SCIENCE CHINA Earth Sciences, Volume 60, Issue 12: 2067-2077(2017) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11430-017-9118-3

Environmental and technological effects on ancient social evolution at different spatial scales

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  • ReceivedFeb 12, 2017
  • AcceptedSep 15, 2017
  • PublishedNov 15, 2017


The rise and fall of ancient cultures and civilizations is a hotly debated topic that has generated disagreements and disputes. In this paper we summarize some 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 during the prehistoric and historic periods. We then suggest that the dominant influencing factors for the evolution of ancient societies vary by spatial scale. At the local scale, sudden disasters are critical factors leading to the destruction and abandonment of large settlements. On a regional scale, climatic variations (e.g., droughts or cold events lasting for decades or centuries) are important factors that induce the collapse of ancient civilizations and mass migrations, while an enduring and stable optimal climate facilitated the prosperity of ancient civilizations. On a global scale, major technological innovations and their dispersion lasting for centuries and even millennia are major catalysts for population growth and social development. Lastly, we illustrate a possible mechanism under which environmental and technological factors played a critical role in ancient human survival and social evolution on different spatial scales.

Funded by

National Natural Science Foundation of China(41620104007 ,&, 41671077)

Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities(LZUJBKY-2015-k09)


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 41620104007 and 41671077) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Grant No. LZUJBKY-2015-k09).


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  • Figure 1

    The case studies that sudden hazard leading to the destruction of ancient large settlements.

  • Figure 2

    The case studies that persistent drought events leading to the ancient civilization recession and mass migration. (a) 18O isotope contents from Core 63 KA, northeastern Arabian sea (Staubwasser et al., 2003). (b) Dolomite accumulation from Core M5-422 (Cullen et al., 2000). (c) Gypsum density from lake Chichancanab (Medina-Elizalde and Rohling, 2012). (d) Ice accumulation from Quelccaya Ice Core, Peru (deMenocal, 2001). (e) PDSI from tree ring, Southeast Asia (Buckley et al., 2010). (f) 18O isotope contents from Wanxiang Cave (Zhang et al., 2008).

  • Figure 3

    The comparison of global population change, global temperature and critical technological innovations since late Pleistocene.

  • Figure 4

    The possible influence of environmental and technological factors on social development at different temporal-spatial scales.

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