Cambridge University Press, NY.,
1988, 250 pgs., index, extensive bibliography, illustrations, notes,
1- Introduction to collapse:
Dr. Tainter believes that his fascination with ancient ruins is widely shared.
His introduction begins: "The image of lost civilizations is compelling:
cities buried by drifting sands or tangled jungle. ruin and desolation where
once there were people and abundance. Surely few persons can read such
descriptions and not sense awe and mystery." Well, perhaps. He writes that
civilizations are fragile and impermanent. His immediate reaction is to wonder
if our modern civilization is also subject to collapse. He cites the opinions
of many historians who have wondered. Then he focuses attention on Rome and
claims that the presumed 'fall of Rome' has "dominated the thinking of
large numbers of people for one and one-half millennia." He then asks,
"Why study collapse? ..."The reason why complex societies
disintegrate is of vital importance to every member of one, and today that
includes nearly the entire world population." He continues by noting that
concern with the question of civilization collapse has been great for
centuries, but nevertheless, "there was no reliable, universal explanation
of collapse, no theory that would help us to understand most or all of its
occurrences." Therefore, "The objective of this work then is to
develop a general explanation of collapse, applicable in a variety of contexts,
and with implication for current conditions."
What is collapse" Tainter notes the concept has many different
definitions. for this book he states it is "Collapse, as viewed in the
present work, is a political process"..."A society has collapsed when
it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical
complexity." He lists a series of conditions or changes that indicate this
Collapse in history: "The fall of the Roman Empire is, in the West, the
most widely known instance of collapse, the one which comes most readily to
popular thought." Well, perhaps, but that is based on old concepts, not
shared by many recent authors. In my opinion Dr. Tainter's description
throughout the book is based on authors such as Gibbon, whose ideas are not
shared by many today. Moreover, it is clear that what happened in the western
part of the Roman Empire in the 5th century was much different from any of the
ancient civilizations whose archeological sites Dr. Tainter knows so well.
The Western Chou Empire: The author provides a good summary, but again the
change did not result in the disappearance of China.
The Harappan Civilization: This one indeed disappeared, as the author
Mesopotamia: He provides a fine summary of the collapse of several cultures
such as Babylon, Akkad, and Assyria. But what about any continuity from one to
The Egyptian Old Kingdom: Another good summary, but one has to consider that
the New Kingdom was something entirely different to consider that Egyptian
The Hittite Empire: Another good summary and it did, indeed, collapse.
Minoan Civilization: another good example of civilization collapse.
Mycenaean Civilization: Tainter's summary describes real collapse.
The Western Roman Empire: He repeats his thought. "The Roman Empire is the
prime example of collapse, it is the one case above all others that inspires
fascination to this day." Well, it does generate considerable interest,
but not necessarily because scholars today believe it 'collapsed'.
The Olmec: Here we are on Tainter's home ground. Collapse for sure.
The Lowland Classic Maya: Another prime example.
The Mesoamerican Highlands: The author devotes much space to detailed
description. We take Tainter's word that these civilizations were unique and
independent of each other rather than one simply displacing its predecessor.
Casa Grandes - Less well known, a society located in Northern Mexico that
The Chacoans: Located in modern New Mexico state, it too disappeared.
The Hohokam: Located in Arizona and subsequently gone.
The Eastern Woodlands: Tainter cites two societies that collapsed.
The Huari and Tiahuanaco Empires: societies that disappeared prior to the Inca.
The Kachin: A lost civilization formerly in Burma.
The Ik: We take Tainter's word that this central African society should be
Remarks: Tainter notes that many more examples might be included.
After Collapse: He refers to Colin Renfrew for discussion of what followed the
collapses mentioned. There was a breakdown in authority and central control.
Protection and law disappeared. Public construction of monumental structures