What is war good for? Perhaps to the expansion of empires and the proliferation of complex social structures and institutions. However, warfare may have been a greater factor in social complexity than agriculture.

Since the beginning of the Holocene, about 10,000 years ago, stable global temperatures have allowed reliable crop yields, allowing humans to shed their nomadic atmosphere and settle down in permanent agricultural settlements. This in turn led to the division of labor and the development of increasingly complex societies, triggering our evolution from hunter-gatherers to farmers or space travelers.

Unfortunately, however, there is more to human history than watermelons and sunflowers, and it is a tragic fact that war has also shaped our trajectory as a species. To test the role of war in the emergence of complex societies, the authors of the study used the Seshat: Global History Databank, which consists of historians, archaeologists and other experts on past civilizations around the world over the past ten millennia, indicates IFL Science.

After consulting with these scholars, the researchers identified 17 different variables that influence sociopolitical complexity and devised an algorithm to determine which of these is the biggest driver of this process. Summarizing their findings, the authors write that “this analysis identified an unexpectedly simple network of causality, in which the main drivers of increased social complexity and scale are agriculture and warfare.”

War as an evolutionary factor of mankind

Breaking down the data further, they explain that the emergence of two military technologies—namely, iron weapons and cavalry—seem to eclipse all other factors as the greatest enablers of social complexity. For example, they explain that the first macrostates—defined as polities controlling a territory larger than 100,000 square kilometers—emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt following the spread of bronze metallurgy.

When bronze weapons were later combined with the use of mounted armies, “very large empires” covering more than 3 million square kilometers became possible for the first time. Significantly, the authors note that “in each of the major Eurasian subregions, these megaempires emerged three or four centuries after the appearance of cavalry.”

This may sound like quite a delay, but the researchers insist that “innovations in military technology led to more rapid evolutionary change compared to the adoption of agriculture.”

Innovations in military technology led to more rapid evolutionary change

It is important to note, however, that this study is based on a specific definition of social complexity and does not suggest that war contributed to fostering cultural complexity in human societies.

Rather, the authors find that military technologies triggered the expansion of three specific aspects of civilization – these being the size of the territory occupied by a society, the complexity of the leadership hierarchy, and the emergence of specialized bureaucratic and legal institutions.

Going back to the data, it seems that the maximum territory held by the major empires remained roughly stable for two millennia after the “IronCav revolution”. It would take another military milestone, the “Gunpowder Revolution,” for this threshold of social complexity to be crossed.

Gunpowder is another important factor

Significantly, the study’s authors note that “the time gap between the emergence of effective gunpowder weapons and the rise of European colonial empires was also 300 to 400 years,” highlighting a repeated pattern whereby military innovation apparently begets the expansion of civilization human.

Concluding their report, the researchers explain that this analysis is far from comprehensive and that more in-depth studies of various aspects of social complexity are needed to determine the true importance of war.

However, if these initial findings are anything to go by, it would appear that the dagger may be mightier than the cabbage when it comes to shaping human history.

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