A sketch of history

From Ice Age to Axial Age, Eurasia is determined by four factors. This lasts until the Great Divergence. After that, it is all Anglocentric Great Game variations. Or is it?

A sketch of history
Entrée des Croisés à Constantinople, Delacroix (1840). Can you spot the heroic and crafty Enrico Dandolo?


The four factors that determine systems from the Ice Age to the Axial Age

The evolution of humankind is the evolution of human systems. Human history is the part of this process that begins with the first written traces left by civilisation. These traces, combined if possible with material and genetic archeological data, also allow inferences regarding the evolution of non civilised systems, in particular nomadic-herder-warlike systems, which play an important role in history, though overshadowed by the massive expansion of civilised systems. It is from the point of view of civilised systems that history is written.

History is not a linear progression of civilised systems, but a process in which such systems expand and contract in a somewhat cyclical multi-scale way. Progressive periods, during which population, territory, knowledge and wealth expand, alternate with periods of decline, characterised by rising insecurity, reduction of commerce, decay of urban centres, illiteracy and general loss of cultural memory. Civilisation requires a sense of history.

Over the past 10 000 years, the trend appears progressive for humankind. Near certain great rivers of the Eurasian supercontinent, sedentary-farmer-urban civilised systems developed. They coevolved in competition with nomadic-herder-warlike systems to their south or to their north.

For the purpose of this sketch, nomadic and civilised systems function as two competing kinds of systems, because this is a useful simplification. The picture is more complete if we remind ourselves of the following facts:

  • There are other kinds of systems, either more primitive (very small hunter-gatherer systems) or intermediate (quasi-nomadic systems, quasi-civilised farmers, etc.) Systems that specialised in raiding wealthier civilised systems, but were not of the pure nomadic type, tended to eventually assimilate faster into civilisation. Primitive farmers are closer to civilisation in their outlook than advanced nomads.
  • Civilised systems can be acquired through conquest by by nomadic elites, leading to some form or other of assimilation of the nomads to civilisation. The same applies to all raiders.
  • Even without such an acquisition, civilised systems can use nomads as allies, as mercenaries, or even as a police force. The basic strategy of civilised systems is to play off raiders against each other, to pay one raider to act as bulwark against others, etc.

Climate, pauperisation, war

Both the civilised and the nomads were exposed to the old systemic risk of bad climate events inherited from the Ice Age. Civilised systems learned how to predict river floods by ingenious observations of the stars. Nomadic systems would push into new pasture lands in response to climate shifts and population growth. In particular, the various northern nomads originating from the so-called Eurasian Core competed for land over thousands of years with the civilised systems located to their south-west, south and south-east. Civilised systems tended to lose cohesion after a few generations and were then at their most vulnerable against incursions of warlike nomads.

Loss of cohesion within civilised systems was always determined by an increase of their system's overall Δ beyond functional levels (Δ being the difference within a system of risk outcomes.) If left unchecked, predatory lending of some kind or another would accelerate over the course of a couple generations the increase of Δ, to the point where this process of pauperisation would reduce productivity and reproduction. This is the systemic risk that civilised systems always had to face.

In comparison, nomadic systems tended to have a lower Δ. When climate risks materialised, this affected all nomads within a system in a largely similar way. When other systems encroached on their pasture lands, this tended to be viewed as a systemic risk that needed to be faced straightforwardly together. Overall, the low-density mobile nomadic lifestyle was immune to the calamities of monetary manipulation, high fiscal pressure and intense factional resentment and hatred that arose time and time again within declining civilised systems. Observing the injustice that governed his civilised enemies, the nomad thus more than once saw his own role exalted to that of a scourge sent by the gods to restore justice to the world.

The nomad systems were thus of the hidden but stable S/E/L type, whereas the civilised systems follow the standard S/L/E to E/L/S cyclical pattern which is the inexorable consequence of wealth accumulation.

When nomads clashed with civilised systems, they tended to field less men than their enemies, but these men would have the advantage in efficiency and cohesion. This advantage in efficiency was due to specialisation and state of the art technology in the areas of cavalry and mounted archery. The nomads also made more use of the option of setting fire to farms and cities, by which they could inspire terror in their enemies. Who needed farms and cities? Not everyone.

The warlike freedom of the nomad offered a great contrast to the freedom procured in civilised systems by an urban lifestyle and its attendant dense interaction possibilities. The productive surplus incorporated into the cities through grain reserves meant more freedom from natural cycles, and more freedom to pursue human interactions. But there was a trade-off. The city freed men from nature, but subjected them to the power of new higher ideas, without which life in high Δ complex systems would be intolerable or even completely impossible.


Writing was invented by civilised systems, but later also adopted by nomadic systems.

Mongolian script. What does it mean? (©JK, photo taken during a trip to Xinjiang some years ago)

Writing has many uses. What did writing do for these ancient systems? Answer: the invention and adoption of writing multiplied the power of ideas to regulate cooperative activity. The Eurasian Axial Age was the great scaling up of local systems that results in part from writing, and from building intelligence networks of supralocal regulation, financed through compulsory transfers, to sort populations and individuals of various local origins into low and high risk elements, thereby generating the information without which local systems would be powerless to prevent the formation of hostile coalitions.

The supralocal power of Axial ideas formulated by Eurasian philosophers, shengren, prophets and other enlightened or divine individuals is well known:

  • The status of certain commoner population groups was raised across local systems, at least in a symbolic way. Symbols are important, they provide emotional energy (power increase by symbolic Δ reduction.)
  • Individual supralocal assimilation could compensate the loss of local tribal honour in the case of conquered systems (power increase by material Δ reduction.)
  • Conquerors and their successors found in these ideas the key to a superior power combination, through coalitions of the most powerful with a sufficient combination of lesser powers (additive power increase.)
  • The intelligence network of supralocal regulation provided information on hostile or potentially hostile elements within and without of the system, and acted to reduces the ability of intermediate powers to combine or to coordinate with lesser powers (subtractive power increase.)

All Axial ideas protect the rights of families, and offer a substitute family for the deracinated and isolated. But the corresponding new supralocal institutions did not lead to the disappearance of older local ideas of kinship. These older local ideas, that increase cohesion by restricting cooperation, persisted under various forms.

Networks of more or less predatory kinship played an important role in history, no doubt. But who outside of these kinship networks cared positively about their way of framing systemic risks? This is the great difference with supralocal ideas, which in principle are of interest to everyone, anywhere. Even today, Axial Age interaction rituals retain some power.

The bad news is that there were several of these Axial Age ideas floating around, and that, at most, only one of them could be strictly true. Which means that what the Axial Age also brought us is an entirely new class of systemic risk, beyond climate, demography, and war: the systemic risk of false beliefs. Thus the systemic importance of the skeptical thinkers, who function as nomads of the mind, within or without civilised systems.

All four of these systemic risks are still with us today.

The six causes of the Great Divergence

During the 15th Century, Europe started to diverge strongly from the rest of Eurasia. This so-called Great Divergence is the starting point of the Rise of the West, a period of eurocentric expansion that led, among other things, to the destruction of native American systems and to the rapid emergence in America of a powerful unified sovereign system.

There is much speculation on the origin of the Great Divergence. The six following factors explain it completely: