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Joseph A. Tainter


Cambridge University Press, NY., 1988, 250 pgs., index, extensive bibliography, illustrations, notes,

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The author is an archeologist, especially focused on Western Hemisphere. He has studied many ruins of 'collapsed' societies.


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.
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 describes.
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 another?
The Egyptian Old Kingdom: Another good summary, but one has to consider that the New Kingdom was something entirely different to consider that Egyptian civilization collapsed.
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 disappeared.
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 included.
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 ceased.


2 - The nature of complex societies:


3 - The study of collapse


4 - Understanding collapse: the marginal productivity of sociopolitical change


5 -Evaluation: complexity and marginal returns in collapsing societies


6 - Summary and implications:




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