Exploring environmental and technological effects on culture evolution at different spatial scales

IMAGE: This is a SPECIAL TOPIC: Past human-environmental interaction.

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Many famous ancient civilizations such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Maya, Angkor, Han and Tang Dynasties in ancient China, had emerged and flourished in different parts of the world, while these highly developed civilizations in prehistoric and historical periods eventually declined, and then fell into oblivion in human history. The driving force and mechanism for the rise and fall of ancient civilizations attracts extensive attentions, however, different scholars hold different views on this hot issue.

Recently, in an article coauthored by Guanghui Dong, Fengwen Liu and Fahu Chen, scholars at MOE Key Laboratory of Western China's Environmental System, Lanzhou University, the authors illustrate environmental and technological effects on ancient social evolution at different spatial scales, and propose a possible mechanism for expounding the correlation between culture evolution and environment change and technological development, based on the scientific analysis of some classic case studies on the abandonment of ancient sites, the prosperity and collapse of ancient cultures, and demographic changes, as well as the influence of environment and technology world-wide during the prehistoric and historic periods.

There is an ongoing debate on what is the leading factor for ancient culture evolution. Some scholars believe that sudden serious disasters including floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions were major influencing factors leading to the destruction and abandonment of large settlements, even was the key factor triggering the emergence of Chinese civilization. Many scholars argue that climate change was the most important driving force behind the evolution of ancient civilizations. Other scholars suggest that major technological innovations (e.g., the domestication of crops and livestock) and their diffusion across the world were key factors in promoting population expansion and ancient social evolution. Moreover, how these factors induced the evolvement of ancient civilizations remains unclear as well.

These three scholars argue that the dominant influencing factors for the evolution of ancient societies vary by spatial scale. At the local scale, sudden geo-hazards caused by tectonic movements and extreme weather events may have been key factors that led to the destruction and abandonment of large ancient settlements, such as Pompeii and Lajia site. On a regional scale, cold-dry climate lasting for decades or centuries followed by food shortages and conflicts arising from resource competition becomes an important factor responsible for the decline of ancient civilizations and dynastic succession, while stable and favorable climatic conditions could have increased resources and population growth, and led to prosperity and expansion of ancient civilizations. On a global scale, crucial technological innovations and their expansion in the long term (for centuries and millennia) significantly improve the ability of human beings to procure and exploit resources, as well as facilitate expanded living space and rapid population growth, and in the end, social development.
This article is included in the special topic entitled "Past Human-environment Interaction" in Science China Earth Sciences (2017, Volume 60), which aims to understand the history, pattern and mechanism of human-land evolution from a long-time perspective, and then provide valuable experiences to cope with challenges for sustainable development nowadays.

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Science China Press