Some excerpts of recent articles I enjoyed.

• From the Guardian:

History as a giant data set: how analysing the past could help save the future

Calculating the patterns and cycles of the past could lead us to a better understanding of history. Could it also help us prevent a looming crisis? 

In its first issue of 2010, the scientific journal Nature looked forward to a dazzling decade of progress. By 2020, experimental devices connected to the internet would deduce our search queries by directly monitoring our brain signals. Crops would exist that doubled their biomass in three hours. Humanity would be well on the way to ending its dependency on fossil fuels.

A few weeks later, a letter in the same journal cast a shadow over this bright future. It warned that all these advances could be derailed by mounting political instability, which was due to peak in the US and western Europe around 2020. Human societies go through predictable periods of growth, the letter explained, during which the population increases and prosperity rises. Then come equally predictable periods of decline. These “secular cycles” last two or three centuries and culminate in widespread unrest – from worker uprisings to revolution.

In recent decades, the letter went on, a number of worrying social indicators – such as wealth inequality and public debt – had started to climb in western nations, indicating that these societies were approaching a period of upheaval. The letter-writer would go on to predict that the turmoil in the US in 2020 would be less severe than the American civil war, but worse than the violence of the late 1960s and early 70s, when the murder rate spiked, civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests intensified and domestic terrorists carried out thousands of bombings across the country.

The author of this stark warning was not a historian, but a biologist. For the first few decades of his career, Peter Turchin had used sophisticated maths to show how the interactions of predators and prey produce oscillations in animal populations in the wild. He had published in the journals Nature and Science and become respected in his field, but by the late 1990s he had answered all the ecological questions that interested him. He found himself drawn to history instead: could the rise and fall of human societies also be captured by a handful of variables and some differential equations?

• Also from the Guardian

Climate change may be behind fall of ancient empire, say researchers

Dramatic shift from wet to dry climate could have caused crop failure in Neo-Assyrian empire

The Neo-Assyrian empire was a mighty superpower that dominated the near east for 300 years before its dramatic collapse. Now researchers say they have a novel theory for what was behind its rise and fall: climate change.

The empire emerged in about 912BC and grew to stretch from the Mediterranean down to Egypt and out to the Persian Gulf.

But shortly after the death of the king Ashurbanipal around 630BC, the empire began to crumble, with the grand city of Nineveh sacked in 612BC. By the end of the seventh century BC, the empire’s fall was complete.

Now scientists say the reversal in the empire’s fortunes appears to coincide with a dramatic shift in its climate from wet to dry – a potentially crucial change in an empire reliant on crops.

“Nearly two centuries of high precipitation and high agrarian outputs encouraged high-density urbanisation and imperial expansion that was not sustainable when climate shifted to megadrought conditions during the seventh century BC,” the authors write.

In other words, while civil war, overexpansion and military defeat played a role in the empire’s collapse, the underlying driver could have been crop failures that led to economic collapse, exacerbating political unrest and conflict.

• From History Collection:

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple

Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site that dates back over 11,000 years. It is believed by some to be the first evidence of a hunter-gatherer civilization building a massive temple. Located in modern-day Turkey, the site was discovered in 1963 and in 1994 efforts to excavate the site began. Now more than 20 years into the excavation and preservation of the site, new discoveries have archaeologists questioning what they once believed to be the site’s purpose. It is now thought that the people who created Göbekli Tepe were part of an ancient skull cult.

Göbekli Tepe is a series of circular and oval-shaped structures on the top of a hill that dates back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Period which ranges from 9600 – 7300 BCE. At the site are 20 different installations which come together to form what is believed to be the oldest temple in the world. The site features intricate carvings, evidence of rituals being performed, and evidence that efforts were taken to preserve the site after it was abandoned. It is thought that the site was abandoned about 9,000 years ago and was largely untouched by humans until its rediscovery in 1963….

Skull cults is a term that is used by archaeologists to describe prehistoric people who venerated the skulls of the dead to the point of worshiping them. Most skull cults are recognized from the modified skulls that have been found at other archaeological sites. At other sites, there is evidence that the bodies of the dead were buried whole. However, later the bodies would be dug back up and then the skulls would be removed and the rest of the body reburied.