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Did earthquakes give rise to Rome?
August 26, 2008 7:31 AM   Subscribe

A Jared Diamond-like theory of history - did earthquakes contribute to the rise of ancient civilizations? Thirteen of 15 major ancient civilizations were clustered mostly along tectonic boundaries. "It's not a connection that seems to make much sense at first glance. But you can't ignore the pattern--look at a map, and it just jumps out at you." (Abstract).
Eric Force calculated the probability that the sites were randomly located, given that plenty of suitable land was available for settlement. The number crunching suggests that 13 of the 15 sites aren't the product of chance. Instead, ancient people appear to have chosen to snuggle up close to a tectonic crack-- often within 75 kilometers--despite the risk of quakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. (The exceptions were in ancient Egypt and China.)
posted by stbalbach (46 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Geologists know that plate boundaries often have ample water supplies that might have attracted early settlers, for example. And volcanoes can help create rich soils. But no factor explains the pattern, Force says. He is intrigued by a psychological explanation: "Maybe the elders are telling the kids that they'd better be prepared to cope with a lot of risk and change," he says--spurring the next generation to develop more sophisticated quake-resistant architecture, for instance, or create better ways to store food.

My money is on the water supply angle. Having large bodies of water close by for transportation, irrigation, fishing, etc. is much more likely to help a growing civilization than some made-up nonsense about elders telling earthquake stories.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2008 [7 favorites]


This gives credence to my theory that California is still stuck in the 3rd century BC.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder how this would fit into Mexican and North American history as well. The ancient civilization of Monte Albán was mysteriously abandoned about 1500 years ago. There are several other civilizations along the coastal areas and mountain ranges, some alive and well, others not so much. Does anybody have any insights on this (sooo not an archaelogist/geologist here, but damn curious)?
posted by iamkimiam at 7:46 AM on August 26, 2008


Well, a giant crack in the ground is convenient for sacrificing virgins and other living things to appease the gods. Not so much if you live in a giant flat, uncracked plain.
posted by spicynuts at 7:48 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


On a serious note, perhaps humans are more sensitive to the forces from yesterday's post than we realize.

We're simple creatures in such a complex universe; there are still many things too subtle for our sciences to explain.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:48 AM on August 26, 2008


Geologists know that plate boundaries often have ample water supplies that might have attracted early settlers, for example. And volcanoes can help create rich soils. But no factor explains the pattern. . .

Really? Sounds like you just explained it right there. Easily availability of water and rich soil are pretty much requirements for a developing civilization.
posted by absalom at 7:51 AM on August 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


Similarly, the civilizations that endured the longest (and that have been described as most static) are systematically the farthest from plate boundaries.

That's interesting.

Also, from the abstract:

It is still unclear how the relation actually worked in ancient cultures, i.e., what aspects of tectonism promoted complexity. Linkages to water and other resources, trade (broadly construed), and societal response seem likely.

From the article:

Geologists know that plate boundaries often have ample water supplies that might have attracted early settlers, for example. And volcanoes can help create rich soils. But no factor explains the pattern, Force says.

My emphasis. Science Writers Suck, After The Weather.
posted by DU at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Maybe the elders are telling the kids that they'd better be prepared to cope with a lot of risk and change," he says--spurring the next generation to develop more sophisticated quake-resistant architecture, for instance, or create better ways to store food.

How is quake-resistant architecture a requirement for civilization? Can't you just build non-quake-resistant architecture in a non-quake zone at least as easy?

Do they mention anywhere what constitutes a "major civilization"? I'd be interested to hear what qualifications they used that resulted in these being the top 15.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:06 AM on August 26, 2008


Interesting article. My first thought was the volcanic soil angle mentioned in the article, but I like the idea of occasional widespread destruction being beneficial in the long run. Post WW2 Japan, for example, having lost two important industrial centers, had the opportunity to modernize their industry while also shedding some of their traditional insularity. If your civilization is in a stable, low-destruction zone, there wouldn't be much motivation in the short run to suddenly rebuild everything one day; sure, your infrastructure is suck, but, hey, at least it works. But if suddenly you don't have any infrastructure, why not make it better than the last time?
posted by logicpunk at 8:09 AM on August 26, 2008


This gives credence to my theory that California is still stuck in the 3rd century BC.

But lo, stranger, if you travel to the storied Holy Wood, you may find three t-shirts for ten dollars. What riches these great people have!

Also, yeah, if you're going to do the rampant speculation thing, you should probably not have a very reasonable explination. "Plate boundaries tend to have more ample water and better soil, but could those really give an ancient civilization the upper hand? Is it more likely that gold-spewing space-bison were attracted to earthquakes in some misguided sexual instinct? We may never now, but: yes."
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 8:11 AM on August 26, 2008 [7 favorites]


Er, "never know"
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 8:17 AM on August 26, 2008


Do they mention anywhere what constitutes a "major civilization"? I'd be interested to hear what qualifications they used that resulted in these being the top 15.

Stuff near fault lines, seems to me. The Hebrews were a Major Civilization, but but Japan wasn't? Crete was, but not Korea? Nothing in all of the Americas?

Seems to me like somebody noticed a coincidence, and is trying to squeeze a thesis out of it without even bothering to come up with an explanation.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:21 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


How is quake-resistant architecture a requirement for civilization? Can't you just build non-quake-resistant architecture in a non-quake zone at least as easy?

Well, we're back to adversity spurring ingenuity, the same theories we've heard wrt advancement in cold versus hot climes.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:24 AM on August 26, 2008


Also, from that linked image... it also seems those civilizations may not be not so much near faultlines, but actually in a specific climate? Further south you are in hot Africa, further north you are in the cold dark forests of Europe. Seems to me like they might have just flourished in nice Mediterranean climates....
posted by Harry at 8:25 AM on August 26, 2008


what about the areas that get earthquakes but didn't have a civilization? why didn't everyone take advantage of this tough mother earth love?
posted by lester at 8:27 AM on August 26, 2008


You also have to consider that populations weren't seeded randomly over the landmasses of the earth. They started in Africa and crossed over to Arabia and there moved into Europe and India. Now consider the proximity of those points on the map to the point of exodus, and it seems pretty clear that weather, water, and ease of transportation were big factors.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:51 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


logicpunk: "Interesting article... If your civilization is in a stable, low-destruction zone, there wouldn't be much motivation in the short run to suddenly rebuild everything one day; sure, your infrastructure is suck, but, hey, at least it works. But if suddenly you don't have any infrastructure, why not make it better than the last time?"

I agree with this. Destruction opens up opportunity for change. It stirs up the pot. Like stressing plants with lack of water causes them to grow better. Too much stress kills it, but just enough and it benefits. The same thing happens with organisms, what doesn't kill you makes you strong and more resistant.
posted by stbalbach at 8:59 AM on August 26, 2008


Yeah, this doesn't seem to be a bigger causal factor than the things that were already pretty good predictors of where settlements would flourish.
posted by klangklangston at 9:04 AM on August 26, 2008


1. Throw handful of beans on plate.
2. Observe clusters and voids.
3. Overthink.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:09 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Tectonics means mountains, and mountains mean rain, and rain means water. Question answered!

Also, volcanoes don't necessarily mean rich soil. Volcanic laterites are shitty soils. It's the high organic content, which is a factor of rainfall that helps a soils be good, and more rain means more weathering, which means more soil.

Desert soils suck, for a number of reasons. Low organics, large amounts of leachable minerals like boron and chlorides.

It's all about water.

Oh yeah, and decent streams and rivers help carry your poo-poo and pee-pee away. Any time before the 20th century, that's another big reason to live somewhere.
posted by Xoebe at 9:11 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


paisley henosis : Seems to me like somebody noticed a coincidence, and is trying to squeeze a thesis out of it

the article: the geologist had recently retired after a long career with the U.S. Geological Survey and had been taking some university classes on ancient history.

As Sigmund Freud was fond of saying, "Sometimes an earthquake is just an earthquake, but a good volcano is a smoke."
posted by Herodios at 9:18 AM on August 26, 2008


(The exceptions were in ancient Egypt and China.)

Essentially, places with rich soils and water (huge river deltas and such), but no earthquakes? Hmmm.

So the things the entire list has in common is rich soils and water, but somehow it's all about earthquakes? Okay there, Johnny.
posted by LionIndex at 9:18 AM on August 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm with burnmp3s and others; when I looked at that map the first thing I noticed was that damn near every one of those civilizations was there because of the water, which made them useful for fishing and trade ports.

Probably for much the same reason that the bulk of the population in America is located along it's coasts.

I suppose that one could argue that the water line exists because it's the edge of a plate, but that strikes me as backward thinking.
posted by quin at 9:22 AM on August 26, 2008


Agreeing with logicpunk and stbalbach above. That was my first thought as well.

Basically, you didn't have people hunting all over the map saying things like, "where's a place that will suffer lots of natural disasters so it will put character into our offspring."

You actually had people living in other places, farther from the fault lines. But the point is, the recurrence of earthquakes had an evolutionary effect. It was like a predator weeding out the weak and the dumb, and allowed the surviving strong and smart to prosper, necessity being the mother of invention.

The response to natural disasters was not uniform across the illustrated Eurasian fault line. At the western end, the response was development of science and technology. At the eastern end, it led more to the kind of organized, structured society that arose in India and elsewhere.

However, I think this whole idea is really just a secondary contributor to the rise of civilizations. Clearly there were lots of other factors involved in the rise of civilizations.
posted by beagle at 9:27 AM on August 26, 2008


Nope. Just about water.
posted by Xoebe at 9:35 AM on August 26, 2008


How is quake-resistant architecture a requirement for civilization? Can't you just build non-quake-resistant architecture in a non-quake zone at least as easy?

Well, in the process of being forced to confront a given engineering problem, you often come up with inventions that may be useful elsewhere. See the space program and war.

If there is real correlation, though, it certainly seems more plausible that the earthquakes come along with other things that are useful to humans rather than driving progress.
posted by weston at 9:45 AM on August 26, 2008


A brief but damaging critique of the paper mentioned in this post by an anthropology blogger.
posted by jonp72 at 9:57 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


I hear tents are pretty earthquake resistant.
posted by rivenwanderer at 10:03 AM on August 26, 2008


I believe the basic argument is this: in response to the the constant destruction of weak buildings, people make stronger buildings, and the need for stronger buildings appears to correlate with early civilizations.

It's likely that the water and rich soil bring people there to begin with, but the idea that the shaking prompts further development seems reasonable. It's kind of like a muscle's response to exercise. Pain makes you stronger.

riven: no, tents fall right over. They also make rotten granaries.
posted by Malor at 10:08 AM on August 26, 2008


Stuff near fault lines, seems to me. The Hebrews were a Major Civilization, but but Japan wasn't? Crete was, but not Korea? Nothing in all of the Americas?

heh, yeah, that was the first thing I noticed. "But you can't ignore the pattern--look at a map [that we made ourselves of the part which happens to support our hypothesis], and it just jumps out at you." Well, yes, it does, but in this case "it" happens to be "where the hell is the rest of the world".
posted by vorfeed at 10:36 AM on August 26, 2008


Geoarchaeology is actually an ok journal so I am going to read this first, but at first blush it looks like a load and a half of sophomoric bullshit.
posted by Rumple at 10:43 AM on August 26, 2008


After reading all the preceding comments, I've come to the conclusion that the thesis (as presented) is faulty.
posted by An Infinity Of Monkeys at 11:04 AM on August 26, 2008


This gives credence to my theory that California is still stuck in the 3rd century BC.

Yes, that makes sense. Center of the high-tech industry. One of the largest economies in the world, larger than all but like 6 countires (one of which is the USA of which CA is a part). Giant exporter of a wide variety of agricultural products. Some of the most progressive politics in the nation.

Definitely 3rd century BC.
posted by Justinian at 11:07 AM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally, those locations are also near the coast, which provided food & convenient transportation.
posted by mike3k at 11:13 AM on August 26, 2008


the need for stronger buildings appears to correlate with early civilizations.

The more I think about this the more it seems somewhat plausible. Lately I've been thinking about the social impact of impressive architecture, especially how significant buildings impact individual psyche and serve to reinforce communal stories, and I think this dovetails: it actually implies that civilizations wouldn't just reap engineering/technical benefits, but benefits in actual social organization. Doubly so I think if in response to disaster -- the "we will rebuild" story is something a community tells itself about how it deals with challenges.
posted by weston at 11:28 AM on August 26, 2008


I can't tell you why people live near fault lines and volcanoes. I can't even tell you why they live in Minnesota.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:50 AM on August 26, 2008


I can't even tell you why they live in Minnesota.

Prince has his own magnetic field.
posted by cashman at 12:08 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


On that map, there's a plate boundary running up the eastern side of Italy - What's that, I thought the African/European plate met basically in the middle of the med? All the maps I can find on plate tectonics don't show a plate boundary there!
posted by BigCalm at 12:17 PM on August 26, 2008


It's no fun, bein' the God in charge of human welfare. It's like, they got no idea what's good for 'em, and they blame me for all the good things, and sacrifice goats and shit to made up father figure gods to thank them for all the crappy things that are bad for them.

Sure, I mean, I started out trying to just do nice things. "Hey, check it out - fruit! It's yummy, and it just grows on trees! Just reach up and pick it!" I thought that was a great idea - and look what they made that story into in their damn bible!

Ok, ok, that was a little too easy. "Bam - how about agriculture! No more chasing down dinner - you can grow it in your yard!" Fine, until they all start poisoning their rivers, getting fat and lazy, and working the soil until it spoils. So much for that.

I gradually figured out that they seemed to do the best when they are really getting screwed. Seems to bring out the best in them. So, as Patron Diety, it seems like the best I can do is whack 'em good with a solid volcano or plague every couple of centuries. Invent murder and lawyers, stuff like that. And things have been going gangbusters since I figured that out. But I do I get any credit? Noooo. It's all "four horsemen" this and "Lord of Evil" that.
posted by freebird at 12:28 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's not like there aren't other recurrent natural hazards not within 75k of a plate boundary. For example, Tsunamis, the recent one devastated parts of Sri Lanka and Kenya. Or, Hurricanes. Or just really fucking bad winters. Or drought.

Another valid response to earthquakes would be to build flexible structures rather than bigger and bigger stone ones. For example, all along the northwest coast of North America, a seismically extremely active area, houses and monumental architecture and art were built from what amounts to massive post and beam design out of red cedar. Probably fairly earthquake resistant.
posted by Rumple at 12:40 PM on August 26, 2008


This gives credence to my theory that California is still stuck in the 3rd century BC.

You've never actually been here, have you? Urban California is starting to look and feel a lot like a cyberpunk science fiction novel or the set of Bladerunner.

Besides being an epicenter of technology and media, it's also a massive agricultural center, while still being home to wide open spaces - mountains, deserts, rainforests.

Nevermind. You're right. It sucks here. Don't come here. We're still figuring out how to flake rocks into hand tools.

Hey, guys? How is that drilling and rock-sawing going? The thrusters are finished and tested. We just need to install the thrusters and light 'em up and we're good to go. What? SoCal is bitching again? Fuck'em, we'll just cut it off across a bit south of Fresno. Hawaii and Alaska didn't really want us to bring SoCal along anyway, but we're going to need most of the valley for food production.

Look, the sooner we break free the sooner we can start zapping unappreciative miscreants with the giant lasers and making their computers explode.

posted by loquacious at 1:49 PM on August 26, 2008


Top of my head: volcanos are a huge help with two things that could definitely advance a society: soap-making and cement-making.

Cement-making seems to drop in and out of history (Romans had it, then it's gone until the 18th century in England). I don't know much about soap, but I imagine that a cleaner society is less likely to be wiped out by disease and therefore last longer and develop more.
posted by rokusan at 2:52 PM on August 26, 2008


The thing that leaps out at me from that map is the coincidence of the Tethyan mountain belt (Pyrenees-Alps-Caucasus-Zagros-Himalaya: all these ranges are associated with the progressive closure of an old ocean called the Tethys) with the northern boundary of the north hemisphere Hadley cell. What are the two requirements for early agriculture? Stable, clement climate and water. Being on the north edge of the dry high pressure systems gives you the stable nice climates, having mountains gives you a source of water even in the dry season.

Look at the "exceptions": Egypt, which gets the nice stable hot weather, but water and flooding courtesy of the Nile. As for China, I am not sure. There is competition for the claim that the earliest Chinese civilizations were nucleated on the Yellow. In any case, if its the Yellow river, then its analogous to the Nile. If its the Sanxingdui civilization in Sichuan, being at the foot of the Longmenshan makes the geographic setting analogous to being on the Indus or Tigris / Euphrates.


Big Calm: On that map, there's a plate boundary running up the eastern side of Italy - What's that, I thought the African/European plate met basically in the middle of the med? All the maps I can find on plate tectonics don't show a plate boundary there!

Well, the Mediterranean (and the Black Sea) is a remnant of the Tethyan Ocean, which has not completely closed. In between Africa and Eurasia are lots of little plate fragments that are busy getting subducted, sutured, or just sliding out of the way. A fragment underneath the Adriatic is getting stuffed under Italy -- which explains the volcanoes there. Another mini-subduction zone is centred under the Aegean. Turkey is a larger fragment that is sliding westward as the Arabian plate (small compared to Africa or Eurasia, but a plate nonetheless) moves north. The picture is a bit complicated.
posted by bumpkin at 2:57 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


*Of course* tectonic boundaries lead to civilization. That's why you see civilization seeds at all major tectonic boundaries on every landmass.

Or no, wait...
posted by anatinus at 4:16 PM on August 26, 2008


This is all backwards. Tectonic faults cluster around nascent civilizations - has Populous taught us nothing?
posted by JustAsItSounds at 5:44 PM on August 26, 2008




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