Pixelated pyramid (Image: TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay)

In the last 10,000 years, the human species has gone from a population of perhaps one million people — almost all living as mobile hunter-gatherers — to close to 8 billion.

The ancient civilizations at the beginning of this rapid expansion across the globe differed in many ways. Each had its own culture, religion and system of government. 

But one characteristic they all tended to share was a reliance on innovations in collective information processing to grow beyond a certain size and scale, according to research published in Nature Communications earlier this year by Santa Fe Institute Professor David Wolpert, External Professor Tim Kohler (Washington State University), and other SFI collaborators.

“We performed a new kind of statistical analysis of the time series of the development of different societies in the ancient world” said Wolpert. “We were quite surprised when the data told us that there was a very tight relationship between the dynamics of a society’s collective computational capabilities and the dynamics of its size.”

“Without innovations like writing or a system of currency, expansion beyond a certain point was rare,” said Kohler. “However, once these and related advances in information processing and storage were achieved, you start to see the big empires of history emerge.”

To delve further into this intriguing pattern in history, Wolpert and Kohler are convening a panel of experts Nov. 2-4 for a virtual workshop. Bringing archaeologists, computational historians, data scientists and a wide variety of other experts together is “unusual,” says Wolpert, and provides an opportunity to also discuss advances in how the time series data generated by archaeologists and other historical scientists may be most fruitfully analyzed. 

As they did for the Nature Communications paper, the experts will draw on insights from the Seshat Global History Databank. It is a massive assembly of historical and archaeological information spanning 10,000 years of human history, including various aspects of how information technologies such as roads and money have influenced the growth of human societies both from the ancient and more recent past. 

They also plan on discussing some of the more interesting implications the research could have for the study of contemporary society. 

“You have enormous new capabilities for storing and processing data that are just well beyond the scope of anything anybody could imagine,” Kohler says. “Does that imply that we’re going to have another growth in scale for polities? And if so, what would that look like?”

Read more about the working group, "Evolution of Collective Computational Abilities of (Pre) Historic Societies