and marcher states in
East/West Empire Synchrony
Christopher Chase-Dunn, Thomas D. Hall, Richard Niemeyer, Alexis Alvarez, Hiroko Inoue, Kirk Lawrence, Anders Carlson, Benjamin Fierro, Matthew Kanashiro, Hala Sheikh-Mohamed and Laura Young
Institute for Research on World-Systems
University of California-Riverside
Draft v.11-1-06, 8365 words
Abstract: East, West,
IROWS Working Paper #30. https://irows.ucr.edu/papers/irows30/irows30.htm
research has demonstrated a curious East/West synchrony from 140 BCE to 1800
CE. When large empires were increasing in population size in the West
Asia/Mediterranean region they were also growing in
who study the rise of civilizations have long pointed to the importance of
1: Teggart’s (1939) map of
The focus of world historians has long been on the diffusion of religions and technologies across the Silk Roads since the Axial Age, and the admixture of cultures and ways of life that developed in Central Asia during the long period in which the Eastern and Western regions of large cities became more and more strongly linked (e.g. Bentley 1993; McNeill and McNeill 2003). Others have contended that Central Asian societies, especially steppe pastoralists, have played a crucial role in world history (Lattimore 1940; Christian 1994, 2000). Frank (1992) and Frank and Gills (1994) contend that interaction between East and West across Central Asia, and the action of Central Asian peoples themselves, linked East and West into a single world-system as early as 2000 BCE.
Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) developed a comparative world-systems theoretical framework that geographically bounds world-systems by means of human interaction networks that have different spatial extents– bulk goods networks, political/military networks, prestige goods networks and information networks (see also Chase-Dunn and Jorgenson 2003). Bulk goods networks (BGNs) tend to be fairly local affairs that are nested within larger interpolity systems in which polities make war and alliances with one another (political/military networks or PMNs). And these are typically nested within even larger networks in which prestige goods (PGNs) and information (INs) are exchanged.
and Hall also note the importance of core/periphery relations in the processes
of socio-cultural evolution, pointing out that semiperipheral societies often
play a crucial role in the transformation of technologies and institutions.
Core/periphery relations are interactions among societies with different levels
of population density and power. Chase-Dunn and Hall apply the comparative
world-systems approach to the waves of expansion of interaction networks that
eventually led to the incorporation and merger of Afroeurasia and then the
whole globe into a single integrated interaction system (Chase-Dunn and Hall
1997: Chapter 8). In their view
We define Central Asia broadly as: the territory that lies between the eastern edge of the Caspian Sea (longitude E53) and the old Jade Gate near the city of Dun Huang near longitude E95, and that is north of latitude N37, (which is the northern edge of the Iranian Plateau, the northern part of Afghanistan and the mountains along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin). The northern boundary is the northern edge of the steppes as they transition into forest and tundra.
Christian also points out that large tribal confederations of steppe nomads may have emerged first from the eastern steppe, where rainfall is less and pastures are less reliable. (Christian 2000:198). If this is so it is analogous to the widely known process of conquering polities emerging from semiperipheral regions that are relatively ecologically marginal (see Kirch 1984 on a similar phenomenon in the interchiefdom systems of the Pacific).
Karakorum - the Mongol capital of Eurasia
is unusual about
Barfield’s (1989, 1991) model somewhat complicates the above discussion. In the
history of the interaction between steppe nomad confederations and agrarian
argues that large steppe confederacies usually cycle synchronously with the
rise and fall of large sedentary agrarian states. This is because the ability
of a steppe khan to hold his coalition together is based on success in raiding
and extracting tribute (because he uses the booty to reward confederates), and
this strategy works best when there is a large and healthy agrarian state to
extort. If a large steppe empire emerges
during a “time of troubles” in the agrarian core it is unable to extract large
quantities of surplus and is likely to itself fall apart. Barfield contends
that it was in the face of this situation that Chinggis Khan opted for moving
both west and east, and ended up conquering
Figure 2 shows the evidence for East/West empire synchrony that we find from the quantitative study of city and empire sizes based on the research of Rein Taagepera (1978a, 1978b 1979, 1997). Figure 2 does not include Central Asian empires such as the Hsiung-nu, the Huns and the Mongols. These are taken out in order to see if East/West synchrony still holds without including the Central Asian empires.
Many other scholars have posited the existence of synchronous waves of expansion, development, golden and dark ages, population growth and decline and etc. (Teggart 1939; Frank and Gills 1993). David Christian (1994: 182) summarizes this hypothesis as follows: “…the political history of Inner Eurasia shaped the rhythms not just of Inner Eurasia but of the entire Eurasian world-system.”
Figure 2: Sizes of largest empires in East and West excluding Central Asian Empires, 1000 BCE-1200 CE. Pearson’s r = .46
As is evident in Figure 2, the West has a whole large wave of empire rise and fall before this process starts in the East, but by 140 BCE the two regions fall into synchrony when the West recovers and joins the East in an upward sweep. The second synchronous wave starts up in the seventh century CE.  Earlier research has indicated that there is also an East-West synchrony in the growth/decline phases of largest cities, but this finding is now in doubt because it does not hold up with the revised city size estimates produced by Modelski (2003). An examination of cycles of total regional population also reveals East-West synchrony (see Chase-Dunn, Alvarez and Pasciuti 2005b: 324-325).
This paper mainly focuses upon a particular problem, the assessment of the several ways in which Central Asian peoples may have played a role in causing the synchrony of East/West empire growth/decline phases mentioned above.
Climate change might affect regions synchronously by causing growth and decline
of agricultural productivity that in turn affects empires and populations.
Perhaps because South Asia is nearer the equator, its climate change history is
different from that of East and
But climate change could also be involved in more complicated ways. Central Asian
steppe nomads were very susceptible to climate change because their pastoral
economy was greatly affected by changes in temperature and rainfall. It is
possible that climate change in
The above hypotheses all conceive of climate change as an exogenous variable. But it is also likely that empire growth changes the local climate. Population growth, the building of large cities and the development of complex civilizations changes the environment because of deforestation, soil erosion and the construction of large irrigation systems and cities. These changes are likely to affect local rainfall and temperatures. Thus climate change may also be an endogenous variable.
Central Asian steppe nomads periodically formed large cavalries and attacked the agrarian empires of the East and the West (Barfield 1989). Famous examples are the Scythians, Sarmatians, Hsiung-nu, Huns and the Mongols. Perhaps there was a cycle of Central Asian migrations and incursions that impacted upon the agrarian civilizations of the East and the West and this accounts for the synchrony (Thompson 2005).
diseases spread across
The Roman and Han empires were linked by long distance trade routes across the Silk Roads and by sea. Perhaps interruptions to trade, or periods of greater and easier trade flows, affected the Eastern and Western civilizations simultaneously.
It is also possible that two systems that are cycling independently can become synchronized if they are both reset by simultaneous, but largely accidental, shocks. This is the so-called “Moran Effect” known in population ecology. The Moran reset effect can cause long-term synchrony in processes that have a sine-wave form in which the duration of the waves is fairly constant. Most social cycles, including the growth/decline phases of cities and empires, have rather variable durations and so the Moran effect is unlikely to be the explanation of long-term synchronies like the one of interest here.
Figure 3 depicts a propositional inventory that includes most of the possible causes of East/West empire synchrony.
Figure 3: An Inventory of Possible Causes of East/West Empire Synchrony
David Christian describes, and then criticizes, the causal path that goes from Central Asian state formation, to trade intensification and then to the rise of large agrarian cities and empires of the East and West. He says (2000:6)
When agrarian civilizations or pastoralist empires dominated large sections of the Silk Roads, merchants traveled more freely, protection costs were lower, and traffic was brisk. One can quibble about the exact dating of these fluctuations, but roughly speaking favorable conditions held from about 100 BCE to about 1 BCE; in the second and third centuries, when the Kushan Empire flourished; in the era of the Tang and early Islam, in the seventh and eighth centuries; and in the era of the Mongol empire.
(2000) critique of this conventional historical description is that ecological
exchanges were as important, or more important, than civilizational exchanges. Beckwith
(1991) has documented the crucial role of steppe pastoralists in supplying
horses to various Chinese dynasties. The rise of a large steppe confederation
allowed the horse trade to flourish, brought more silk into the hands of
pastoralists, and fueled the
this paper we propose to further examine the possibilities that the East/West
synchrony may have been caused by interaction mediated by Central Asia by studying
the timing of the establishment and growth of settlements as indicated by
reports of trade linkages and the formation of large empires in
There are other causes of the establishment, growth and decline of settlements besides increasing trade. Climate change, especially desertification, is thought to have greatly affected settlements in
Central Asia, but in complicated ways. The shifting of river courses, drying up of oases, and changes in the amount of rainfall can have large effects on the sizes and the very existence of settlements in desert climes. And there is archaeological evidence that earthquakes greatly affected some settlements (Korjenkov, et al 2003). State formation also affects the sizes and growth rates of settlements. So settlement growth/decline phases in the Central Asian region may have been caused by factors other than changes in the intensity of trade. Nevertheless, if we find that growth/decline phases in the region as a whole, as opposed to the growth and decline of one or two individual settlements, does indeed temporally correspond with the growth/decline phases of Eastern and Western cities and empires, this will provide support for the idea that trade fluctuations were an important cause of East/West synchrony.
way to improve the likelihood that changes in the number of settlements can be
used as a proxy measure of changes in the intensity of trade is to limit our
investigation to settlements that were located on or close to the various known
trade routes that are known as the Silk Roads (see Figure 4). But, as already
mentioned, there were also maritime routes of East/West trade and historians
have contended that the sea and land routes alternated with one another with
respect to the volume of trade. If this is true a decline in the sizes of
Figure 5: The
But these oases settlements in the
The abandoning of this
part of the
earlier work on the growth of cities and empires focuses on mainly the largest
settlements and polities and so we have little information about Central Asia
in the standard data sets that we have used before (e.g.
Christian (1994) describes the Paleolithic emergence of big game hunting on the
steppes, the emergence of first sedentary or short distance pastoralism using
domesticated animals and then the emergence of long distance pastoralism on the
steppes using large herds of horses. This is the story of radical adaptation to
the environmentally challenging topography and climate of
oasis cities also emerged very early in the Bronze Age in the western part of
Hiebert (1994) surmises that the original oasis compounds were under the
authority of the khan of the earlier and older foothill settlements for a
period before they asserted their independence and proclaimed their own khan.
These early oasis states in Bronze Age Central Asia developed a distinctive iconography
and also contained elements that indicate contact with pastoral shamanism. And
burials containing the artifacts of this culture are found in distant Bronze
Age sites well to the south on the
presence of Margiana grave goods in distant different Bronze Age regions
probably indicates the presence of trader-priests who were organizing the
exchange of the desired raw materials for products from the Margiana-Bactria homeland.
These agricultural settlements were composed of large walled compounds spread
along the major irrigation canals in the oasis zones. Though there is no
indication that they were engaged in regular East/West trading along the
R. Thompson (2005) examines E.N. Chernykh’s (1992) periodization of “migration
crises” (2005: 22) as a framework for understanding the sequential nature of
disruptions, migrations and incursions that occurred across
story of states and empires across
Figure 6: Major states and empires in
Capitalist City-States in
What are the implications of Central Asian
historical change for understanding the evolution of modes of accumulation,
especially capitalism? The “middle-men” of the Silk Roads were in an
interesting position. The city-states of
the Bronze and Iron Age expansions of the tributary empires a new niche emerged
for states that specialized in the carrying trade among the empires and
adjacent regions. These semiperipheral capitalist city-states were usually
“thalassocratic” entities that used naval power to protect sea-going trade
(e.g. the Phoenician city-states,
The expansion of trading and communications networks facilitated the growth of empires and vice versa. The emergence of agriculture, mining and manufacturing production of surpluses for trade gave conquerors an incentive to expand state control into distant areas. And the apparatus of the empire was itself often a boon to trade. The specialized trading states promoted the production of trade surpluses, bringing peoples into commerce over wide regions, and thus they helped to create the conditions for the emergence of larger empires.
Sabloff and Rathje (1975) contend that the same settlement can oscillate back and forth between being a “port of trade” (neutral territory that is used for administered trade between different competing states and empires – see Polanyi et al 1957) and a “trading port” (an autonomous and sovereign polity that actively pursues policies that facilitate profitable trade). This latter corresponds to what Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) mean by a semiperipheral capitalist city-state. Sabloff and Rathje also contend that a trading port is more likely to emerge during a period in which other states within the same region are weak, whereas a port of trade is more likely during a period in which there are large strong states.
Ports of trade may be most likely to emerge in buffer zones or “no man’s lands” in between the territories of strong polities. The function of buffer zones is to reduce the likelihood of conflict, but these regions also present an opportunity for peaceful exchange, and so they may develop into ports of trade.
of capitalist city-states in
was our original goal to assemble a data set on settlement and empire sizes for
Table 1 lists the settlements at each time point and the number of their known links to other settlements.
Table 1: Settlements and
number of links in
* The ancient city of
in today's Ruoqiang (Qarkilik) County was part of the state of Shanshan during the Western Han Dynasty. Milan
Figures 7-13 are GIS maps that show the locations of the settlements in Table 1 from 200 BCE to 1200 CE.
Figure 9: Silk Road Cities, 1 CE (the new color represents the cities added at this time)
Figure 10: Silk Road Cities, 100 CE (the new color represents the cities added at this time)
Figure 11: Silk Road Cities, 400 CE (the new color represents the cities added at this time)
Figure 12: Silk Road Cities, 700 CE (the new color represents the cities added at this time)
Figure 13: Silk Road Cities, 1200 CE (the new color represents the cities added at this time)
Figure 15 shows three counts that are proxy indicators for the amount and growth of trade across the Silk Roads.
Figure 14: Cities Added, Cumulative number of
cities and cumulative number of links (edges) in
Figure 14 shows that trade volume, as indicated by the number of known settlements in Central Asia that are connected to trade routes, increased from 200 BCE to 1200 CE, but at a changing rate. Figure 14 shows that the cumulative number of cities that were connected doubles from 200 BCE to 100 BCE and then increased only slightly from 100 BCE to 1 CE. Then the number of known cities connected to trade routes again grew rapidly between 1 CE and 100 CE. Unfortunately the temporal resolution of the trade route data is very crude after 100 CE (two 300 year gaps and one 500 year gap).
was another big increase from 100 CE to 400 CE, and after that the growth was
slow. This could have been due to either a leveling off of the growth of trade
or to the saturation of
Figure 15: Western and Eastern Largest Empires and
Figure 15 shows the rise and fall of empires in the East and the West (as in Figure 2 above) and adds rescaled values of new Central Asian cities that were added to trade routes (e.g 2.9=29; 4.2=42, etc.). Again, the rough temporal resolution of our data on Central Asian settlements makes it hard to see what is going on, but there does not appear to be a positive relationship between the establishment of new Central Asian cities and the rise of fall of Western and Eastern empires. The Pearson’s r correlation coefficients, based on seven time points, are zero and somewhat negative.
different way to approach the quantitative study of the effects of Central Asia
on East/West synchrony is to examine the size of the largest empires that come
Figure 16: East, West and
The Eastern and Western empires in Figure 16 are the same ones that are include in Figures 2 and 15 above. The Central Asian empires include the Mongol Empire with 24 square megameters of territory in 1300 CE, one of the largest polities that has ever existed. A notable feature of Figure 16 is that all the largest empires in terms of territory were the result of conquests by nomadic pastoralists (Huns, Mongols) or those who had recently been nomadic pastoralists (Islamic Arabs).
Visual examination of Figure 16 does not reveal an obvious correspondence in the timing of the rise and fall of Central Asian empires with the empires of the East and the West. Indeed, the Pearsons r correlation coefficients are -.21 between West and Central and -.22 between East and Central.
what is the relationship between Central Asian empires and the establishment of
new settlements in
Figure 17: Central Asian Empires and the number of
new settlements in
the two quantitative indicators that we have devised to indicate how
This reexamination of
do not yet have a firm answer as to which of the possible explanations for
East/West empire synchrony is most likely to have been the main culprit.
Narratives of waves of migration and incursions such as provided by Thompson
(2005) correspond fairly well with the growth/decline phases of East and West
empires. But the only quantitative indicators we have been able to find for
New sources of data continue to appear and so we are hopeful that we will be able to rule out some explanations and find support for others. In order to test the explanations for East/West empire synchrony we need quantitative data with good temporal resolution over the relevant time period and in the relevant regions for settlement and empire sizes, climate change, epidemic diseases, migrations, trade, and warfare. The trade route data are useful in providing lists of Central Asian settlements to be studied. Our future work will focus on the largest of these and will assemble more and better estimates of settlement sizes and the territorial sizes of the largest Central Asian states and empires. We will also revisit the question of East/West city size synchrony once new progress has been made in estimating the sizes of the largest cities in the Bronze and Iron ages.
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 Chase-Dunn and Manning (2002) also reported an
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 The East/West empire synchrony holds up when Central Asian empires that linked both regions are taken out of the analysis. There is one glaring exception to East-West synchrony when the Ming empire rises but the largest empire in the West is declining in territorial size. But the synchrony resumes after that period.
 Of course the steppes extend further west to the area north of the
Black Seaand beyond.
 Figure 2 ends at 1200 CE because this is the end of our data on Central Asian settlements discussed below.
current explosion in research and writing about the effects of climate on
civilization was presaged during the late 19th and early 20th century
 We have discussed this possibility in greater detail in Chase-Dunn, Alvarez and Pasciuti (2005b).