It was absolutely brilliant until it all came crashing down.
It started with tech, as such things often do. Then laws were formalized and set into stone, trade routes established, armies deployed, treaties signed. Government officials oversaw its operations and got rich. Wealthy homes boasted art from distant cultures. Official correspondence was kept in several languages. But it started with tech.
It took a bit of experimenting 5,000 years ago until the new technologists who worked copper learned how to add tin to make bronze. It was an invention on the order of computers and software today: a powerful basis for dizzying innovations that changed society. Egyptian pyramids and art. Mesopotamian irrigation systems and palace-administered agriculture that fed dense urban populations. Ships that brought copper and tin from far distant places and artisans from the Aegean isles to Mediterranean ports, and transportation networks that carried goods and people to the great cities on the Nile and the Euphrates. Towns became cities, cities became kingdoms, kingdoms became empires. Formal treaties governed tariffs and disputes, or at least they did when the parties involved were not up to conquering each other.
Smaller kingdoms thrived alongside the empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. At the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, Ugarit’s deep sea port made it an important hub for trade. In 1192 B.C., Ugarit’s wealthy merchants and government officials lived in homes filled with pottery, weavings, and art from multiple continents. Their libraries held scrolls in multiple languages and coins in multiple currencies. The metals, pottery, and wood that came into Ugarit found their way to the great cities of the day through a network of smaller boats, donkey caravans, and intermediaries.
By its end, the Bronze Age world was arguably more sophisticated and integrated—economically, politically, technologically—than anything that followed, until our post-World War II institutions emerged less than a century ago.
At the center of these civilizations were administrative elites who managed the increasingly diverse activities of specialists of all kinds. In Ugarit, Rapanu’s network carried official correspondence between the palace and other rulers as well as trade goods. His high-quality donkeys were important for inland travel, and he made a nice profit by selling some to the Palace as well. His staff included scribes, herders and breeders, household servants, ship captains, and more. Yet Rapanu was only one of several high officials in the administration of Ammittamru II, himself only one of a number of independent kings in the area.
We know all this because Rapanu’s home and his records were buried when Ugarit utterly collapsed that year. So, too, were those of Ammittamru’s former regulator of trade and member of the elite Mariannu military class Rapinu, the harbor supervisor Rasap-abu, the prefect Urtenu and others who lived close to the Palace.
Professor of classics and anthropology Eric Cline describes the dramatic collapse of the Bronze Age in his bestselling book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The new discipline that studies how highly complex networks behave adds insights that are relevant to us today. I’ll get to those in a moment. But first, how shall we characterize the social structures of those great Bronze Age civilizations? To what shall we compare empires built on metalworking, trade, large scale agricultures, and standing armies in which crafts are passed down from father to son, most people are not literate (although writing is a key tool), and the rulers inherit their high offices—if they can survive internal intrigue and external conquest attempts?
Beehives come to mind. So do ant colonies. Social insects in which roles are rigidly assigned and enforced and information is a key mechanism. Honey bees dance to tell other bees where pollen has been found. At least, they tell those whose job it is to gather pollen. Other bees remain in the hive, tending the queen and her eggs. In the bee world, there’s no such thing as “doing what you love” if that differs in any way from what you were born to do.
So, too, in Bronze Age city states and empires. Class, status, job—all were, for the most part, determined at your birth.
Meanwhile, out in the hinterlands, something very different was developing. And it met a different fate.
Life on the Eurasian steppes was hard. Frigid winters, hot summers, quasi deserts, few forests to provide wood for homes or fuel. While the Neolithic predecessors of the Bronze Age cities were developing subsistence farming and domesticating sheep and goats, the steppe peoples in what is now the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Pontic-Caspian region lived by hunting and fishing. A key food source were the small herds of wild horses that grazed the grasslands. Then, around 3000 B.C., one group began to gather and breed this important food source. But it wasn’t until the steppe dwellers learned how to make halters and to ride some of the horses in order to manage the herds, that full domestication of the horse occurred.
And with that, history took a new direction. David Anthony’s magisterial The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World lays out the evidence for the rise of the horse-based tribes and their initially shared language, proto-Indo-European.
Now before the fringe Aryan identity folks get all excited—and the anti-Aryans too—take a deep breath. And another. That’s right . . .
I’m about to disappoint both fringes.
For the most important part of Anthony’s book, which marshals archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic evidence around the amazing rise and spread of Indo-European tribes and language, isn’t the geographical spread alone. Yes, that reached from the Celtic Isles in the west to the edges of China in the east, and south into Anatolia, Iran, and India. Yes, those daughter languages include Irish and German and Russian, Greek and Latin, Persian and Sanskrit, as well as Hittite, Tocharian, and more.
But what is especially important for us today is the evidence Anthony assembles that “Indo-European” was not inherently or exclusively a racial or ethnic identity. It was a cultural identity.
Think about it. The beehive model worked in the Nile and Euphrates river valleys, surrounded by semi-desert, where irrigation and large scale agriculture could even out the effects of seasonal flooding and drought. But try to impose centralized control on the Eurasian steppes? Good luck.
No cities grew on the steppes during the Bronze Age. There was neither need nor possibility for them. Instead, what developed were tribes that moved about with their herds and sheltered in small valleys during the harsh winters. Led by a chieftain, they lived much of the year in wagons, not all that different from today’s RVs parked on the asphalt overnight with Walmart’s permission.
So what kept a band like this together? It wasn’t family ties, or at least not exclusively. History and literature amply document father-son conflicts that turned deadly. It wasn’t the herds, because those are easily divided and absconded with.
It was language, ritual, meals and songs. Over a meal, by the fire, adults toasted the chieftain and sang his praises. He, in turn, was expected to gift generously the members of his small group. And together they made the sacrifices and said the ritual prayers to deities that were seldom even represented visually. When smaller bands gathered annually to exchange breeding stock, to intermarry, and more these were all repeated by the group as a whole.
The ancient portions of the Rig Veda contain remnants of those songs and rituals.
And here’s the key bit. You didn’t have to be born into one of these steppe tribes to be accepted as a member. In Egypt, in Sumer, in Babylon you were who your father’s fathers had been. On the steppes, you could become a member by choice. And your son might well become a chieftain himself, if he was brave and worked hard and won the loyalty of others.
All you had to do was to adopt the culture. But really adopt it. Learn the language. Sing the songs. Toast the chieftain. Join in the sacrifices. It was the culture and the mindset and skills it relied on that made you one of the tribe.
Which brings us to the American Dream. Those who came from Europe to settle here in the colonial and later periods did so in good part to leave the beehive model behind. But what could be put in its place?
The horse tribe model is built on freedom of choice and free association. But cities and civilization have important benefits that most of us would rather not lose. Literature, science, commerce, technologies that have lifted the burden of back breaking subsistence labor to feed, clothe, and house us in unprecedented ways.
Is there a middle ground? The American Dream tells us there is. It says that America can and should be a place where any person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness unimpeded by beehive constraints.
But implicit in that dream is an understanding that America is held together by a common set of principles and values. They’re captured in the Declaration of Independence and translated into the framework of the Constitution. There’s a lot of flexibility, but some things are nonnegotiable.
The riders of the Bronze Age steppes knew that loyalty and accountability must flow both ways if social cohesion is to prosper alongside freedom.
The beehive model seemed triumphant for over a millennium. Its rulers and administrative elites certainly thrived. Art, trade, and diplomacy appeared to flourish.
But the new discipline of complex networks tells us that very highly interconnected, interdependent systems develop hidden vulnerabilities when attempts are made to impose top-down control. Whether it’s done in the name of efficiency, social justice, or simply as a power grab, such an attempt hollows out complex networks like societies, economies, geopolitical relationships, or even natural ecologies. When those networked systems do collapse, they do it in sudden and catastrophic ways.
Just ask Eric Cline. Or the elites of Bronze Age Ugarit.
It’s time for us to learn from the steppe riders as well as our technologists. It’s time to see the American Dream for what it is—a sophisticated balancing of freedom and responsibility that offers the best of two very different ways of living. We won’t willingly go back to living in wagons on the steppes. But if we don’t rein in our unaccountable elites, restore a degree of basic shared culture as the core of American identity, and reaffirm the American Dream, the unraveling this time around will be longer and deeper than has ever been seen in human history.
Let’s not go there. And let’s not pretend it isn’t a serious possibility.
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