Rise of the War Machines: Identifying Key Drivers of the Evolution of Military Technology in Pre-Industrial Societies

Location of nodes on Silk Routes used in quantifying Centrality (red) along with NGA locations (black).

A new analysis spanning 10,000 years of history and ten major world regions has identified world population size, major technological advances, and geographical connectivity as key drivers of the evolution of military technology prior to the Industrial Revolution. Peter Turchin of Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, Austria, and colleagues presented these findings in PLOS ONE on October 20, 2021.

Despite extensive speculation, the mechanisms that drove innovation, spread, and adoption of new military technologies in pre-industrial societies have been unclear. Prior research into this topic has often been criticized as being overly subjective, and many research efforts have been limited to narrow geographic regions or time periods.

To help clarify drivers of military technological evolution, Turchin and colleagues developed a new, systematic methodology that employs a resource known as Seshat: Global History Databank. This databank, originally developed by Turchin and others, serves as a growing collection of historical and archaeological data for numerous societies dating from the late Neolithic to the present.

For the new study, the researchers developed a quantitative approach for analyzing Seshat data that incorporates mathematical modeling and statistical analysis. They applied this methodology to empirically test prior hypotheses about military technological advancement in pre-industrial societies.

The researchers found support for several prior hypotheses; namely, that pre-industrial military technological evolution was indeed driven by world population size, connectivity between regions where technology is innovated and adopted, and key innovations, such as improvements in metallurgy. Meanwhile, they found, pre-industrial military technological evolution was not driven by smaller state-level factors, such as the population of a society, the size of its territory, or the sophistication of its government.

The authors view this study and their methodology as a significant first step towards better understanding of the drivers of both military technological advancement and technological advancements in general. They hope that future research will refine and extend this work; for example, by exploring the development of various technologies impacts equality and public well-being. 

The authors add “In this paper we set out to study the processes driving the evolution of military technology in the pre-industrial world. We were surprised to find that the size and internal complexity of states had very little impact. Instead, increased connectivity – and growing conflict – between societies across great distances, as well as the adoption of certain key innovations like cavalry and iron metallurgy, emerged as key drivers of military technological evolution.”

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