The Dissolution Threshold in the West Asian Cluster
I often speak of civilizations occurring in clusters, frequently mentioning the West Asian Cluster and the Mesoamerican Cluster. In the Mesoamerican cluster, the presence of multiple overlapping civilizations in one geographical region meant a continuing cultural tradition that was adopted and adapted by successive civilizations. For example, the Mesoamerican ball game was common to many civilizations, as was ritual bloodletting.
In the West Asian cluster we not only find common cultural traditions that overlap and are passed down from one civilization to another, but also the rapid branching of traditions and rapid adaptation of later civilizations to changed conditions, including the changed conditions of surrounding civilizations, for the West Asian cluster has always been the historical stage of many civilizations engaged in relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict.
In Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster I characterized the Late Bronze Age (LBA) collapse as a mass extinction of civilizations in the West Asian cluster — a collapse only survived by Egypt, and although Egypt survived, it was greatly weakened. Partly Egypt was weakened by the assaults of the mysterious “sea peoples,” whose depredations spelled the end of the other civilizations of the West Asian cluster during the LBA collapse, but I think we can also be confident in posting that Egypt was also weakened by the extinction of the other civilizations that had surrounded it. The extinction of these other civilizations meant the extinction of trade and idea diffusion among civilizations of the West Asian cluster, and it was trade and idea diffusion that contributed to the growth and technological development of the civilizations of this cluster.
By contrast, the Indus Valley civilization, though it was geographically large and consisted of perhaps hundreds of cities, was a much more homogeneous and unified social and cultural entity. While its unity meant that this civilization covered a large geographical area compared to other regional civilizations in this period of Earth’s history, its unity also meant that there was much less cross fertilization of ideas and technologies, and, when the Indus Valley civilization collapsed, there was no remaining refugia of civilization to carry forward the traditions of this civilization. The remains of the Indus Valley civilization were covered over and forgotten until excavated by archaeologists in the twentieth century.
For all practical purposes, the Indus Valley civilization remained below the dissolution threshold, so that the peoples who once constituted the civilization were able to scatter to return to a subsistence level village agriculture or to nomadism. And, to use Redfieldian terms, the little traditions of the remaining agricultural villages were unable to sustain any remnants or fragments of the great tradition cultivated in the urban centers of this civilization. Because the Indus Valley civilization remained below the dissolution threshold, its extinction was the extinction of a regional civilization.
This was not unique or exclusive to the Indus Valley civilization. Until twentieth century archaeology excavated the palaces of Crete, the Minoan civilization had been lost to history except for legend — however, the legend of it had remained in folk tradition, which is more than has been the case of some effaced civilizations. The Minoans were at the outer edge of the West Asian cluster, and much more isolated than, for example, the peoples who would become the Greeks of the classical age, or even the many civilizations that succeeded each other in Anatolia.
The historicity of the Trojan War is an example of the greater level of preservation of traditions closer to the heart of the West Asian cluster. The Trojan War was a war of the Greek Dark Ages, i.e., it occurred after the LBA collapse and before literacy returned to the Greek peoples. Enough of the memory of the Trojan War was preserved that the story could later be used to partially reconstruct Greek history during this period, and, most famously, to locate the legendary city of Troy.
The West Asian cluster, then, could be said to have passed the dissolution threshold, at least in part, and the relatively higher level of economic activity, literacy, idea diffusion, and technological innovation within the West Asian Cluster prior to the LBA collapse meant that, then the collapse came, it was not as deep and not as prolonged as would have been the case if the regional civilizations of the West Asian cluster had not passed the dissolution threshold.
In the case of a regional cluster of civilizations in which one or a few survive a regional collapse, I think of those surviving civilizations as bridges of civilization that cross a dark age, and so sometimes in my notes to myself I call them “bridge civilizations.” In the West Asian cluster, Egypt was the bridge civilization that weathered the storm of the LBA collapse and kept the light of civilization burning in the region. With this regional beacon of civilization, the revival of trade and idea diffusion would have been facilitated.