Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seismic Shifts

                It is interesting to examine how many world systems have collapsed in the span of human history. Among the most familiar, of course, is the collapse of the Roman Empire. It reduced a highly centralized economy that funneled income from the provinces to a parasitic Italy to a localized economy and political structure in Western Europe. Though the West eventually regained the same structure it had under the Roman Empire, it experienced such a shift that it seems inconceivable to us today that an entire way of life could simply collapse. The truth, however, is that it happened more frequently than we would like to believe.

Colin Renfrew of Cambridge postulated the conditions that lead to a failure of entire systems. These include the collapse of central administration, the disappearance of the elite class, collapse of a centralized economy, and a population decline and shift in settlement patterns.

An especially vivid example, since we have the records of both the people whose world changed unrecognizably and the instigators of this change, is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. In the space of little more than several years, the entire religious and political order of the Aztec peoples was decimated and replaced with something entirely different. However, it was not without glimpses of continuity to the past. The Castilians (not Spanish, for the Aragonese were treated as foreigners in the Americas) kept some of the Aztec nobility elevated to that rank because they served as useful community leaders and focal points of contact between the two cultures.

All of Renfrew's conditions were met when Cortes destroyed the Aztecs. He eliminated Emperor Montezuma, many of the nobles had been killed in the Siege of Tenochtitlan and the ensuing epidemic, the economy that was focused on tribute collapsed, and the population that was still alive fled Tenochtitlan and migrated into smaller villages.

The aftermath of the Roman Empire fulfilled these conditions, as did the fall of the Maya. However, there are some points in history that do not meet these criteria. The fall of the Soviet Union, for example, did lead to the collapse of the Soviet administration and destruction of the centralized economy that the Soviet model was based on. However, the traditional elites (such as Vladimir Putin) stayed in place, and the population did not substantially decrease or demographically shift.