What is it about?

Starting around 3,000 years ago, a wave of innovation began to sweep through human societies around the globe. For the next millennium the continued emergence of new technologies had a dramatic effect on the course of human history. This era saw the advancement of the ability to control horses with bit and bridle, the spread of iron-working techniques that led to hardier and cheaper weapons and armor and new ways of killing from a distance, such as with crossbows and catapults. On the whole, warfare became much more deadly. So what drove this cascade of technological innovation that literally changed the course of history? We found that the major drivers of technological innovation did not have to do with attributes of states themselves, like population size or the sophistication of a governance. Rather, the biggest drivers of innovation appear to be the overall world population at any given time, increasing connectivity among large states – along with the competition that such connections brought – and a few fundamental technological advances that set off a cascade of subsequent innovations.

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Why is it important?

Our findings constitute an important first step towards identifying some of the major long-term drivers of technological evolution in general, and in the domain of military capacity in particular, and finding broad support for previously somewhat speculative theories, there is still much to be done to build on this line of research. Further, the insights gained here and the systematic, quantitative approach to global history developed by the Seshat project provide a roadmap for many important future studies, allowing scholars to delve deeper into not only the critical ‘Military Revolutions’ throughout history, but into the evolution of technology generally.


This article not only helps us understand how and why ancient states were able to get so big without the benefit of modern communications technology, but more than that it illustrates how doing 'big history' can reveal really important patterns about the past. I hope reading this helps people think about these patterns and how similar we are, no matter what region we live in or even what time period we are from. I think there are lessons in this kind of history for the modern day – trying to figure out how to keep the good (like quickly spreading technological advances) while overcoming the bad (the violence that came from this intense, inter-state competition).

Daniel Hoyer

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This page is a summary of: Rise of the war machines: Charting the evolution of military technologies from the Neolithic to the Industrial Revolution, PLoS ONE, October 2021, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0258161.
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