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The Evolution of Fragility: Setting the Terms

The Evolution of Fragility: Setting the Terms

Edited by Norman Yoffee. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2019. Pp. x + 196. ISBN 978-1-902937-88-5 (open access online).

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With the present edited volume, Norman Yoffee has delivered another important contribution to the theory of and literature on collapse and historical change, and the nature of early cities, states, and civilizations. The contributions in The Evolution of Fragility explore collapse, but they also importantly tie this in explicitly with critical perspectives on what it was that collapsed; thus, they focus on how the units in question were put together and constituted, what fracture points there may have been, and how “disintegration” ensued. The book is made up of 10 chapters, with the first a useful brief introduction and summary by Yoffee and the rest covering various areas and cultures: the Andes (Tom Dillehay and Steven Wernke), Bronze Age China (Li Min), the Classic Maya lowlands (Patricia McAnany), Old Kingdom Egypt (Ellen Morris), Cahokia and Chaco Canyon (Timothy Pauketat), the Indus civilization (Cameron Petrie), African states (Peter Robertshaw), Angkor (Miriam Stark), and Mesopotamia (Yoffee and Andrea Seri).

As Yoffee explains, the central theme of the volume is to “undermine some of the traditional themes of evolutionary narratives, namely those that naturalize the state and thus legitimize its historical claims to permanence” (1). While cities such as Angkor, Mohenjo-Daro, or those of the Classic Maya, or states or empires that endured for decades or longer may give an impression of stability and permanence, this, it is argued, masks the fragility of their societies—their “instability” and “incoherence” (1). Dillehay and Wernke suggest the additional concept of “vulnerability,” which they see as “entailing the relative susceptibility of the ideological, political, economic, or military apparatuses of the state to physical trauma . . . and social stress” (9). For them, fragility “refers to weakened, disintegrating, or collapsing state apparatuses” and vulnerability is a precondition of fragility, though a vulnerable society does not necessarily become fragile or indeed collapse unless specific events conspire to make it so (10). In most of the volume, the authors seem to blend these two ideas into a general idea or lens of fragility, without the term losing its heuristic value.

Stability, Yoffee and Seri suggest, can be regarded as “a kind of historical fiction” (194), and ancient societies were riddled with cleavage planes that made them fragile, as most chapters make clear. When rulers attempted to build or enlarge their states, they were forced to attempt to integrate existing groups and people with diverse views, ambitions, and motivations of their own. Making use of preexisting groups and institutions makes organizational sense on one level, by providing a mechanism for top-down rule, but it could also institutionalize preexisting divides, as Dillehay and Wernke argue for the Inka state and other Andean societies. Such societies, with weak horizontal coherence, were inherently fragile, while top-down rule had to be constantly negotiated down through the chain and could be resisted or be largely irrelevant at lower, more local levels. Min shows that in Bronze Age China, too, the power of lineages could conflict with that of kings (42).

Similarly, while there were certainly cultural features that held Mesopotamia together, and an idea (or ideal) of a politically unified Mesopotamia arose in the third millennium BCE, the reality was that attempts at expanding hegemonies created and exacerbated divisions between individual city-states and also nonstate groups. Dynasties such as that of the Akkadians faced almost constant rebellions by conquered cities and states, which in itself suggests how weak Akkadian control really was; there was no successful integration that overrode local identities. In a pithy comment, Yoffee and Seri state that “although the rulers were certainly powerful and were brutal tyrants who built enormous palaces and furnished magnificent temples and led mighty expeditionary forces, the irony of such power is that it led to systematic and successful resistance” (194). Angkorian kings, Stark explains, faced similar circumstances of rebellion, and the power and extent of the state “pulsed” visibly (172).

Min points out that for successive Bronze Age Chinese states, tradition or “memory communities of past regimes often functioned as foci of resistance to the goals of new political leaders” (42). The Qin dynasty tried to work around this, ending the reliance on elite lineages that characterized earlier Chinese states, but this, too, resulted in revolt and collapse. McAnany makes the apposite point that those building larger and more complex societies may have done so in the knowledge that they were “inherently more fragile, prone to authoritarianism, and ultimately to dissolution” (47), and that a conscious recognition of fragility by rulers in ancient societies could even become a guiding factor of policy. Rulers and their coteries may have often been playing catch-up in trying to hold things together.

An important point of entry for the idea of state fragility is the recognition of the “experimental” nature of cities and states. McAnany applies this idea to an understanding of the royalty-obsessed southern Classic Maya kingdoms and northern Maya cities, where overt power seems to have been less demonstrably concentrated in royal figures. She gives an example of the Late Classic northern state of Ek’ Balam, which experimented with aspects of the southern style, from about 770 to 850 CE, but with important local differences. Ek’ Balam’s experiment was short-lived, and the trappings of the southern system were dropped. Even in the south itself, states like Tikal and Calakmul apparently had very different forms of governance. Dillehay and Wernke similarly note of Andean polities that they “seemed to have developed and demised as a result of continuous trial-and-error” (13).

Another key consideration that comes through in many of the chapters is the transference of power from one ruler or generation to the next and the continuity of states and empires through this process. Robertshaw suggests, partly on the basis of historical evidence for later kingdoms, that royal succession at Great Zimbabwe may often have been determined by warfare (150). In China as well, succession could be accompanied by violence and factionalism, and Shang succession through siblings created instability (36, 42). With the Inka, there was no fixed system of succession, hence successions became occasions for scheming and conflict within and between elite families (14). In the hegemonic Mesopotamian states, such as the Akkadian Empire, at least two rulers died in palace coups (189). Even in Old Kingdom Egypt, there were several dynastic breaks; Morris suggests that these were a kind of course correction—when trouble hit, in the form of mismanagement or the abuse of power, unrest, or regicide, “some other ruler . . . always stepped up to right wrongs and assume the reins” (83)

Contrary to the fragility-collapse motif, Morris argues that Egypt’s topography and natural environment made it inherently more resilient than the other societies discussed in the volume. This is despite the “points of stress and fracture that should have brought it to its knees many centuries before” and a number of “near death experiences” (61, 64); Old Kingdom Egypt may then fit neatly into Dillehay and Wernke’s category of a “vulnerable” state. Like other states, it too could be seen as “experimental.” For example, 5th Dynasty rulers probably sought to integrate the new classes of pyramid laborers and literate officials—that had of necessity developed to organize and carry out the work of pyramid building—in order to contain the resentment and unrest brought about by the one-sided extractive policies of the 4th Dynasty elite. Morris suggests that climatic instability may have struck the vulnerable state at the end of the third millennium BCE, pushing it into a more fragile state, where collapse and fragmentation ensued. But local potentates, already a potential fracture point, were nevertheless ready and able to carry a politically fragmented but culturally active Egyptian society through the First Intermediate Period until the state was reunified.

Stories that are more difficult to tell are those of Cahokia, Chaco, and the Indus civilization, where there is ambiguity about the political form of each. Pauketat notes the coincidence of the Cahokia and Chacoan phenomena with each other and with the Medieval Climate Anomaly, which enabled greater production of maize. This and a greater ideological emphasis on the immanence and materiality of water and moisture may have been key elements in the development of each society, in their very different settings. Later climatic change at the end of the anomaly may have undercut in various ways what each had become; the societies’ fragility increased because of their development within specific but impermanent conditions. He suggests not that there was a simple deterministic relationship between Cahokia, Chaco, and the climate, but that their collapse was one of a “restricted set of possible outcomes” given the total circumstances (104).

Petrie’s chapter on the Indus is wide-ranging and thorough and clearly flags the numerous difficulties in interpreting the Indus phenomenon (not least its political makeup). Based on an appreciation that smaller sites were frequently short-lived and the population fairly mobile (116), he suggests an overall framework in which the Indus civilization was highly and constantly adaptable and experimental, which made it robust and enduring—especially in its rural form. Petrie is careful not to overplay limited paleoclimatic evidence and stresses the varied environments occupied by the Indus civilization, but he suggests that a predictably unpredictable environment may have turned into one that was “unpredictably unpredictable” (124). Since the cities, whatever their governance, must have relied on hinterlands, strategies for maintaining them through extraction of surpluses from rural areas may have become too challenging; farmers may have sought to adapt their own methods of production. Leaving the cities may have become increasingly appealing.

This volume makes clear that fragility can be an important frame through which to study ancient states and societies, not only in their collapse but also for their formation and maintenance, the policies and practices of rulers, and the actions and agency of other societal groupings within the larger whole. The old notion that societies often contain the seeds of their own destruction seems appropriate, but the contributions to The Evolution of Fragility give this aphorism a far greater interpretive weight. Even when a society is not seen as particularly fragile, as with Old Kingdom Egypt, fragility remains a helpful idea to focus our gaze on what it was that made it more robust—or at least more enduring.

The book is a must-have for students of collapse and resilience but should attract a much wider readership, including those studying the origins of states, political and social evolution, and the specific cultures discussed. A nonspecialist can gain from the chapters a good overview of each of the cultures presented, an understanding of relevant issues in their interpretation and characterization, and views of collapse that move beyond simplistic assessments of external causes toward demonstrating how collapse was the “disintegration” of political units and a failure of relationships within societies. It is all the more welcome that the book is available as a free PDF, and the promised follow-up volume is keenly awaited.

Guy D. Middleton
Charles University

Book Review of The Evolution of Fragility: Setting the Terms, edited by Norman Yoffee
Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Middleton

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