civilizations depended on them. Perhaps in a world lacking the trust and laws that make markets work, they may be the best option available. But they were never the only option, and humbler independent traders always flourished alongside royal and priestly enterprises. Neighbors bartered, swapping cheese for bread or help digging a latrine for babysitting. Town and country folk traded at fairs. Tinkers loaded pots and pans on donkeys and plied their routes. And at a kingdom’s edges, where sown fields faded into deserts or mountains, villagers exchanged bread and bronze weapons with shepherds or foragers for milk, cheese, wool, and animals.

The best-known account of this comes from the Hebrew Bible. Jacob was a successful shepherd in the hills near Hebron in what is now the West Bank. He had twelve sons, but played favorites, giving the eleventh—Joseph—a coat of many colors. In a fit of pique, Joseph’s ten older brothers sold the gaudily dressed apple of their father’s eye to passing slave traders headed for Egypt. Some years later, when food was scarce in Hebron, Jacob sent his ten oldest sons to Egypt to trade for grain. Unknown to them, the governor they confronted there was their brother Joseph, who, although a slave, had risen high in pharaoh’s service (admittedly after a spell in jail for attempted rape; he was, of course, framed). In a perfect illustration of the difficulty of knowing when to trust traders, the brothers showed no surprise when the disguised Joseph pretended to think they were spies and threw them in prison. The story ends happily, though, with Jacob, his sons, and all his flocks moving into Egypt. “And they gained possessions in it,” says the Good Book, “and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.”

The Joseph story is probably set in the sixteenth century BCE, by which time people whose names are now lost had been following the same script for two thousand years. Amorites from the fringes of the Syrian Desert and Gutians from the mountains of Iran, coming as traders and laborers, were familiar faces in Mesopotamia’s cities; so, too, “Asiatics,” to use the Egyptians’ contemptuous catch-all term, in the Nile Valley. Rising social development intertwined the cores’ economies, societies, and cultures with those of neighboring regions, enlarging the cores, increasing their mastery of their environments, and driving up social development. But the price of growing complexity was growing fragility. This was, and remains, a central piece of the paradox of social development.

Around 2200 BCE, when the god-king Naram-Sin’s equally divine son Sharkalisharri ruled much of Mesopotamia from his throne room in Akkad, something started going wrong, and Harvey Weiss, a Yale University archaeologist who excavated the site of Tell Leilan in Syria, thinks he knows what it was. Tell Leilan was a city of twenty thousand people in Sargon’s day, around 2300 BCE, but a ghost town a century later. Searching for explanations, the geologists on Weiss’s team discovered from microscopic studies of sediments that the amount of dust in the soil at Tell Leilan and neighboring sites increased sharply just before 2200 BCE. Irrigation canals silted up, probably because of declining rainfall, and people drifted away.

A thousand miles away, in the Nile Valley, something was also going wrong. In the story of Joseph the pharaoh relied on dream interpreters to predict agricultural yields, but real pharaohs had a device called the Nilometer, which measured the river’s floods and gave advance warning of good and bad harvests. Inscriptions recording some of its readings show that floods fell sharply around 2200 BCE. Egypt, too, was getting drier.

Back around 3800 BCE drier weather had propelled Uruk to greatness and set off wars that unified Egypt, but in the more complicated, interconnected world of the late third millennium BCE, abandoning sites such as Tell Leilan also meant taking away the business that Amorites and Asiatics depended on. It would have been as if Joseph’s brothers had come down to Egypt to buy grain but found no one home. They could have gone back to Hebron and told their father he had to starve, or they could have pushed farther into pharaoh’s land, trading or working for food when they could, fighting for it or stealing it when they could not.

Under other circumstances the Akkadian and Egyptian militias might have slaughtered such nuisances (economic migrants or criminals, depending on your point of view), but by 2200 BCE these armed forces were themselves unraveling. Some Mesopotamians saw their Akkadian kings as cruel conquerors, and when the supposedly divine Sharkalisharri failed to cope very well with the problems he faced in the 2190s BCE many priestly families stopped cooperating with him. His armies melted away; generals proclaimed themselves kings in their own right; and Amorite gangs took over entire cities. In less than a decade the empire disintegrated. It was every town for itself—as a Sumerian chronicler put it, “Who then was king? Who was not king?”

In Egypt tensions between court and aristocracy had also been mounting, and King Pepy II, who had sat on the throne for sixty years, proved unequal to the challenges. While his courtiers schemed against him and one another, local elites took matters into their own hands. By the time a coup set up a new dynasty in Lower Egypt around 2160 BCE there were dozens of independent lords and ungovernable Asiatic bands rampaging around the countryside. Worse still, the high priests of the great temple of Amen at Thebes in Upper Egypt took on progressively grander titles, eventually sliding in and out of civil war with the Lower Egyptian pharaoh.

By about 2150 BCE Egypt and Akkad had decomposed into petty statelets, fighting outlaws and each other for shares of the peasants’ shrinking output. Some warlords prospered but the general tone of the few surviving texts is desperate. There are also hints that the crisis reverberated beyond the core. It is hard for archaeologists to tell when events in one region are linked to those in another, and we should never underestimate simple coincidence, but it is hard not to detect a broader pattern in the fiery destruction of the biggest buildings in Greece, the end of the Maltese temples, and the abandonment of Spain’s coastal fortresses, all between 2200 and 2150 BCE.

The larger, more complex systems of the Western core depended on regular flows of people, goods, and information, and sudden changes—like the drier weather at Tell Leilan or Pepy’s senility—disrupted these. Disruptions such as the drought and migrations after 2200 BCE did not have to produce chaos, but they effectively rolled the dice of history. In the short term, at least, anything could have happened. If Pepy had had an adviser like Joseph he might have turned hard times to his advantage; if Sharkalisharri had cut better deals with his generals and priests his empire might have endured. Instead, the main result in Mesopotamia was that the city of Ur exploited Akkad’s collapse, carving out a new empire, smaller than Akkad’s but better known to us because its compulsive bureaucrats produced so many tax receipts. Forty thousand have been published, and thousands more await study.

Shulgi, who took Ur’s throne in 2094 BCE, pronounced himself a god and instituted a cult of personality. He even gave Ur a new musical form, the “Shulgi Hymn,” praising his skill at everything from singing to prophesy and making him sound unnervingly like North Korea’s dictator-cum-movie director Kim Jong Il. Yet despite Shulgi’s talents, within a few years of his death in 2047 BCE his empire, too, imploded. In the 2030s raiding became such a problem that Ur built a hundred-mile wall to keep the Amorites out, but in 2028 cities started pulling out of Ur’s tax system anyway, and state finances collapsed around 2020. In a rerun of the fall of Akkad, famines raged as some generals tried to requisition grain for Ur and others declared themselves independent. “Hunger filledthe city like water,” says the Sumerian poem The Lamentation over Ur. “Its people are as if surrounded by water, they gasp for breath. Its king breathed heavily in his palace, all alone, its people dropped their weapons …” In 2004 BCE raiders sacked Ur and carried its last king into slavery.

While Mesopotamia fell apart, however, Egypt came together again. The Theban high priests of Upper Egypt, now acting as kings in their own right, defeated their main rivals in 2056 BCE and mastered the whole Nile Valley in 2040. By 2000 BCE the Western core looked much like it had done a thousand years earlier, with Egypt unified under a god-king and Mesopotamia split into city-states under kings who were at best merely godlike.

By this point, more than four thousand years ago, the Western core’s dizzy, wild ride had already laid bare some of the fundamental forces that drive social development. Social development is not a gift or curse laid on humanity by Clarke’s monolith or von Däniken’s aliens; it is something we make ourselves, just not in ways of our own choosing. As I suggested in the introduction, the bottom line is that we are lazy, greedy, and fearful, always looking for easier, more profitable, or safer ways to do things. From the rise of Uruk to the Theban reunification of Egypt, sloth, avarice, and/or fright drove every upward nudge of social development. But people cannot nudge things any way they like; each nudge builds on all the earlier nudges. Social development is cumulative, a matter of incremental steps that have to be taken in the right order. The chiefs of Uruk around 3100 BCE could no more have organized the kind of bureaucracy that Ur boasted under Shulgi a millennium later than William the Conqueror could have built computers in medieval England. As the Yankee saying goes, you can’t get there from here. This cumulative pattern also explains why increases in social development keep speeding up: each innovation builds on earlier ones and contributes to later ones, meaning that the higher social development rises, the faster it can continue rising.

Yet the course of innovation never did run smooth. Innovation means change, bringing joy and pain in equal measures. Social development creates winners and losers, new classes of rich and poor, new relations between men and women and old and young. It even creates whole new cores when the advantages of backwardness empower those who had previously been marginal. Its growth depends on societies becoming larger, more complicated, and harder to manage; the higher it rises, the more threats to itself it creates. Hence the paradox: social development creates the very forces that undermine it. When these slip out of control—and particularly when a changing environment multiplies uncertainty—chaos, ruin, and collapse may follow, as came to pass around 2200BCE. And as we will see in the chapters that follow, the paradox of social development largely explains why long-term lock-in theories cannot be correct.


Despite the chaos that swept over the Western core after 2200 BCE, this was no Nightfall moment. The collapses after 2200 do not even register on the graph in Figure 4.2.* That may understate the scale of the disruptions, but even so, one thing is very clear: by 2000 BCE Western social development was almost 50 percent higher than it had been in 3000 BCE. Social development kept rising and Western societies got bigger and more sophisticated.

The cores changed in other ways, too. No Mesopotamian ruler ever again claimed to be a god after 2000 BCE, and even in Egypt some of the shine came off the pharaohs. Second-millennium-BCE statues and poetry portray pharaohs as more warlike, world-weary, and disappointed than those of the third millennium. And in what must be a related process, state power contracted: although palaces and temples remained important, more land and trade were now in private hands.

The most important reason why the disruptions did not set the clock back, though, was that the core kept expanding through the crises, drawing in peripheries that found new advantages in their backwardness and pushed their way into the core. From Iran to Crete people adapted Egyptian- and Mesopotamian-style palaces and redistributive economies to fluid, often-violent frontiers with rain-fed agriculture. On the whole, frontier kings relied more on military power than those in the irrigation-fed cores and made fewer claims to divinity; it was perhaps hard to seem godlike when the rulers of Egypt and Sumer looked so much grander.

Once again, rising social development changed the meanings of geography. Access to a great river basin was crucial for development in the third millennium BCE, but in the second millennium living on the old core’s northern edge became an even greater advantage. Herders in what is now Ukraine had domesticated horses around 4000 BCE, and two thousand years later horse tamers on the steppes of modern Kazakhstan started yoking these powerful beasts to light, two-wheeled chariots. A few steppe herders riding around in chariots did not concern the core, but if someone with the resources to pay for thousands of chariots got hold of them it would be a different story. Chariots were not tanks, crashing through enemy lines (the way directors of sword-and-sandals movies like to portray them), but armies with masses of fast-moving chariot-mounted archers could make old-fashioned shoving matches between infantry obsolete.

Chariots’ advantages seem obvious, but armies that have done well with one tactical system are often slow to adopt another. Setting up a corps of well-trained charioteers would throw the pecking order of all-infantry armies into chaos, empowering a whole new elite, and though the evidence is patchy, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, with their entrenched hierarchies, seem to have adopted the new battle systems only sluggishly. New northern states such as the mysterious Hurrians, who apparently migrated into northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the Caucasus after 2200 BCE, were more flexible. The Hurrians’ steppe connections gave them easy access to the new weapons, and their looser social structure probably raised fewer barriers to adoption. Neither they nor the Kassites of western Iran, the Hittites of Anatolia,* the Hyksos of modern Israel and Jordan, and the Mycenaeans of Greece were as organized as Egypt or the Mesopotamian city of Babylon, but for a while that did not matter, because chariots gave these formerly peripheral peoples such an edge in war-making that they could plunder or even take over their older, richer neighbors. The Hyksos steadily moved into Egypt, building their own city around 1720 BCE and seizing the throne in 1674. In 1595 Hittites sacked Babylon, and soon Kassites were taking over Mesopotamia’s cities. By 1500 BCE the Hurrians had carved out a kingdom called Mittani and Mycenaeans had conquered Crete (Figure 4.4).

These were turbulent times, but in the long run the upheavals served only to enlarge the core, not to drive development down. In Mesopotamia, the main upshot of the enslavements, deportations, massacres, and dispossessions was that northern immigrants replaced local rulers. In Egypt, where Theban-led rebels kicked the Hyksos out in 1552 BCE, not even that much changed. But by 1500 BCE new kingdoms had taken shape around the northern fringe of the old core, their development rising so quickly that they forced their way into an enlarged version of that core. So tightly were the great states now linked that historians call the next three hundred years the International Age.

Trade boomed. Royal texts are full of it, and fourteenth-century letters found at Amarna in Egypt show the kings of Babylon, Egypt, and the newly powerful states of Assyria, Mittani, and the Hittites jockeying for position, asking for gifts, and marrying off princesses. They created a shared diplomatic language and addressed one another as “brother.” Second-tier rulers, excluded from the club of great powers, they called “servants,” but rank could be renegotiated. Ahhiyawa (probably Greece), for instance, was a borderline great power. There are no Ahhiyawan letters in the Amarna archive, but when a Hittite king listed “the kings who are equal to me in rank” in a thirteenth-century treaty he named “the king of Egypt, the king of Babylonia, the king of Assyria, and the king of Ahhiyawa”—only to think better of it and scratch Ahhiyawa off the list.


Figure 4.4. The band of brothers: the Western core’s International Age kingdoms as they stood around 1350 BCE, after the Hittites and Mittani had gobbled up Kizzuwatna but before the Hittites and Assyrians destroyed Mittani. The gray areas in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy show where Mycenaean Greek pottery has been found.

The more the “brothers” had to do with one another, the tougher their sibling rivalry got. The Hyksos invasion in the eighteenth century BCE had traumatized the Egyptian elite, shattering their sense that impassable deserts shielded them from attack; determined to prevent any repeat, they upgraded their rather ramshackle militias into a permanent army with career officers and a modern chariot corps. By 1500 BCE they had pushed up the Mediterranean coast into Syria, building forts as they went.

An ancient arms race broke out by 1400 BCE and the devil took the hindmost. Between 1350 and 1320 BCE the Hittites and Assyrians swallowed up Mittani. Assyria intervened in a Babylonian civil war, and by 1300 the Hittites had destroyed Arzawa, another neighbor. Hittite and Egyptian kings waged a deadly cold war, full of spies and covert operations, to control Syria’s city-states. In 1274 BCE it turned hot, and the biggest armies the world had yet seen—perhaps thirty thousand infantry and five thousand chariots on each side—clashed at Kadesh. Ramses II, the Egyptian pharoah, apparently blundered into a trap. Since he was a god, this naturally presented no problem, and in an account posted in no fewer than seven temples, Ramses tells us that he went on a Rambo-like rampage:

His Majesty [Ramses] slew the entire force of the Foe of Hatti [another name for the Hittites], together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him, their infantry and their chariotry falling on their faces one upon the other. His Majesty slaughtered them in their places; they sprawled before his horses; and his majesty was alone, none other with him.

The “vile Chief of Hatti,” says Ramses, then begged for peace (as well he might).

Extracting military history from a god-king’s bombast is tricky, but all our other evidence suggests that, contrary to his boasts, Ramses barely escaped the Hittite ambush that day. The Hittites kept advancing down the coast until 1258 BCE, stopping only because they had picked new fights, one with Assyria in the mountains of southeast Anatolia and another with Greek adventurers on Anatolia’s west coast. Some historians think that Homer’s Iliad, the Greek epic poem written down five centuries later, dimly reflects a war in the 1220s BCE in which a Greek alliance besieged the Hittite vassal city of Troy; and far to the southeast, an even more terrible siege was under way, ending with Assyria sacking Babylon in 1225 BCE.

These were savage struggles. Defeat could mean annihilation—men slaughtered, women and children carried into slavery, cities reduced to rubble and condemned to oblivion. Everything, therefore, was sacrificed for victory. More militarized elites emerged, far richer than their predecessors, and their internal feuds took on a new edge. Kings fortified their palaces or built themselves whole new cities where the lower orders would not disturb their tranquillity. Taxes and demands for forced labor rose sharply and debt spiraled as aristocrats borrowed to finance lavish lifestyles and peasants mortgaged harvests to stay alive. Kings described themselves as their people’s shepherds but spent more time fleecing their flocks than protecting them, fighting to control labor and carrying off whole peoples to work on their building projects. The Hebrews toiling on pharaoh’s cities, distant descendants of Jacob’s sons who had migrated to Egypt with such high hopes, are merely the best known of these slave populations.

So it was that state power grew after 1500 BCE and the Western core expanded with it. Pottery made in Greece has been found around the shores of Sicily, Sardinia, and northern Italy, suggesting that other, more valuable (but archaeologically less visible) goods were moving long distances too. Archaeologists diving off the Anatolian coast have recovered astonishing snapshots of the mechanics of trade. A ship wrecked at Uluburun around 1316 BCE, for instance, was carrying enough copper and tin to make ten tons of bronze, as well as ebony and ivory from tropical Africa, cedar from Lebanon, glass from Syria, and weapons from Greece and what is now Israel; in short, a little of everything that might fetch a profit, probably gathered, a few objects at a time, in every port along the ship’s route by a crew as mixed as its cargo.

The shores of the Mediterranean Sea were being drawn into the core. Rich graves containing bronze weapons suggest that village chiefs were turning into kings in Sardinia and Sicily, and texts reveal that young men left their villages on these islands to seek their fortunes as mercenaries in the core’s wars. Sardinians wound up in Babylon and even in what is now Sudan, where Egyptian armies pushed south in search of gold, smashing native states and building temples as they went. Still farther afield, chiefs in Sweden were being buried with chariots, the ultimate status symbols from the core, and were putting other imported military hardware—particularly sharp bronze swords—to deadly use.

As the Mediterranean turned into a new frontier, rising social development once again changed what geography meant. In the fourth millennium BCE the rise of irrigation and cities had made the great river valleys in Egypt and Mesopotamia into more valuable real estate than the old core in the Hilly Flanks, and in the second millennium the explosion of long-distance trade made access to the Mediterranean’s broad waterways more valuable still. After 1500 BCE the turbulent Western core entered a whole new age of expansion.


Archaeologists often suffer from an affliction that I like to call Egypt envy. No matter where we dig or what we dig up, we always suspect we would find better things if we were digging in Egypt. So it is a relief to know that Egypt envy affects people in other walks of life too. In 1995 State Councillor Song Jian, one of China’s top scientific administrators, made an official visit to Egypt. He was not happy when archaeologists told him that its antiquities were older than China’s, so on returning to Beijing he launched the Three Dynasties Chronology Project to look into the matter. Four years and $2 million later, it announced its findings: Egypt’s antiquities really are older than China’s. But now at least we know exactly how much older.

As we saw in Chapter 2, agricultural lifestyles began developing in the West around 9500 BCE, a good two thousand years earlier than in China. By 4000 BCE farming had spread into marginal areas such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, and when the monsoons shifted southward after 3800 BCE these new farmers created cities and states out of self-preservation. The East had plenty of dry, marginal zones too, but farming had barely touched them by 3800, So the arrival of cooler, drier weather did not lead to the rise of cities and states. Instead, it probably made life easier for villagers by making the warm, wet Yangzi and Yellow river valleys a little drier and more manageable. Hard as it is to imagine today, the Yellow River valley was mostly subtropical forest around 4000 BCE; elephants trumpeted down what are now the car-choked streets of Beijing.

Instead of a transition to cities and states like Egypt and Mesopotamia, fourth-millennium-BCE China saw steady, unspectacular population growth. Forests were cleared and new villages founded; old villages grew into towns. The better people did at capturing energy, the more they multiplied and the greater pressure they put on themselves; so, like Westerners, they tinkered and experimented, finding new ways to squeeze more from the soil, to organize themselves more effectively, and to grab what they wanted from others. Thick fortifications of pounded earth sprouted around the bigger sites, suggesting conflict, and some settlements were laid out in more organized ways, suggesting community-level planning. Houses got bigger and we find more objects in them, pointing to slowly rising standards of living; but differences between houses also increased, perhaps meaning that richer peasants were distinguishing themselves from their neighbors. Some archaeologists think that the distribution of tools within houses reveals emerging gender distinctions too. In a few places, notably Shandong (Figure 4.5), some people—mostly men—found their last resting place in big graves with more offerings than others, and a few even had elaborate carved jade ornaments.

Beautiful as these jades can be, it must still be hard for archaeologists excavating Chinese sites of around 2500 BCE to avoid the odd pang of Egypt envy. They find no Great Pyramids or royal inscriptions. Their discoveries in fact look more like what archaeologists find on sites in the Western core that date around 4000 BCE, shortly before the first cities and states emerged. The East was moving along a path like the West’s, but at least fifteen hundred years behind; and, staying on schedule, between 2500 and 2000 BCE the East went through transformations rather like those the West had seen between 4000 and 3500 BCE.


Figure 4.5. The expansion of the Eastern core, 3500–1000 BCE: sites mentioned in this chapter

All along the great river valleys the pace of change accelerated, but an interesting pattern emerged. The fastest changes came not on the broadest plains with the richest soils but in cramped spaces, where it was hard for people to run away and find new homes if they lost struggles for resources within villages or wars between them. On one of Shandong’s small plains, for instance, archaeologists found a new settlement pattern taking shape between 2500 and 2000 BCE. A single large town grew up, with perhaps five thousand residents, surrounded by smaller satellite towns, which had their own smaller satellite villages. Surveys around Susa in southwest Iran found a similar pattern there some fifteen hundred years earlier; this, perhaps, is the way things always go when one community wins political control.

To judge from the lavish send-offs some men got in their funerals, genuine kings may have been clawing their way up the greasy pole in Shandong after 2500 BCE. A few graves contain truly spectacular jades and one has a turquoise headdress that looks a lot like a crown. The most remarkable find, though, is a humble potsherd from Dinggong. When this apparently unremarkable fragment of gray pottery initially came out of the ground the excavators just tossed it in a bucket with their other finds, but when they cleaned it back at the lab they found eleven symbols, related to yet different from later Chinese scripts, scratched on its surface. Is this, the excavators asked, the tip of an iceberg of widespread writing on perishable materials? Did Shandong’s kings have bureaucrats managing their affairs, like the rulers of Uruk in Mesopotamia a thousand years earlier? Maybe; but other archaeologists, pointing to the unusual way the inscription was identified, wonder whether it has been wrongly dated or is even a fake. Only further discoveries will clear this up. Yet writing or no, whoever ran the Shandong communities was certainly powerful. By 2200 BCE human sacrifices were common and some graves received ancestor worship.

Who were these top people? Taosi, a site four hundred miles away in the Fen River valley, may provide some clues. This is the biggest settlement known from these times, with perhaps ten thousand inhabitants. A huge pounded-earth platform may have supported one of China’s first palaces, though the only direct evidence is a decorated fragment of a destroyed wall found in a pit. (I will return to this in a moment.)

Thousands of burials have been excavated at Taosi, and these hint at a steep social hierarchy. Nearly nine out of every ten graves were small, with just a few offerings. Roughly one in ten was bigger, but about one in a hundred (always male) was enormous. Some of the giant graves held two hundred offerings, including vases painted with dragons, jade ornaments, and entire pigs, sacrificed but not eaten. In a striking parallel to Jiahu, the prehistoric cemetery discussed in Chapter 2, the very richest graves contained musical instruments: clay or wood drums with crocodile skins, large stone chimes, and an odd-looking copper bell.

When I talked about Jiahu in Chapter 2, I mentioned the archaeologist Kwang-chih Chang’s theory that Eastern kings developed from prehistoric shamans who used alcohol, music, and repetitive rituals to convince themselves (and others) that they traveled to spirit worlds and talked to ancestors and gods. Jiahu had not been excavated when Chang developed this idea, and he could trace evidence only back to about 3500 BCE; but pointing to Taosi and similar sites, he suggested that it was between 2500 and 2000 BCEthat ancient China’s religious and royal symbols crystallized. About two thousand years later the Rites of Zhou, a Confucian handbook on ceremonies, would still list all the instrument types found in the Taosi graves as appropriate for elite rituals.

Chang believed that other literature produced around the same time as the Rites of Zhou also reveals memories of the period before 2000 BCE. One of the most significant, if also most cryptic, passages may come in the Springs and Autumns of Mr. Lü,* a survey of useful knowledge compiled in 239 BCE by one Lü Buwei, chief minister of the state of Qin. Lü pronounced, “The Way of Heaven is round; the Way of Earth is square. The sage kings took this as their model.” The sage kings were said to be descendants of the high god Di, and the last of these sage kings, Yu, was supposed to have saved mankind by digging drainage ditches when the Yellow River flooded. “But for Yu,” another text said, “we should have been fishes.” The grateful people made Yu their king, the story runs, and he founded China’s first fully human dynasty, the Xia.

Lü Buwei believed in his book’s accuracy, reportedly suspending a thousand pieces of gold above it outside his city’s main market and offering the money to anyone who could show that he needed to add or remove a single word. (Fortunately, publishers no longer require this of authors.) But despite Lü’s touching faith, King Yu sounds about as credible as Noah, the West’s version of a blameless man who saved humanity from floods. Most historians think the sage kings were entirely fictional. Kwang-chih Chang, though, suggested that Lü’s book preserved genuine, albeit distorted, information about the late third millennium BCE, the age when something resembling kingship was taking shape in the East.

Chang saw a link between Lü’s story that the sage kings took the roundness of heaven and squareness of earth as their model and the cong, a type of jade vessel that appeared in rich graves in the Yangzi Delta region around 2500 BCE then spread to Taosi and other sites. A cong is a square block of jade with a cylindrical opening drilled through it, the circle and square expressing the union of heaven and earth. The circle-square remained a potent emblem of royal power until the fall of China’s last dynasty in 1912 CE. If you brave the crowds at the Forbidden City in Beijing and peer into the dark interiors of the palaces, you will see the same symbols—square throne base, round ceiling—repeated over and over again.

Perhaps, Chang suggested, memories of ancient priest-kings, men who claimed to move between this and the spirit world and used cong to symbolize their power, survived into Lü’s day. Chang called the years 2500–2000 BCE “the Age of Jade Cong, the period when shamanism and politics joined forces and when an elite class based on its shamanistic monopoly came into being.” The most spectacular cong were surely royal treasures; the biggest example, engraved with images of spirits and animals, has been dubbed by archaeologists (whose humor is nothing if not predictable) the King Cong.

If Chang was right, religious specialists turned themselves into a ruling elite between 2500 and 2000 BCE, much as they had done in Mesopotamia a thousand-plus years earlier, with jade, music, and temples on beaten-earth platforms as amplifiers for their messages to the gods. One site even had a shrine (admittedly small, just twenty feet across, and only on a low platform) shaped like a cong.

By 2300 BCE Taosi looked like an Uruk in the making, complete with palaces, platforms, and chiefs on their way to becoming godlike. And then, suddenly, it didn’t. The elite compound was destroyed, which is why the only trace of a palace is the fragment of a painted wall found in a garbage pit that I mentioned earlier. Forty skeletons, some dismembered or with weapons stuck in them, were dumped in a ditch where the palace had stood, and some of the biggest graves in the cemetery were looted. Taosi shrank to half its previous size and a big new town grew up just a few miles away.

One of the frustrating things about archaeology is that we often see the results of what people did but not the causes. We can spin yarns (Barbarians burn Taosi! Civil war destroys Taosi! Internal feuds tear Taosi in two! New neighbor sacks Taosi! And so on.) but can rarely tell which is true. In this case, the best we can do is to observe that the fall of Taosi was part of a larger process. By 2000 BCE the biggest sites in Shandong had also been abandoned and population was falling across northern China—at just the same time, of course, that drought, famine, and political collapse were racking Egypt and Mesopotamia. Could climate change have brought on an Old World–wide crisis?

If Taosi had recorded flood levels with a Yellow Riverometer like Egypt’s Nilometer, or if Chinese archaeologists had done micromorphological studies like those at Tell Leilan in Syria, we might be able to say, but these kinds of evidence do not exist. We might scour the literary accounts written two thousand years after these events for information, though as with the stories about sage kings, we cannot tell how much their authors really knew about such early times.

During the reign of Yu,” the Springs and Autumns of Mr. Lü says, “there were ten thousand guo under heaven.” Translating guo as “chiefdom,” a small political unit based on a walled town, many archaeologists think this is quite a good description of the Yellow River valley between 2500 and 2000 BCE. Some scholars go on to argue that there really was a King Yu, who ended the age of ten thousand guo and imposed the rule of a Xia dynasty on them. The literary sources even provide a climatic cause, though instead of a Mesopotamian-style dust bowl they speak of torrential rain in nine out of ten years, which was why Yu needed to drain the Yellow River valley. Something like this certainly could have happened; until two decades ago, when the Yellow River started running dry in places, people regularly called it “China’s sorrow” because it flooded most years and changed course on average once each century, ruining or killing peasants by the thousands.

Maybe the story of Yu is based on a real catastrophe around 2000 BCE. Or maybe it is just a folktale. We simply don’t know. Once again, though, while the causes of change are obscure, its consequences are clear. While the towns of Shandong and the Fen Valley bounced back by 2000 BCE (Taosi even got a monumental platform twenty feet tall and two hundred feet across), the advantages of backwardness—so important in Western history—now kicked in, and even more impressive monuments began filling a former backwater, the Yiluo Valley.

We do not have enough evidence to know why, but the Yiluoans did not simply copy Taosi. Instead they created a whole new architectural style, replacing the big buildings that were easy to see and approach from every angle, which had been customary for a thousand years in northern China, with closed-in palaces, their courtyards surrounded by roofed corridors with only a few points of entry. They then tucked the palaces away behind tall rammed-earth walls. Interpreting architecture is a tricky business, but the Yiluo style may mean that relationships between rulers and ruled mutated in new and perhaps more hierarchical directions as priestly leadership spread to the fluid frontier in the Yiluo Valley.

We might think of this as the East’s Uruk moment, when one community left all rivals behind and turned itself into a state with rulers who could use force to impose their decisions on and raise taxes from their subjects. That community was Erlitou, which exploded into a true city with 25,000 residents between 1900 and 1700 BCE. Many Chinese archaeologists believe Erlitou was the capital of the Xia dynasty said to have been established by the sage king Yu. Non-Chinese scholars on the whole disagree, pointing out that the literary references to the Xia only begin a thousand years after Erlitou was abandoned. Perhaps, they suggest, the Xia—along with King Yu—were made up. These critics accuse Chinese scholars of at best being gullible about mythology and at worst of peddling propaganda, bolstering modern China’s national identity by pushing its origins as far into antiquity as possible. Not surprisingly, these arguments get nasty.

The debate is mostly beside the point for the questions we are discussing here, but we cannot avoid it completely. For my own part, I tend to suspect that there really was a Xia dynasty, and that Erlitou was its capital, even if the stories about Yu are largely folktales. As we will see in the next section, whenever we can check them, it’s clear that later Chinese historians did rather well at transmitting names; I just cannot imagine Yu and the Xia being invented out of whole cloth.

Whatever the truth, though, Yu, the Xia, or whoever ruled Erlitou could command labor on a whole new scale, building a string of palaces and perhaps an ancestral temple on stamped-earth platforms in the new, closed-in style. One platform, supporting Palace I, must have taken something like a hundred thousand workdays to complete. A quarter of a mile from it archaeologists found slag, crucibles, and molds from bronze casting strewn across two acres. Copper had been known since 3000 BCE, but long remained a novelty item, used mostly for trinkets. When Erlitou was established around 1900 BCE, bronze weapons were still rare, and stone, bone, and shell remained normal for agricultural tools well into the first millennium BCE. The Erlitou foundry thus represented a quantum leap over earlier craft activity. It churned out weapons and craftsmen’s tools, which must have helped with the city’s success, but also produced remarkable ritual objects—bells like the earlier example from Taosi; plaques with inlaid turquoise eyes, animals, and horns; and ritual vessels a foot or more in diameter. The shapes invented at Erlitou (jia tripods, ding cauldrons, jue pouring cups, he pitchers for heating wine) became the East’s ultimate amplifiers for religious messages, displacing jade cong and dominating rituals for the next thousand years.

These great vessels have been found only at Erlitou, and if Chang was right that royal power flowed from the king’s claim to stand at the junction of this and supernatural worlds, bronze ritual vessels were probably as important to Erlitou’s power as bronze swords. The king of Erlitou had the loudest amplifier; lords of lesser guo might have concluded that it made sense to cooperate with the man the spirits could hear best.

For the king, though, bronze vessels must have been a headache as well as a tool. They were hugely expensive, requiring armies of craftsmen and ton upon ton of copper, tin, and fuel—all in short supply in the Yiluo Valley. In addition to carving out a small kingdom (guessing from the pattern of settlements, some archaeologists estimate that it covered about two thousand square miles), Erlitou may have sent out colonists to grab raw materials. Dongxiafeng, for instance, set in copper-rich hills a hundred miles west of Erlitou, has Erlitou-type pottery and great mounds of debris from copper smelting, but no palaces, rich graves, or molds for casting vessels, let alone the vessels themselves. The archaeologists may just have dug in the wrong places, but they have been looking there a long time; most likely copper was mined and refined at Dongxiafeng then sent back to Erlitou—the East’s first colonial regime.


Backwardness may have advantages, but it has disadvantages too, not least that as soon as a periphery forces its way into an older core it finds itself confronting new peripheries similarly intent on forcing their way in. Erlitou was the most dazzling city in the East by 1650 BCE, its temples gleaming with bronze cauldrons and echoing with chimes and bells, but a mere day’s walk beyond the Yellow River would have taken an adventurous urbanite into a violent world of fortresses and feuding chiefs. Two skeletons found in a pit just forty miles from the big city show unmistakable signs of scalping.

Relations between Erlitou and this wild frontier may have been rather like those between Mesopotamia’s Akkadian Empire and the Amorites, with trading and raiding profitable to both parties—until something upset the balance. The upset in the East shows up in the form of a fortress called Yanshi, built around 1600 BCE just five miles from Erlitou. Later literary sources say that around this time a new group, the Shang, overthrew the Xia dynasty. The earliest finds from Yanshi combine Erlitou styles of material with traditions from north of the Yellow River, and most Chinese archaeologists (and this time many non-Chinese too) think the Shang crossed the Yellow River around 1600 BCE, defeated Erlitou, and built Yanshi to dominate their humbled but more sophisticated foes. Yanshi bloomed into a great city as Erlitou declined, until around 1500 BCE the Shang kings, perhaps deciding that they did not need to watch their former enemies quite so closely, moved fifty miles east to a new city at Zhengzhou.

Anything Erlitou could do, it seems, Zhengzhou could do better, or at least bigger. Zhengzhou had an inner city about the same size as Erlitou but also an entire square mile of suburbs with their own enormous stamped-earth wall. By one estimate this would have taken ten thousand laborers eight years to build. “They tilted in the earth with a rattling,” a later poem says of the construction of such a wall, “They pounded it with a dull thud. / They beat the walls with a loud clang, / they pared and chiseled them with a faint ping-ping.” Zhengzhou must have reverberated with rattles, thuds, clangs, and ping-pings. The city also needed not one but several bronze foundries, just one of which left an eight-acre waste dump. Zhengzhou’s ritual vessels continued Erlitou traditions but, naturally, were grander. One bronze cauldron buried in a hurry around 1300 BCE (perhaps during an attack) was three feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds.

Zhengzhou also expanded Erlitou’s colonialism. Four hundred miles away, beyond the Yangzi River, miners tore up the valleys of Tongling in search of copper, burrowing a hundred plank-lined shafts into the rock, disfiguring the landscape with 300,000 tons of slag. The objects they left behind (so well preserved that archaeologists have even found their wood and bamboo tools and reed sleeping mats) are just like those from the Shang capital. When Uruk-style material culture had expanded through Mesopotamia after 3500 BCE, some sites looked like they were cloned from Uruk itself, right down to their street plans; likewise, Shang colonists built a kind of miniature Zhengzhou, complete with palaces, rich burials, and bronze ritual vessels in fully developed Shang style at Panlongcheng, astride the easiest route from Tongling to the Shang heartland.

Only around 1250 BCE, though, do the Shang really come alive for us. According to legend, in 1899 (CE, that is) a relative of Wang Qirong, director of the Imperial Academy in Beijing, caught malaria and sent a servant to buy decayed turtle shell, a traditional Chinese remedy.* Wang’s sick relative was an educated man, and when he saw a row of symbols scratched on the shell his servant brought home he guessed that they were an ancient version of Chinese. He sent the shell to Wang for a second opinion, and Wang guessed that the inscription dated back to the Shang dynasty.

Buying more shells, Wang made rapid progress on decipherment, but not rapid enough. In summer 1900 popular anger against Westerners erupted in the Boxer Rebellion. The dowager empress backed the rebels and put imperial officials, including Wang, in charge of militia bands. The Boxers besieged the foreign embassy compound, but twenty thousand alien troops—Japanese, Russian, British, American, and French—descended on Beijing. Swept up in the disaster, his life in ruins, Wang, his wife, and his daughter-in-law poisoned themselves and jumped down a well.

Wang’s inscribed bones came into the hands of an old friend. Within a decade he, too, was dead, after disgrace and exile to China’s desolate west, but in 1903 he managed to publish the inscriptions as a book. It set off bone frenzy. Foreign and indigenous scholars scrambled to buy up turtle shells; one was offering three ounces of silver per inscribed word, at a time when laborers in Beijing were earning just one sixth of an ounce per day. The bad news was that this set off a rash of illicit digging, with armed gangs shooting it out in potato fields over fragments of ancient turtle shells. The good news, though, was extraordinary. Not only had Wang been right that these burned shells and bones were China’s oldest texts; but they also turned out to name kings who matched exactly those listed by the first-century-BCE historian Sima Qian as the last rulers of the Shang dynasty.

Antiquities dealers tried to keep the source of the bones secret, but soon everyone knew they came from the village of Anyang, and in 1928 the Chinese government launched its first official archaeological excavation there. Unfortunately, it immediately ran into the same problems as the Peking Man excavations at Zhoukoudian. Warlords and bandits fought across the neighborhood; tomb robbers with homemade pistols had firefights with police; and the Japanese army closed in. The biggest-ever find of inscriptions, a pit containing seventeen thousand bones, was made just an hour before the 1936 excavation season was due to end. Archaeologists struggled for an additional four days and nights to get the artifacts out of the ground, knowing they might never be able to return. Most of their finds disappeared during the decade of war that followed, but the bronze vessels and inscriptions made it to Taiwan after the 1949 Communist takeover. And it was all worthwhile; the Anyang excavations transformed early Chinese history.

The excavations showed that Anyang was the final Shang capital, established around 1300 BCE. Its walled settlement, located only in 1997, covered nearly three square miles, but like Zhengzhou it was dwarfed by its suburbs. Temples, cemeteries, and bronze foundries sprawled across another dozen square miles, an area one-third the size of Manhattan. One foundry, excavated in 2004, covered ten acres, but at the core of this ritual landscape, dominating what was recorded in the inscriptions, was a different activity: the kings’ efforts to cajole their ancestors into helping them.

The excavated inscriptions begin in the long reign of King Wuding (1250–1192 BCE), and from the information they contain we can piece together the rituals that produced them. The king would put questions to his ancestors, summoning their spirits from their great tombs on the other side of the river that ran through Anyang. Pressing a heated stick against a shell or bone, he would interpret the cracks it produced, and specialists would inscribe the results on the “oracle bone.”

The rites made Wuding ancestor-in-chief, hosting parties for spirits of recently dead kings and corralling them into hosting their own ancestors, who in turn—for really serious matters—would host all the spirits on up to Di, the high god. The idea that the silent turtle could make the ancestors’ voices heard perhaps went back six thousand years to sites like Jiahu, discussed in Chapter 2, but the Shang kings of course made it bigger and better. Archaeologists have found more than 200,000 oracle bones at Anyang, and David Keightley, the leading Western scholar of the inscriptions, calculates some 2 million to 4 million were originally made, consuming a hundred thousand turtles and oxen. The rituals also involved binge drinking, perhaps to put the king and diviners into the right frame of mind for talking to spirits.

Shang kings tried to get on the right side of the spirits with spectacular funerals to mark their predecessors’ transition to ancestorhood. Eight royal tombs have been found, one for each king from 1300 through 1076 BCE, with an unfinished ninth for Di Xin, still on the throne when the dynasty fell in 1046. All were looted, but the cemeteries are still overwhelming—not so much for the few thousand tons of earth moved for each tomb, which were paltry by Egyptian standards, but for the real Shang funeral specialty: violence.

Ancient Chinese literature speaks of people “following in death” at elite funerals, but nothing prepared the Anyang excavators for what they found. Tomb 1001, probably Wuding’s resting place, contained about two hundred corpses—9 at the bottom of the shaft, each in its own pit with a dead dog and a deliberately broken bronze blade; 11 more on a ledge around the shaft; between 73 and 136 (it’s hard to tell from the hacked-up body parts) scattered on ramps into the tomb; and 80 more on the surface next to the grave. About five thousand sacrificial pits have been identified around the tombs, typically holding several murdered humans (mostly men, some with their joints worn down by hard labor) and animals (from birds to elephants). Nor did the doomed go quietly. Some were beheaded; others had limbs chopped off or were severed at the waist; others still were found bound and contorted, surely buried alive.

The numbers are staggering. The oracle bones mention 13,052 ritual killings, and if Keightley is right that we have found only 5–10 percent of the inscriptions, in all a quarter of a million people may have perished. Averaged out, that would be four or five per day, every day, for 150 years. In reality, though, they were bunched around big funerals in great orgies of hacking, screaming, and dying, when the cemeteries literally ran with blood. Nearly three thousand years later, Aztec kings in Mexico waged wars specifically to take prisoners to feed their bloodthirsty god Quetzalcoatl; the Shang may have done the same for their ancestors, particularly against people they called the Qiang, more than seven thousand of whom are listed as victims in the oracle bones.

Wuding and his colleagues, like great kings in the West, talked to spirits in another world while dealing death in this one. It was the combination of worship and war that made them kings, and the funerals that turned kings into ancestors were full of martial symbolism. Even after being plundered, tomb 1004 (perhaps for King Lin Xin, who died around 1160 BCE) still contained 731 spearheads, 69 axes, and 141 helmets; and when Wuding spoke directly to the high god Di, it was usually about fighting. “Crackmaking on day forty-one, Zheng divined,” says a typical oracle bone. “If we attack the Mafang, Di will confer assistance on us.”

By Western standards Shang armies were small. The largest mentioned in the oracle bones is ten thousand men, just a third the size of Ramses’ army at Kadesh. Place-names in the inscriptions also suggest that Wuding directly administered quite a small stretch of the Yellow River, plus a few far-flung colonies such as Panlongcheng. He apparently ran not an integrated, tax-paying, bureaucratically managed state like Egypt, but a looser group of allies who sent tribute to Anyang—cattle, white horses, bones and shells for divining, and even humans for sacrifice.

Sima Qian, the first-century-BCE historian who listed the Shang kings, made early Chinese history sound simple. After the sage kings, culminating in Yu the ditch digger, came the Xia, then the Shang, and then the Zhou (the three dynasties of the Three Dynasties Chronology Project). From them China developed, and nothing else was worth mentioning. But while archaeology has shown that Erlitou and Anyang were indeed peerless in their age, it has also shown that Sima Qian’s account oversimplified things. Like the Egyptians and Babylonians, the Xia and Shang had to deal with dozens of neighboring states.

Archaeologists are just beginning to unearth these other states’ impressive remains, especially in southern and eastern China. As recently as 1986 we had little idea that a rich kingdom had flourished around 1200 BCE far up the Yangzi River in Sichuan; but then archaeologists found two pits stuffed with treasures at Sanxingdui. There were dozens of bronze bells, a couple of six-foot-high statues of men with crowns and huge, staring eyes, and elaborate bronze “spirit trees” twice that height, their branches full of delicate metal fruit, leaves, and birds. The excavators had stumbled onto a lost kingdom, and in 2001 a major city came to light in nearby Jinsha. By some estimates, half of all the house and highway construction in the world in the 2010s and 2020s will happen in China, and there is no telling what the salvage archaeologists, racing to stay one step ahead of the backhoes, will turn up next.

We find it easy to think of the Hittites, Assyrians, and Egyptians as distinct peoples, because ancient texts preserve their different languages and we are used to the West being divided into multiple national states. In the East, though, Sima Qian’s story line that Chineseness began with the Xia and radiated outward makes it all too tempting to imagine these early states, which nowadays lie within a single modern nation, as “always” being Chinese. In reality, ancient East and West probably had rather similar networks of jostling states, sharing some beliefs, practices, and cultural forms while differing in others. They traded, fought, competed, and expanded. As our evidence accumulates, the processes through which social development rose in the ancient East and West are coming to look more and more similar. Perhaps there was once a wooden hall at Anyang holding letters on silk and bamboo like the inscribed clay tablets at Amarna in Egypt, recording diplomatic correspondence with foreign rulers who spoke alien tongues. The king of Jinsha may have called Wuding his “brother” as they exchanged thoughts on whether to treat the rulers of Shandong as equals; and maybe Wuding even arranged to send some unsuspecting Shang princess as a bride to a petty court on the Yangzi, there to swelter and bear children far from her family and loved ones. We will never know.


I would like to bring von Däniken’s spacemen back into the story once more. Even if the collapse of Egypt and Mesopotamia after 2200 BCE had taken the aliens by surprise, as I suggested earlier, they would have felt nothing but satisfaction had they brought their flying saucer back to orbit the world of Wuding and Ramses II around 1250 BCE. This time their work really did seem to be done. Western social development had reached twenty-four points on the index, nearly three times where it stood in 5000 BCE.

The average Egyptian or Mesopotamian harnessed probably 20,000 kilocalories per day, as compared to 8,000 around 5000 BCE, and the biggest cities, such as Thebes in Egypt or Babylon, had maybe eighty thousand residents. There were thousands of literate scribes and burgeoning libraries. The greatest armies could muster five thousand chariots, and it would have been a fair guess that one state (maybe Egypt, or perhaps the Hittites) would soon create a core-wide empire. New states, with their own palaces, temples, and godlike kings, would develop in Italy, Spain, and beyond; then the empire in the core would swallow these, too, until one great realm filled the map in Figure 4.3. The East would continue tracking Western developments a millennium or two behind. It would probably go through disruptions like the West’s, and the West would probably face more upsets too; but like the earlier episodes, these would barely slow the rising tide of social development. The West would retain its lead, figure out fossil fuels within a couple of thousand years, and go on to global rule.

So when nearly every major city in the Western core, from Greece to what we now call the Gaza Strip, went up in flames around 1200 BCE, the aliens would have assumed it was another disruption like 2200 or 1750 BCE—a big one, to be sure, but nothing to worry about in the long term. Even when disaster engulfed the palaces so suddenly that their scribes barely had time to record it, the aliens would lose no sleep.

An unusual clay tablet from around 1200 BCE found in the ruined palace at Pylos in Greece opens with the ominous line “the watchers are guarding the coasts”; another from the same site, written in evident haste, seems to be describing human sacrifices meant to forestall an emergency, but then trails off, unfinished. At Ugarit, a rich trading city on the Syrian coast, archaeologists found a batch of clay letters lying in a kiln where scribes had intended to dry them before they were filed. Ugarit was sacked before anyone could come back and get the texts. These letters from the city’s dying days make grim reading. One is from the Hittite king, begging for food: “it is a matter of life and death!” In another, Ugarit’s king writes that while his troops and ships were away supporting the Hittites, “the enemy’s ships came here; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country.”

Darkness fell all around, yet so long as Egypt still stood, hope remained. In a temple he built in his own honor, Pharaoh Ramses III set up an inscription that seems to pick up the story from Ugarit: “The foreign countries had made a conspiracy in their islands,” it says. “No land could stand before their arms.” These foreigners—the Peoples of the Sea, Ramses calls them—had overwhelmed the Hittites, Cyprus, and Syria. Now, in 1176 BCE, they came against Egypt. But they had not reckoned with the god-king:

Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished for ever and ever … They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed, and made into heaps from tail to head … I have made the lands turn back from [even] mentioning Egypt; for when they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.

Ramses III’s Peoples of the Sea were probably also the villains in the Pylos and Ugarit stories. They included, Ramses says, Shrdn, Shkrsh, Dnyn, and Prst. Egyptian hieroglyphics did not record vowels, and identifying who these names refer to is a cottage industry among historians. Most think Shrdn was pronounced “Sherden,” an ancient name for Sardinians, and the Shkrsh were Sheklesh, Egyptian for Sikels (Sicilians). Dnyn is less clear, but could mean Danaans, a name Homer would later use for Greeks. With Prst we are on firmer ground: it means Peleset, the Egyptian name for the Philistines of biblical fame.

This is quite a cocktail of Mediterranean peoples, and historians argue endlessly over what brought them to the Nile Delta. The evidence is spotty, but some archaeologists point to signs of higher temperatures and lower rainfall in every part of the Western core after 1300 BCE. Drought, they suggest, reran the 2200 BCE scenario, setting off migrations and state failure. Others think that earthquakes threw the core into turmoil, providing opportunities for plunder and pulling raiders in from the frontier. There were also changes in how people fought; new swords for slashing and deadlier javelins might have given swarms of irregular, lightly armed infantry from the peripheries the weapons they needed to defeat the core’s gleaming but inflexible chariot armies. And disease might have played a part too. A terrible plague had spread from Egypt to the Hittites in the 1320s BCE. “The Land of Hatti, all of it, is dying,” one prayer said, and although surviving texts do not mention plague again, if it was anything like epidemics in better-documented periods it would have kept returning. By 1200 BCE populations were apparently falling in the core.

The hard truth is that we just don’t know the specific causes of the crisis, although the underlying dynamic seems clear enough: a sudden shift in relations between the core and its expanding frontiers. As had been the case so often before, expansion was a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the new frontier in the Mediterranean fueled surging social development, but on the other, it unveiled new advantages of backwardness and set off disruptions—migrations, mercenaries, and unmanageable new tactics—that challenged the established order. And in the thirteenth century BCE, it seems that the great powers in the core began losing control of the frontier they had created.

Whether they were pushed or pulled and whether the motor was climate change, earthquakes, changes on the battlefield, or plagues, people began moving into the core in overwhelming numbers. Already in the 1220s BCE Ramses II had fortified Egypt’s borders, settling migrants in closely controlled towns or enlisting them in his army, but it was not enough. In 1209 BCE Pharaoh Merneptah had to fight not only the Sherden and Sheklesh, whom Ramses III would confront again in the 1170s BCE, but also Libyans and people named Akaiwasha—perhaps Ahhiyawans from Greece?—who joined forces to raid Egypt from the west.

The victorious Merneptah joyfully recorded that he cut off 6,239 uncircumcised penises to tally the enemy dead, but even while he was counting them the storm was engulfing the north. Greek, Hittite, and Syrian cities burned. Later legends talk of migrations into Greece around this time, and archaeology hints at out-migration too. Pottery found around Gaza, where the Philistines settled in the twelfth century BCE, is almost identical to vases from Greece, suggesting that the Philistines began as Greek refugees; and more Greeks settled on Cyprus.

Migration may have snowballed as refugees from devastated areas joined it. It looks like it was a shapeless movement, with disconnected plundering and fighting going on everywhere at once. The Syrian collapse apparently pushed people called Arameans into Mesopotamia, and despite Ramses’ claims of victory, former Peoples of the Sea settled in Egypt. Like Greece, Egypt experienced out- as well as in-migration. The biblical story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing Egypt and eventually settling in what is now the West Bank probably reflects these chaotic years. It may not be a coincidence that the first nonbiblical reference to Israel is Merneptah’s pronouncement in his 1209 BCE inscription that he left that land “wasted, bare of seed.”

The sheer scale of the migrations that began in the 1220s BCE dwarfed earlier disruptions, but as late as the 1170s aliens watching from their flying saucers could still plausibly have hoped that this episode might turn out like earlier ones. After all, Egypt had not been pillaged, and in Mesopotamia the Assyrians actually expanded their kingdom as rival states folded. But as the twelfth century wore on and the upheavals continued, it slowly became clear that this disruption was something altogether new.

In Greece the palaces destroyed after 1200 BCE were not reoccupied and the old bureaucracy disappeared. Fairly wealthy aristocrats did preserve something like the old ways, often relocating to easily defended sites on mountains or small islands, but a new wave of destructions hit them around 1125 BCE. When I was a graduate student I had the doubly good fortune (not only was the archaeology fascinating, but I also met my future wife there) to dig on one of these sites, a fortified hilltop at Koukounaries on the island of Paros.* Its chief had enjoyed a fine lifestyle with great views, wonderful beaches, and a throne decorated with ivory inlays, but around 1100 BCE disaster struck him down. His villagers had stockpiled stones to fling at attackers and brought their animals behind the walls (we found donkey skeletons amid the ruins), but fled ahead of the flames when someone—we never learned who—stormed the citadel. Similar scenes played out all over Greece, and in the eleventh century BCE the survivors built only simple mud huts. Population, craftsmanship, and life expectancy all declined; a dark age set in.

Greece was the extreme case, but the Hittite Empire also went under, and Egypt and Babylon struggled to control migrants and raiders. Famines spread as villagers abandoned their fields. Because farmers could not pay taxes, states could not raise troops; and because there were no troops, raids went unchecked and local strongmen carved out little dukedoms. By 1140 BCE Egypt’s empire in what is now Israel faded away. Abandoned by their paymasters, garrison troops turned into peasants or bandits. “In those daysthere was no king in Israel,” says the book of Judges, the Israelites’ account of their own part in this breakdown; “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

By 1100 BCE Egypt itself was fragmenting. Thebes broke away; immigrants created principalities in the Nile Delta; and soon Ramses XI, the official god-king, was being told what to do by his own vizier, who seized the throne in 1069. For several centuries few of Egypt’s shadowy pharaohs fielded large armies, put up monuments, or even wrote much down.

Assyria, which early on looked like the big winner, lost control of the countryside as movements of Aramean peoples increased. By 1100 BCE the fields lay fallow, the treasury had run empty, and hunger stalked the land. The situation gets harder to read as the bureaucrats committed less to writing, rather suddenly stopping altogether after 1050. By then Assyria’s cities were empty and its empire just a memory.

The Western core had contracted by 1000 BCE. Sardinia, Sicily, and Greece largely lost contact with the wider world, and warrior chiefs carved up the carcasses of the Hittite and Assyrian empires. Cities survived in Syria and Babylonia, but were a sad comedown from second-millennium-BCE metropolitan centers such as Ugarit. A cluster of little states survived in Egypt, but these were weaker and poorer than the glorious empire of Ramses II. And for the first time, social development actually fell. The numbers for every trait slid: by 1000 BCE people captured less energy, lived in smaller cities, fielded weaker armies, and used less writing than their predecessors had done around 1250. Scores fell back to where they had been six hundred years before.


Around 1200 BCE, while King Wuding still sat on the throne, the Shang elite found something new to destroy in their funerals: chariots. These show up in a couple of dozen twelfth- and eleventh-century tombs at Anyang (complete, needless to say, with slaughtered horses and crews). Shang chariots are so like those that appeared in the Western core five hundred years earlier* that most archaeologists agree that both must have shared an origin in the chariots invented in Kazakhstan around 2000 BCE. Chariots took two or three centuries to reach the Hurrians and to alter the balance of power in the West; they needed eight to cross the greater distance to the Yellow River valley.

Like the Egyptians and Babylonians, the Shang were slow to adopt the new weapon. They must have learned about chariots from the peoples they called the Gui and Qiang who lived to their north and west, and oracle bones mention these neighbors using chariots in battle. In Wuding’s day the Shang themselves used chariots only for hunting, and even then not very well. The fullest account describes Wuding crashing while chasing rhinoceros. He walked away, but a certain Prince Yang was hurt so badly that a whole set of oracle bones records efforts to exorcise the spirits causing his pain. A hundred years later the Shang were using a few chariots in battle, but instead of massing them like the Hittites and Egyptians, they scattered them among the infantry, probably for officers to ride around in.

Shang relations with their northwestern neighbors seem rather like Mesopotamian relations with the Hurrians and Hittites five hundred years earlier. Like the Mesopotamians, the Shang traded and fought with their neighbors, playing them off against one another. One of these groups, the Zhou, is first mentioned in the oracle bones as an enemy around 1200 BCE. They then show up as allies, but by 1150 BCE they were enemies again, now apparently living in the Wei Valley. While they were falling in and out of friendship with the Shang, the Zhou seem also to have been adapting and adopting those elements of Shang culture that suited them. By 1100 BCE they were forming their own state, complete with palaces, bronze vessels, divination, and rich tombs. One Zhou nobleman had a chariot team slaughtered, Shang-style, at his funeral, and Zhou kings even married Shang princesses. But then—again like the Mesopotamians dealing with their chariot-riding Hurrian and Hittite neighbors—the Shang lost control of the situation. The Zhou apparently put together an alliance of northwestern peoples, and by 1050 BCE were threatening the great Shang capital of Anyang itself.

Like the ancient Western states, the Shang state unraveled rather quickly when things went wrong. The oracle bones suggest that the Shang elite’s internal dynamics had been in turmoil since about 1150 BCE, leaving the king more powerful but with fewer aristocratic supporters. By 1100 the Shang colonies in the south may have broken away, and many allies closer to home (like the Zhou) had defected.

In 1048 BCE the Shang king Di Xin could still muster eight hundred lords to block a Zhou attack, but two years later it was a different story. The Zhou king Wu massed three hundred chariots and swung around to take Anyang from the rear. A probably contemporary poem makes it sound like these Zhou chariots were decisive:

The war chariots gleamed,

The team of white-bellies
*was tough …

Ah, that King Wu

Swiftly fell upon Great Shang,

Who before daybreak begged for a truce.

Di Xin committed suicide. Wu won over some Shang leaders, executed others, and left Di Xin’s son as a vassal king. Wu’s political arrangements soon ran into trouble, as we will see in Chapter 5, but by then the gap in social development between East and West had narrowed sharply. The West had got a two-thousand-year head start over the East in agriculture, villages, cities, and states, but across the third and second millennia BCE the West’s lead steadily shrank to just a thousand years.

As long ago as the 1920s most Western archaeologists thought they knew why China had started catching up: it was because the Chinese had copied almost everything—agriculture, pottery, building, metallurgy, chariots—from the West. Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, a British anatomist in Cairo, was so enthusiastic that he even managed to give Egypt envy a bad name. Wherever in the world he looked and whatever he looked at—pyramids, tattooing, stories about dwarfs and giants—Elliot Smith saw the copying of Egyptian archetypes, because, he convinced himself, Egyptian “Children of the Sun” had carried a “heliolithic” (“sun and stone”) culture around the world. When we get right down to it, Elliot Smith concluded, we are all Egyptians.

Some of this seemed fairly nutty even at the time, and since the 1950s archaeology has steadily disproved nearly all Elliot Smith’s claims. Eastern agriculture arose independently; Easterners used pottery thousands of years before Westerners; the East had its own traditions of monumental building; even human sacrifice was an independent Eastern invention. Yet despite all these findings, some important ideas clearly did move from West to East, above all bronzeworking. That metal, so important at Erlitou, is first seen in China not in the developed Yiluo Valley but in arid, windswept Xinjiang far to the northwest, probably after being brought across the steppes by the Western-looking people whose burials in the Tarim Basin I mentioned earlier. Chariots, as we have seen, probably entered the same way, just five hundred years after they had reached the Western core from the steppes.

But while West-to-East diffusion probably explains some of China’s catch-up, the most important factor by far was not Eastern copying but the Western collapse. Eastern social development was still a thousand years behind the West’s in 1200 BCE, but the Western core’s implosion effectively wiped out six centuries’ worth of gains. By 1000 BCE the East’s development score was only a few hundred years behind the West’s. The great Western collapse of 1200–1000 BCE began the first turning point in our story.


Just why the Western core broke down, though, remains one of history’s greatest mysteries. If I had a cast-iron answer, I would of course have mentioned it by now, but the sad fact is that unless some stroke of luck provides a whole new kind of evidence, we will probably never know.

All the same, looking systematically at the disruptions of social development described in this chapter is rather illuminating. Table 4.1 summarizes what strike me as their most important features.

We know so little about the disruptions that undid the Uruk expansion in the West around 3100 BCE and Taosi in the East around 2300 that we should probably leave them out of the discussion, but the four cases of upheavals that remain break down into two pairs. The first pair—the Western crisis after 1750 BCE and the Eastern crisis around 1050—was, we might say, man-made. Chariot warfare shifted the balance of power; ambitious newcomers pushed into the cores; violence, migration, and regime change ensued. The main outcome, in both cases, was a shift in power toward formerly peripheral groups, with development continuing to move upward.

The second pair—the Western crises of 2200–2000 and 1200–1000 BCE—was quite different, most obviously because nature magnified human folly. Climate change was largely beyond human control, and was at least partly responsible for the famines in these periods (though if the biblical story of Joseph is any guide, poor planning probably contributed too). This second pair of disruptions was much more severe than the first, and we might draw a tentative conclusion from this: that when the four horsemen of the apocalypse—climate change, famine, state failure, and migration—ride together, and especially when a fifth horseman of disease joins them, disruptions can turn into collapses, sometimes even driving social development down.


Table 4.1. The horsemen of the apocalypse: the documented dimensions of disasters, 3100–1050 BCE

Yet we cannot conclude that the orbital tilts and wobbles behind climate change straightforwardly caused collapse. The drought that afflicted the Western core around 2200 BCE seems to have been harsher than that around 1200, yet the core muddled through between 2200 and 2000 while it fell apart between 1200 and 1000 BCE. The drought starting around 3800 BCE may have been worse than either 2200 or 1200, but it had relatively little impact in the East and actually drove social development upward in the West.

This suggests a second possibility: that collapse comes out of the interactions between natural and human forces. I think we can probably be more specific about this: bigger, more complex cores generate bigger, more threatening upheavals, increasing the risk that disruptive forces such as climate change and migration will set off thoroughgoing collapses. Around 2200 BCE the Western core was already large, with palaces, godlike kings, and redistributive economies covering the whole area from Egypt to Mesopotamia. When drought and migrations out of the Syrian Desert and Zagros Mountains shook up this region’s internal and external relationships, the results were horrific, but because the twin core areas of Egypt and Mesopotamia were not very tightly linked, each stood or fell independently. By 2100 BCE Egypt had partly collapsed, but Mesopotamia revived; and when Mesopotamia partly collapsed around 2000 BCE, Egypt revived.

In 1200 BCE, by contrast, the core had expanded into Anatolia and Greece, reached the oases of central Asia, and even touched Sudan. Migrations apparently began on the unstable new Mediterranean frontier, but in the twelfth century BCE peoples were on the move everywhere from Iran to Italy. The snowball they created was much, much bigger than anything previously seen, and rolled across a more interconnected core that had more to go wrong. Raiders burned the crops at Ugarit because the king had sent his army to help the Hittites; disasters in one place compounded those in another in ways that had not happened a thousand years earlier. When one kingdom fell, it affected others. Chaos extended across the eleventh century BCE and finally dragged everyone down.

The paradox of social development—the tendency for development to generate the very forces that undermine it—means that bigger cores create bigger problems for themselves. It is all too familiar in our own age. The rise of international finance in the nineteenth century (CE) tied together capitalist nations in Europe and America and helped push social development upward faster than ever before, but this also made it possible for an American stock market bubble in 1929 to drag all these countries down; and the staggering increase in financial sophistication that helped push social development up in the last fifty years also made it possible for a new American bubble in 2008 to shake virtually the whole world to its foundations.

This is an alarming conclusion, but we can also derive a third, more optimistic, point from the troubled history of these early states. Bigger, more complex cores generate bigger, more threatening disruptions but also offer more, and more sophisticated, ways to respond to them. The world’s financial leaders pounced on the crash of 2008 in ways that had been unimaginable in 1929, and as I write (in early 2010), seem to have averted a meltdown like that of the 1930s.

As social development moves upward it sets off a race between ever more threatening disruptions and ever more sophisticated defenses. Sometimes, as happened in the West around 2200 and 1200 BCE, the challenges overwhelm the responses available. Whether because leaders make mistakes, institutions fail, or the organization and technology are just not there, problems spiral out of control, disruption turns into collapse, and social development goes backward.

Before the collapse of 1200–1000 BCE, Western social development had been running well ahead of Eastern for thirteen thousand years. There was every reason to think the West’s lead was permanent. After the collapse, the West’s lead was wafer-thin; another such setback could wipe it out altogether. The paradox of social development, played out so brutally and so often between 5000 and 1000 BCE, showed that nothing lasts forever. No simple long-term lock-in theory can tell us why the West rules.

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