Globalization isn’t a new phenomenon — far from it, new research reveals.

Old map.

A vintage, hand-drawn map.
Image via Pixabay.

An international research team reports that ancient civilizations engaged in globalization to a much higher level than previously assumed. Viewed in this light, the level of international integration we see in today’s economies isn’t unique, but the norm.

I consume energy therefore I exist

“In this work, we present evidence that the attributes of human populations, at a global scale, display synchrony for the last 10,000 [years],” the paper reads.

The research is the first of its kind, as it didn’t focus on a specific region or culture, but on the broad, long-term evolution of human societies. The team used the energy expenditure levels of these societies as a proxy to judge their development and how closely they were involved with the rest of the world.

It may sound like a strange angle to approach the issue from, but energy expenditure is actually quite a reliable indicator of a society’s development. Energy is one of the main drivers of a society — or, perhaps more accurately, a society’s ability to generate and harness energy is the main factor limiting its development.

To drive that point home, imagine two cities. The inhabitants of the first one only know how to harness muscle energy (i.e. that generated by their bodies or those of other animals from food) to perform work. Those living in the other city know about electricity, can build engines, the whole shebang. Needless to say, City number 2 will be able to address its own needs or to expand much more easily than its primitive counterpart, because it has the means to generate energy and apply it to change its environment.

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So, for the study, the team assumed that greater energy consumption suggested a society was booming with population, political, and economic activity. Energy consumption was estimated — starting from historical records and further propped up by radiocarbon dating — for a period of history ranging from 10,000 to 400 years ago. Some of the areas included in the study were the western United States, the British Isles, Australia, and northern Chile.

Radiocarbon dating was used on preserved organic items such as seeds, animal bones, and burned wood from ancient trash deposits at these sites. The method was used to assess each society’s waste output over time, as radiocarbon dating is very good at establishing the age of organic matter — which represented the team’s main source of energy consumption estimates up to the 1880s when official records become available and reliable.

All in this together

Matrioska dolls.

Image credits Ricardo Liberato / Flickr.

The first surprising find here was that societies often boomed or collapsed simultaneously, a process known as synchrony, the team writes. Synchrony is indicative of interconnected groups — on the scale employed by the team, such groups would be whole societies and nations — of people who trade, migrate, and even fight with one another.

“If every culture was unique, you would expect to see no synchrony, or harmony, across human records of energy consumption,” said lead author Jacob Freeman, an assistant professor of archaeology at Utah State University.

“The causes likely include the process of societies becoming more interconnected via trade, migration, and disease flows at smaller scales and common trajectories of cultural evolution toward more complex and energy-consuming political economies at larger scales,” the paper explains.

This tidbit suggests that early globalization may have been a strategy for societies to keep growing even after exceeding their carrying capacity, the team explains. Overall, the findings point to ancient societies creating connections and becoming interdependent — a trend we refer to as globalization — even millennia ago.

By looking at so vast a stretch of human history, the team could also notice patterns associated with the rise and fall of different groups and cultures. Building closer ties to other societies benefits everyone, they write, but there are also pitfalls: “The more tightly connected and interdependent we become, the more vulnerable we are to a major social or ecological crisis in another country spreading to our country,” adds Erick Robinson, paper co-author and a postdoctoral assistant research scientist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. This “all eggs in one basket” approach, he explains, makes societies less adaptive to unforeseen changes.

“The financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 is a good recent example,” Robinson adds.

According to them, we shouldn’t consider a society’s collapse as a failure, however — it seems to be an intrinsic part of civilization. Still, they hope that by looking back at how our forefathers handled such events, we may very well avoid them in the future.

“Importantly, these causes of synchrony operate at different time scales [which] may lead to path dependencies that make major reorganizations a common dynamic of human societies,” the paper reads.

“Our data stop at 400 years ago, and there has been a huge change from organic economies to fossil fuel economies,” says co-author by Jacopo A. Baggio, an assistant professor in the University of Central Florida political science department.

“However, similar synchronization trends continue today even more given the interdependencies of our societies. [Societal] resilience is intrinsically dynamic. So, it becomes very hard to understand resilience in a short time span. Here we have the opportunity to look at these longer trends and really see how society has reacted and adapted and what were the booms and busts of these societies. Hopefully this can teach some lessons to be learned for modern day society.”

The paper “Synchronization of energy consumption by human societies throughout the Holocene” has been published in the journal PNAS.