Historians have long known that the shelf life of complex societies throughout human history has been rather limited. Archaeologists are aware of this also. But how to explain it?
In a recent (open access) paper, “Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies,” Sergey Gavrilets and colleagues mathematically modeled early complex societies using a number of variables that could affect the rise, fall, and duration of such societies. They predicted relatively rapid and “continuous stochastic cycling,” which is a polite way of saying there was much tumultuous (and bloody) change as early complex societies warred with one another for dominance. The model confirmed their predictions and identified two variables that were especially important: (1) the wealth/power of a given society, and (2) the chief’s expected time in power. From this, the authors concluded:
Our results demonstrate that the stability of large and complex polities is strongly promoted if the outcomes of the conflicts are mostly determined by the polities’ wealth/power, if there exist well-defined and accepted means of succession, and if control mechanisms are internally specialized.
The importance of succession and internal control mechanisms are of special interest because religion can be used to legitimate both succession and control. In fact, this is precisely what happened in early complex societies and was perhaps the raison d’etre for the earliest forms of organized religions. Before the rise of complex societies (i.e., before the Neolithic Revolution or agricultural transition), the primary form of supernaturalism was shamanic — individualized, fluid, and largely without rite or doctrine. As such, shamanic forms of supernaturalism do not lend themselves to the maintenance of power by elites. To justify stratification and dominance, something more systematic was needed.
The earliest forms of organized religion provided these justifications. Rulers and their kin were associated with deities or were themselves deities. The emergence of complex societies was accompanied by the emergence of a priestly class, usually comprised of the rulers and their kin or closely allied with them. Social complexity and religious complexity were tightly linked, one being essential for the other.
We know for a fact that the earliest complex societies or city-states in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica developed in precisely this way. The newly emerged elite claimed supernatural sanction, and monopolized supernaturalism by developing the earliest organized religions. These were, of course, state religions that attempted to manage the critical issues of ruler succession and internal control. As Gavrilets and colleagues observe in their paper:
Creating and maintaining complex polities thus requires effective mechanisms to deal with both internal and external threats. In both cases, leaders (paramount chiefs) must solve collective action problems to overcome challenges.
What better way to solve collective action problems than to develop, organize, and promote a religion that serves the leaders’ and elites’ interests? The chief either has exclusive access to the gods or is a god; as such, the chief is the provider and protector. The chief’s children are successors and similar: their divine access or status supposedly guarantees future provisioning and protection.
It is a tidy arrangement for so long as it lasts. The problem apparently is that rarely lasts very long — it seems that lots of people and competing polities had the same ideas!
Gavrilets, Sergey, Anderson, David G., & Turchin, Peter (2010). Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 1 (1), 59-80 : http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5536t55r