Category Archives: History

Arab Expansion

[Originally posted Dec. 24, 2012]

I have often idly wondered what propelled the Arab expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries but, until recently, never given it any serious thought. In my book on expansion cycles I shied away from including the Arab expansion. The reason for this is that it seemed somewhat different from other expansion cycles I was studying and the religious element I found rather distracting.

Recently, however, I have become more sensitive to the role religion plays in building consensus and group identity (especially after reading D.S. Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral). I therefore decided to take a closer look at Arab expansion.

Many devout Muslims will assume that Arab or early Muslim expansion simply reflects the power of the message presented by Mohammad and many scholars will assume something similar. To others this seems unsatisfactory. To begin with, this reasoning easily becomes circular thus: the Muslims expanded because of Mohammad’s powerful message and we know how powerful his message was because it lead to Muslim expansion. There is no getting around it that any claim that it was Mohammad’s powerful message that started the expansion must be supported by reference to the message itself, why it was so powerful and how it caused the Muslims to start expanding. Additionally, the main early expansion only lasted a little more than a century and it seems difficult to explain why the religion lost its driving force so quickly, if indeed the expansion was simply propelled by religious fervour.

Theologically speaking, Islam is not much different from some Judeo-Christian sects that were actually prominent in the Arab-speaking world at the time of Mohammad such as the Ebionites who believed Jesus to have been a human prophet rather than the Son of God. It has even been suggested that Islam originated as such a sect. The Quran has more to say about Jesus than Mohammad and it seems possible that Mohammad saw himself as a kind of Christian and had no intention of replacing Jesus as the principal prophet to the faithful. After Mohammad’s death in 632 his successors, Abu Bakr and the early caliphs, would have found it in their interest to draw a sharp line between the Muslims and the Christians, Jews and others and thus create a well-defined identity for their people. To do this they simply had to promote Mohammad over Jesus as the principal prophet and collect his revelations into a new holy book, the Quran, to replace biblical scriptures.

The message of Islam is not all that revolutionary and it is hard to see any religious elements that were so strikingly different that they can explain early Islamic expansionism. The concept of jihad seems to have been developed (even reluctantly by Mohammad) after the expansion had started and as a response to the needs of the expansion rather than being its original driving force. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it wasn’t the importance of Mohammad’s message the made the Muslims great. It may actually have been the other way around.

Other explanations for Muslim expansion refer to the weakened state of the Arab’s principal opponents, the Byzantines and the Persians who had been fiercely fighting each other. This seems a weak explanation since empires have been fighting each other for millennia and if a temporary weakness caused by such wars is enough to explain such a massive expansion as the Arab one we would expect many more such episodes. Some scholars also refer to Arab nomadism that supposedly made them more mobile, warlike and formidable opponents. However, only a part of the Arabs were nomads, most probably lived as farmers in the oases of Arabia, many even in cities such as Mecca and Medina. For the nomadic lifestyle to have any explanatory power it would also have had to undergo some significant change or increase at the time the expansion started — how else can it explain the sudden expansion starting precisely in the first half of the 7th century rather than at some other time.

Arab expansion certainly doesn’t seem to conform exactly to the expansion cycle model as I had developed it — and yet there are striking similarities. Most expansion cycles of note start in what I call competitive systems and such expansions I call system expansions (as somewhat different from colonizing expansions and empire expansions, although the driving mechanism is similar). It seems quite likely that the Arabs of the western plateau of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz, formed a competitive system with the cities of Mecca and Medina as two of the principal competitors. The polities of such systems tend to maximize their military capacity, eventually (if reluctantly) by including many or most of the common population in the business of war. In this way the system as a whole becomes very belligerent but also develops democratic and egalitarian tendencies since the military power of each polity depended on the armed commoners rather than a small warrior elite. These commoners, through their military power, also acquired political power. This seems to fit quite well with early Islam, which showed both militaristic and egalitarian tendencies.

When a competitive system adopts popular warfare, i.e. starts including the commoners in their army and their political processes, this triggers expansion. With their newfound political power, the commoners demand land or other resources that allow them to live decently, get married, have children and support their families. To begin with, such demands are often met at home, e.g. by dividing all available land between commoners – but this is only a temporary solution. Since many more commoners are now in a position to raise families the result is rapid population growth, calling for still more land. Soon the demand for land and resources can only be met by expansion. Such an expansion is made possible by the military power that has evolved within the system with the inclusion of the commoners in warfare and which gives the polities of the system a decisive edge against polities outside the system.

Adopting popular warfare is not an easy decision since this also causes the ruling elite to lose much of its power. Therefore, the first polity to take the plunge is usually a polity that is under extreme stress and sees no other way out. However, once popular warfare has been adopted the power of this pioneer polity increases dramatically. This often leads to what I have termed Napoleon syndrome, the classic example of which is the binge of conquests France embarked upon within the European system after the French Revolution under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte. This forces other polities in the system to also adopt popular warfare and to catch up as quickly as they can or else be eliminated. I used to think that there were two possible outcomes of a Napoleon syndrome. Either the pioneer polity is stopped from conquering the whole system; all its polities develop popular warfare and then start to expand outside the system. Else, the pioneer polity succeeds in conquering the system, subdues all its opponents and effectively turns itself into a new elite in an empire that covers the whole system. In the latter case the expansion cycle would be curtailed since only the pioneer polity managed to adopt popular warfare and its people became a privileged minority in the new empire.

My current hypothesis is that there is a third possibility exemplified by the Arab expansion. I assume that Medina was the pioneer polity within the Arab system and I suggest that the reason why things took a different turn here is the complexity of the various and conflicting identities among the Arabs. Not only did they belong to a city or a region but also to a tribe (and a clan within a tribe). Several such tribes often lived mixed together. There were also a variety of different religious congregations. Some were still pagan but many practiced various forms of Judaism or Christianity. Each person or household could therefore hold three different and sometimes conflicting identities: regional, tribal and religious. My guess is that as Medina developed popular warfare and started to get the better of its neighbours, it needed a new identity to bring its people together and separate them from their enemies. Regional allegiances were not strong enough to serve this purpose in the face of conflicting tribal and religious ones. The solution was to flock around a new prophet who could give them identity and purpose and bring the people together in a common cause and that is why they called upon Mohammad to lead them in 622 AD (the Hijra). And that is why this event, Mohammad’s ’emigration’ from Mecca, is the true beginning of Islam (as marked by their calendar), strange as it may seem to an outsider.

However, this also meant that the pioneer polity of Medina took on a religious identity rather than a regional or tribal one. It also meant that any Arab who accepted the message of Mohammad could join in and this, I suggest, was the crucial difference. The religious pioneering polity of Medina, instead of simply subduing its neighbours and starting a new hegemony, opened its arms to them and asked them to join. Quite soon most of the Arabs had formed an alliance bent on expansion with explosive results. Because this form of expansion cycle united the whole system in a single egalitarian polity the resulting expansion was unusually powerful and dramatic, signifying one of the most momentous episodes in human history. This fourth variant of the expansion cycle is therefore the result of a third possible outcome of a Napoleon Syndrome; where the system is indeed unified but not as a new hegemony but rather as an egalitarian super-polity bent on external expansion. It may very well be the only one of its kind in world history since it seems to rely on the rather unusual configuration of the Arab competitive system.

I am by no means an expert in early Islam or Arab history and I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of these matters is superficial. The hypothesis presented here is simply my guess as to how the Arab expansion may have started – a guess that is based on the expansion cycle model but also adds a new variant to it. I would be delighted if someone with a deeper understanding of 7th century Arabia undertook a more detailed investigation based on this hypothesis – but I fear it is too much to ask.

The Problem with Environmental Determinism

[Originally posted Jan. 20, 2011]

I recently came across this news item on Science AAAS. I have no doubt that it is an interesting and important study of tree rings and the conclusions can help us understand many things in human and environmental history. However, some of the suggestions drawn from the results are rather far fetched, to say the least, and are in fact typical of an ailment common to many natural scientist that turn their attention to the evolution of human societies, an ailment called environmental determinism (it occasionally affects historians and archaeologist as well). This is the general attitude or tendency to seek environmental causes for most important developments in human history. Usually it is supposed to have something to do with climate (understandable given the modern preoccupation with global warming).

Fortunately, not all natural scientists that take an interest in human society suffer from this affliction and the names of D.S Wilson and P. Turchin come readily to mind. Both of them have studied human society in a most sensible manner, not as something that is simply subject to the vagaries of the natural world but rather as something that is actually a part of the natural world and subject to the same general principles. By studying human societies in this way we will actually discover that our societies are not just a normal part of nature but rather an interesting and new development in the evolution of life on earth. And this new development is actually something that profoundly contradicts the basic premise of environmental determinism.

The problem with environmental determinism is that it underestimates human society in two different but connected ways. On the one hand it underestimates the complexity of human society and history and on the other it underestimates the adaptability of human societies.

Human societies are the most complex phenomena known to us. This should warn against adopting simplistic explanations for historical processes that are intrinsically complex. Human societies evolve on their own terms and they do not necessarily react in a simplistic or even predictable way to environmental stimuli. This is not to say that environmental fluctuations do not matter but rather that how societies react to them is not always straight forward.

Furthermore, because of the extreme variety and complexity of human societies there is always a lot of things going on. If we compare some environmental variable (like climate) to what we know of history we can always find something that seems to match. Take for example the ‘Little Ice Age’. It is often asserted, in a environmental deterministic fashion, that this cold period that lasted approximately 1600-1900 AD (actual estimates vary) was a primary cause of the ‘decline’ of Icelandic society (which in turn is highly problematic – but let’s not get into that). The period of ‘decline’ is approximately the same as the Little Ice Age so it all seems to fit. However, a simple correlation does not necessarily indicate a causal link. When we are dealing with a very complex and variable reality, correlations often appear at random and the environmental determinist should consider that the Little Ice Age was not confined to Iceland. It was a cold period all over the world, not least in Europe which, at that time, developed the modern state, industrialization, unprecedented population growth, democracy and modern medicine. Did these things have anything to do with the Little Ice Age. Probably not much and at least not in any predictable, simplistic way.

Another example can be taken directly from the news item mentioned at the beginning where is says: “Around 1300 C.E. […] a cold snap combined with wetter summers coincides with widespread famines and plague that wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population by 1347.” Actually the plague only started in 1347 and certainly didn’t manage to kill nearly half of Europe’s population until several years later. But never mind that. It is suggested that the plague was somehow the result of climate change and this is apparently based on nothing but the rather incidental correlation in time. How are we to assume that the colder and wetter climate caused plague bacteria to travel from Central Asia (where they were endemic) to Europe? Where they just tired of the dry continental climate and longed for some rain?!

This was not the first time the plague bacterium appeared in Europe. The Plague of Justinian that started in Constantinople in 541 AD was probably the same disease (the bubonic plague) and was most likely just as devastating. Just like the 14th century plague, it reoccurred over a period of about 150 years, severely reducing population and recovery didn’t star in earnest until around 700 AD. Was this plague also the result of a colder and wetter climate? The news item doesn’t say. I am quite sure that we could find some kind of climatic variation around 541 if we look hard enough but I seriously doubt that it had much to do with the Plague of Justinian.


The second and even more serious problem with environmental determinism is that it underestimates the adaptability of human societies. This adaptability is actually closely linked to the complexity of human societies and it has made them the most adaptable phenomena that we know of and by a very large margin. The basic reason for this adaptability is that the emergence of culture has largely replaced genes as the blueprint for behaviour in our societies. Culture and genes are in many ways similar, they both determine behaviour, however culture evolves at a much faster rate than genes do and, consequently, cultural evolution and cultural adaptation works on an entirely different timescale from genetic evolution. In this, humans are a unique species on this earth. Other animals may have evolved some tiny spores of culture but only humans have turned it into its major survival tool and had it replace genes as the basic adaptive mechanism. This is why humans are not as vulnerable to environmental changes as other animals are. Through their culture, they can actually adapt in real time as the changes are happening, usually without major catastrophes. What constitutes a major catastrophe is of course relative and famines are familiar occurrences in human history but most of them are mere peanuts compared to what other species have to endure.

Not all human societies are equally adaptable and generally speaking they have become more so as they have grown more complex. The most complex societies have actually done away with famines for good. The invention of farming (first about 10-12 thousand years ago) was a major step in increasing human adaptability. With a variety of farming methods to choose from, a slight shift in climate (as have often occurred) was not an insurmountable problem. One could replace wheat with barley, turn some cornfields into hayfields or shift emphasis from cattle to sheep all as the circumstances called for. Therefore, people were usually not just some helpless victims when faced with environmental changes. They could adjust their survival strategy and survive with relative ease.

Of course I do not mean to suggest that human societies are immune to environmental changes. Far from it. But the human-environmental relationship is far more complex and dynamic than environmental determinists imagine. Human societies have occasionally suffered from catastrophic environmental changes and been devastated by them. But most changes are relatively minor and human societies have been able to handle them without much difficulty. They do not one-sidedly determine human history, rather they are stimuli that can often affect societies in subtle and unpredictable ways but only rarely do they directly cause major upheavals.

Where did the Etruscans come from?

[Originally posted on Nov. 17, 2010]

The Etruscans lived in and around Tuscany (which is named after them) in Italy prior to Roman expansion. Unlike most well known European peoples they did not speak an Indo-European language which is probably the main reason why scholars have speculated so much about their origins.

There are two main theories, both of them with ancient proponents and modern defenders. Some say they came from Asia Minor, others consider them indigenous to their homeland in Etruria.

There is a third possibility that is seldom mentioned. In late prehistory, much of northern Italy was characterized by the Villanovan culture and since there is no discernable break in the archaeological record and the territorial correlation is almost perfect, it seems most reasonable to assume that people speaking early Etruscan were prominent within this culture; an argument often made by the proponents of the indigenous theory.

However, the origins of the Villanovan culture are linked with the Urnfield migrations (ca. 1300-1100 BC, see Axel Kristinsson, 2010, chapter 2) when strong influences from the eastern Alpine region appeared in northern Italy. Most scholars seem to think that the carriers of the Villanovan culture were Italic speaking newcomers from Central Europe and that the Etruscans either came later (from Asia Minor) or were the indigenous population who’s language eventually prevailed. Neither solution explains the remarkable correlation between the territories of the Villanovan culture and the Etruscan language and it is far simpler to assume that the Etruscans themselves brought the Villanovan culture to Italy.

Just because the Etruscans didn’t speak an Indo-European language doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have migrated from Central Europe. In fact, the poorly documented Raetian language of the eastern Alps, still surviving in Roman times, may have been closely related to Etruscan and would represent a residual population close to, or in the region where the Etruscans came from.

Tyrhenian languages

Tyrrhenian languages

Many scholars accept a Tyrrhenian (or Tyrsenian) language family including Etruscan, Raetian and Lemnian. The latter was spoken on the Greek island of Lemnos in the Aegean and was clearly related to Etruscan. Thucydides (IV, 109) mentions other small pockets of Tyrrhenians in the Aegean (in Attica and Acte) and the Greeks also applied this name to the Etruscans although some authorities believe that the term was used indiscriminately for non-Greek speakers.

These Tyrrhenians in the Aegean may be a residue from the great Urnfield migrations (above). This was a time of catastrophic collapse in Greece and Anatolia and of widespread troubles in the Near East. The root cause was probably an expansion cycle coming out of the Carpathian basin (Axel Kristinsson, 2010). This expansion may have involved several peoples speaking diverse languages and manifested itself in the spread of the Urnfield culture in Central Europe. It probably also brought speakers of Phrygian to Anatolia and Dorians to Greece.

This was also the time of the Sea Peoples who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean. Their origins are mysterious but they included several named ethnicities such as the Teresh who some have suggested were of Tyrrhenian (Tyrsenian) stock.

We can perhaps reconstruct the chain of events something like the following. Prior to the Urnfield expansion, which started around 1300 BC, a Tyrrhenian speaking population lived in the eastern Alpine region and some western parts of the Carpathian Basin. The expansion cycle caused large numbers of them to migrate. Most of the migrants would have gone to Italy where they created the Villanovan culture and introduced the Etruscan language but those that stayed close to home were later known as the Raetians. Some would have taken to the sea in the Adriatic and become part of the Sea Peoples and as such wrecked havoc in Greece and the Levant. The Aegean Tyrrhenians may be a residue from such maritime migrations although it also seems possible that they came overland, through the Balkans, and only took to the see as they entered the Aegean.

If the Tyrrhenians originally came from the Carpathian Basin and the Alpine region they might very well be the descendents of the first farming culture in Central Europe the Linear Pottery culture (and its successors Lengyel, Baden etc.).

Languages in Iron Age Italy

Languages in Iron Age Italy

Once in Italy, the Tyrrhenians interacted with Italic speakers. A linguistic map of Italy prior to Roman expansions shows the distribution of the two main groups of Italic languages: the Latino-Faliscan and the Osco-Umbrian. It is poorly understood how the Italic languages were brought to Italy from Central Europe but the distribution and the two different branches might suggest that they came in two waves. The first wave may have come to Italy several centuries before the Urnfield expansion and brought with it the dialects that were to form the Latino-Faliscan branch. During the Urnfield expansion, the Etruscans came and settled large parts of northern Italy. Finally, the second wave of Italic speaking migrants descended upon Italy, probably also during the Urnfield migrations. These spoke dialects of the Osco-Umbrian branch and pushed the Etruscans to the west and absorbed most of the earlier Italic speakers. Only those Latino-Faliscan speakers living on the southern border of the Etruscans survived, presumably because here, they were sheltered from the full force of the invasion.

Later on the Venetic speakers entered the extreme northeast of Italy and the Etruscans, in their own expansion cycle (Axel Kristinsson, 2010, pp. 112-114), spread out in the Po valley and elsewhere.

The Demise of the Neanderthals

[Originally posted Nov. 8, 2010]

Why did the European Neanderthals, the last of their kind, disappear at the same time as anatomically modern humans colonized Europe? Indications are that they somehow could not cope with the competition but why, exactly, were the moderns able to outcompete the Neanderthals? No one has been able to show that they were less intelligent and their brain size was at least equal to our own. It isn’t plausible that they would have a large brain without using it to the fullest. The claim that we only use a small part of our brain is a modern myth; on the contrary “…all animals are under stringent selection pressure to be as stupid as they can get away with” (Richerson & Boyd, Not by Genes Alone, 2005, p. 135).

The Neanderthals were certainly stronger and more robust than most of us moderns but this is not necessarily an evolutionary advantage; it also means that they required more sustenance (Kate Wong, “The Mysterious Downfall of the Neanderthals”). Each of them had to eat more than each of us so that a band of Neanderthals living in a similar environment and with a similar survival strategy would either have been smaller or required a larger territory than a band of anatomical moderns. Their population densities must have been lower. Additionally, they may have eaten more meat (been higher up the food chain) than the Cro-Magnon moderns that replaced them, which has the same effect (although this may be a sign of their lesser adaptability – below).

Their smaller numbers may have been a handicap if they had to confront Cro-Magnons in physical conflict and the number of spear-throwers was more important than their physical strength.

More important, however, is probably the smaller size of their communities, which results in a simpler and less adaptable culture. Humans are fairly unique in the animal world in the fact that their extraordinarily complex culture makes them adaptable far beyond any other animal and a complex and rich culture is normally more adaptable than a simple one.

Just like a large brain with many brain cells has more cognitive power than a small brain, a large community stores more knowledge and can explore more ways to adapt than a small community can. The Tasmanians, after they got isolated from their Australian mainland cousins, considerably simplified their material culture (Richerson & Boyd, p. 138).

Their richer and more adaptable culture would have given the Cro-Magnons an advantage over the Neanderthals with the result that they gradually got the upper hand in competition, especially when the climate became volatile, requiring faster adaptation (cf. Richerson & Boyd, p. 136). This advantage of the anatomically moderns need not have been great to gradually give them the upper hand. After all, it took the Neanderthals some 15,000 years to disappear after the coming of the moderns. It was only around 30,000 years ago, significantly at a time of unstable climate, that they finally vanished.

Anatomical moderns did not outcompete Neanderthals because they were smarter or more adaptable one by one. It was only because their groups were larger and therefore more adaptable (for group selection see D.S. Wilson, Evolution for Everyone, 2007). According to this scenario, their respective cultures of the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals were influenced by genetically determined phenotypes; nevertheless, it was cultural competition that determined the survival of one and the demise of the other.