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Open Access Publications from the University of California


Cliodynamics is a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, cultural and social evolution, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution is an international, peer-reviewed, open-access journal that publishes original articles advancing the state of theoretical knowledge in this transdisciplinary area. In the broadest sense, this theoretical knowledge includes general principles that explain the functioning, dynamics, and evolution of historical societies and specific models, usually formulated as mathematical equations or computer algorithms. Cliodynamics also has empirical content that deals with discovering general historical patterns, determining empirical adequacy of key assumptions made by models, and testing theoretical predictions with data from actual historical societies. A mature, or ‘developed theory’ thus integrates models with data; the main goal of Cliodynamics is to facilitate progress towards such theory in history and cultural evolution.

This journal is available for sharing and reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) 4.0 International License which means that all content is freely available without charge to users and their institutions. Users are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission from the publisher or the author.

Cliodynamics is a member of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and Scopus


Agricultural productivity in past societies: Toward an empirically informed model for testing cultural evolutionary hypotheses

Agricultural productivity, and its variation in space and time, plays a fundamental role in many theories of human social evolution. However, we often lack systematic information about the productivity of past agricultural systems on a large enough scale in order to be able to test these theories properly. The effect of climate on crop yields has received a great deal of attention resulting in a range of empirical and process-based models, yet the focus has primarily been on current or future conditions. In this paper, we argue for a “bottom-up” approach that estimates productivity, or potential productivity based on information about the agricultural practices and technologies used in past societies. Of key theoretical interest is using this information to estimate the carrying capacity of a given region, independently of estimates of population size. We outline how explicit crop yield models can be combined with high quality historical and archaeological information about past societies, in order to infer the temporal and geographic patterns of change in agricultural productivity and potential. We discuss the kinds of information we need to collect about agricultural techniques and practices in the past, and introduce a new databank initiative we have developed for collating the best available historical and archaeological evidence. A key benefit of our approach lies in making explicit the steps in the process of estimating past productivities and carrying capacities, and in being able to assess the effects of different modelling assumptions. This is undoubtedly an ambitious task, yet promises to provide important insights into fundamental aspects of past societies, and will enable us to test more rigorously key hypotheses about human socio-cultural evolution.

Modeling Strategic Decisions in the Formation of the Early Neo-Assyrian Empire

Understanding patterns of conflict and pathways in which political history became established is critical to understanding how large states and empires ultimately develop and come to rule given regions and influence subsequent events. We employ a spatiotemporal Cox regression model to investigate possible causes as to why regions were attacked by the Neo-Assyrian (912-608 BCE) state. The model helps to explain how strategic benefits and costs lead to likely pathways of conflict and imperialism based on elite strategic decision-making. We apply this model to the early 9th century BCE, a time when historical texts allow us to trace yearly campaigns in specific regions, to understand how the Neo-Assyrian state began to re-emerge as a major political player, eventually going on to dominate much of the Near East and starting a process of imperialism that shaped the wider region for many centuries even after the fall of this state. The model demonstrates why specific locations become regions of conflict in given campaigns, emphasizing a degree of consistency with which choices were made by invading forces with respect to a number of factors. We find that elevation and population density deter Assyrian invasions. Moreover, costs were found to be more of a clear motivator for Assyrian invasions, with distance constraints being a significant driver in determining where to campaign. These outputs suggest that Assyria was mainly interested in attacking its weakest, based on population and/or organization, and nearest rivals as it began to expand. Results not only help to address the emergence of this empire, but enable a generalized understanding of how benefits and costs to conflict can lead to imperialism and pathways to political outcomes that can have major social relevance.

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Modeling the large-scale demographic changes of the Old World

I investigate the predictive behavior of a simple demographic model for agrarian empires in several Old World geographies between 1500BCE and 1500CE. I estimate and bound key model parameters from two historical datasets. I find that quasi-uniform carrying capacities and two net birth rates suffice to predict most Old World agrarian empire demographics in this period. Analysis suggests that a doubling of agricultural intensification occurred throughout most of the Old World circa 1000CE.

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Seshat: The Global History Databank

The vast amount of knowledge about past human societies has not been systematically organized and, therefore, remains inaccessible for empirically testing theories about cultural evolution and historical dynamics. For example, what evolutionary mechanisms were involved in the transition from the small-scale, uncentralized societies, in which humans lived 10,000 years ago, to the large-scale societies with an extensive division of labor, great differentials in wealth and power, and elaborate governance structures of today? Why do modern states sometimes fail to meet the basic needs of their populations? Why do economies decline, or fail to grow? In this article, we describe the structure and uses of a massive databank of historical and archaeological information, Seshat: The Global History Databank. The data that we are currently entering in Seshat will allow us and others to test theories explaining how modern societies evolved from ancestral ones, and why modern societies vary so much in their capacity to satisfy their members’ basic human needs.

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Book Reviews

Are Cultural and Evolutionary Views of Human Warfare Converging? A Review of War, Peace and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, edited by Douglas P. Fry (Oxford University Press, 2015)

War, Peace and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, edited by Douglas P. Fry, provides a wealth of information on various topics related to human conflict.

The Central Asian Role in the Making of Modern European Science: A Review of Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World, by Christopher Beckwith (Princeton University Press, 2012)

At first glance, Christopher Beckwith’s Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World is rather straightforward. It attempts to argue that the origins of modern science are to be found in the Middle Ages, and those origins, in turn, can be traced back to Islamic civilization, which was in direct, intimate contact with Latin Europe during the same medieval period. That much is rather well-known and heavily documented. But Beckwith goes a step further. He now claims in this book that the essential components of what he calls “full scientific culture” (p.120) should themselves be sought in ancient Buddhist texts of pre-Islamic Central Asia.