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Chapter Nine


Whenever rulers and military classes tolerated merchants and refrained from taxing them so heavily or robbing them so often as to inhibit trade and commerce, new potentialities of economic production arising from regional specialization and economies of scale in manufacture could begin to show their capacity to increase human wealth.  —William McNeill


There is an old joke about the standard instructions on American shampoo containers, "Lather, rinse, repeat." A man takes the directions literally and spends the rest of his life in the shower—lathering, rinsing, lathering, rinsing, lathering, rinsing.

Sometimes it seems as if ancient civilization followed similar instructions. Rise, fall, repeat. The rulers and dynasties and peoples may change, but all seem locked into the same endless cycle of conquest and expansion, fragmentation and collapse.

Ancient history thus seems like little more than a parade of strange-sounding names. There's Uruk—not to be confused with Ur (or Ur II, or Ur III): There are Akkadians, not to mention Achaemenids. Eventually the Minoans and Mycenaeans arrive (or is it the other way around?), and then, finally, come the really familiar names: Greece and Rome.

Meanwhile, in China, there is conflict among the Ch'i, the Ch'in, the Chin, and the Chou (this during the late Chou). Finally the Ch'in win, and consolidate China, then quickly fall apart.

Over in the New World, civilization begins to stir long before the famous classic Mayan period. There are Olmec and Zapotec, and, by the time the Inca and Aztecs occupy center stage, we've also seen Huastec, Mixtec, and Toltec, not to mention Chimu and Chincha and Chichimec.

It all seems a blur. But really, the problem is that it is not blurry enough. The reason that ancient history seems chaotic is that we are using a zoom lens, focusing on small regions and small time frames. If we relax our vision, and let these details go fuzzy, then a larger picture comes into focus: As the centuries fly by, civilizations may come and go, but civilization flourishes, growing in scope and complexity.

The key is to take the "history" out of ancient history. Historians tend to dwell on differences. How was ancient China different from Sumer? Why was it different? Good questions, interesting questions, questions we'll get back to. But first let's ask: How were early states, in the various regions where they evolved, alike? This is one way to simplify ancient history—by realizing that, fundamentally, the same thing was happening everywhere you look.


Archaeologists speak of six "pristine" civilizations—states that arose indigenously, and weren't merely copied from a nearby civilization, or imposed on the populace by conquest. The standard six are: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mesoamerica, South America, China, and the civilization of the Indus River valley (about which relatively little is known) in south Asia. Some scholars throw in West Africa as well.

Calling West African civilization pristine is something of an exaggeration, given earlier contact with states to the north. Then again, calling some of the standard six "pristine" states pristine is a bit of a stretch. Indus script (still undeciphered) may have been inspired by Mesopotamia, which was exchanging memes with Egypt as well. And some diffusion, however thin, probably linked South America (the Inca and their cultural ancestors) and Mesoamerica (Aztecs, Maya, and others).

Still, even after granting these early and occasionally momentous contacts, we are left with three large realms of ancient civilization, quite removed from each other: China, the Near East, and the New World. The scholarly consensus is that each developed its energy and information technologies—farming and writing—indigenously. And each then underwent its early civilizational history in essential isolation from the others...


Teotihuacan is not to be confused with the nearby city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that, when seen by Cortez in 1519, housed around 200,000 people (more than any European city) and anchored a state twice the size of Portugal. Cortez called Tenochtitlan "the most beautiful city in the world," and compared it to Venice. Built on islands in a saltwater lake, it was laced with canals and bridges and adorned with floating gardens, a zoo, and an aviary. The city's waterborne commerce involved tens of thousands of canoes, and its central marketplace, according to Cortez, could accommodate 60,000 buyers and sellers.

Of course, the Aztecs had their unpleasant side. Just ask any of the captives—hundreds each month—who, shortly before being rolled down the temple steps, would have their hearts torn out so the Sun would not lack nourishment. At the main temple in Tenochtitlan, one of Cortez's men counted—or, at least, estimated—136,000 skulls.

Then again, human sacrifice was not uncommon in ancient civilizations, New World or Old. (Even classical Greece, that acme of early enlightenment, seems to have indulged.) And Aztec government was in other ways progressive. The commoners were well off by ancient standards, able to swap homemade wares for exotic imports. In simple adobe homes in the provinces, archaeologists have found obsidian knives, jade jewelry, bronze bells.

One reason for this affluence is that the government did a good job of breaching the trust barrier that can impede exchange. Inspectors prowled the urban markets in search of unscrupulous commerce, ranging from false measurement to passing counterfeits (wax or dough) of the cocoa-bean quasi-currency. Aztec law, more than most ancient legal codes, seems to have treated rich and poor alike. Judges were sometimes punished—hanged, in one case for favoring nobles at the expense of commoners. Torture wasn't used to induce confession—a fact that, one scholar has opined, makes "the Indians appear in a better light than their European conquerors."

"Aztec" is what most people think of if they think of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica at all—a shining gem in the desert, a miraculous exception to the primitive norm of American Indian life. But Aztec civilization wasn't really so special—just the next step in a millennia-old regional ascent whose other rungs included Teotihuacan, the Zapotec of Monte Alban, and many others, such as Toltec, Mixtec, and Huastec. And these, in turn, all had their antecedents. The Maya, though not at first densely urban, had reached statehood around the third century B.C., a bit before the Zapotec did the same. And earlier, there were the Olmec, with their mammoth sculpted Easter-Islandesque heads and a society complex enough that their academic champions have occasionally suggested a promotion from chiefdom to state.

I could go on, naming more and more obscure Mesoamerican cultures, in a procession stretching all the way from the Aztecs back to the origins of Mesoamerican agriculture. I could also try to make a neat picture of this process, drawing textbook lineages of cultural descent: the Aztecs were heirs of the Toltec, who were heirs of Teotihuacan, and so on. But such charts mislead. From the days of the Olmec and early Maya, back in 1200 B.C., cultural influence was subtle and profuse, and with time it got only more so, as Mesoamerica's population grew denser and cultural contact, via trade and war, expanded. The whole region came more and more to resemble a single social brain, testing memes and spreading the useful ones.

True, distinct polities and peoples rose and fell ad nauseam, but these seemingly pointless cycles of growth and decay added up to a larger arrow of cultural evolution. The arts of writing and agriculture and handicraft and construction and government advanced. The Aztecs, like the Romans, were administrative and engineering whizzes. They had their well-oiled bureaucracy, their bridges and their aqueducts. With the sluice gates on their ten-mile dam they controlled the level of the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.

But the Aztecs weren't exceptional people, and neither were the Romans. Both were just like the people who had come before them—human beings muddling through, incrementally adding to their cultural inheritance.

So too with the Inca, down in South America. In the popular mind, they get credit for the vast road network that smoothly moved goods and data, binding a sixteenth-century empire of 12 million people. But many of the roads were built by their predecessors. Construction had started by 500 B.C. under the Chavin, and the infrastructure was expanded by such societies as the coastal Moche, who reached statehood around A.D. 100. Moche roads, like Inca roads, were traveled by relay runners (who, some scholars believe, conveyed data not just orally but by symbols etched on lima beans). And, like Inca roads—and Roman roads and Chinese roads and other ancient roads—the Moche roads were used to coordinate both military and economic activities. Hence a twofer: There were enough prisoners of war to keep Moche warrior-priests busy with ritual throat-slittings, and then, when it came time to drink the blood, there were finely wrought metal goblets ordered just for the occasion.

Under various cultures—the states of Chimu and Huari, for example the web of South American roads continued to grow, as did irrigation works. After this infrastructure had been laboriously expanded by millions of laborers over a couple of millennia, the Inca came along and said, "Why, thank you!" Conquering chiefdoms here, states there, they carried South American political unity to unprecedented extent, and by deft bureaucratic governance they held it more or less together. As proud as Sargon, and no more worldly, they called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, or "Four Quarters of the World." The new scope of political organization, by subduing the frictions of war, brought new productivity, rather as the Pax Romana had in the Old World.

Both Mesoamerica and the Andes illustrate how much you can do with limited materials. Bronze metallurgy was nascent, scarcely applied to weapons and tools. There were no chariots or wagons— indeed, there were no wheels and no horses; nature seems to have blessed the New World with few readily domesticable animals. But, regardless of natural endowment, there are always means of storing and transmitting data, and thus the means to run a bureaucracy and control a big army. Such is the power of data processing that advances on this front can almost single-handedly carry cultures over the threshold of statehood, notwithstanding stagnation in other realms...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.