Societies and political structures, like the humans they serve, appear to become more fragile as they age, according to an analysis of hundreds of pre-modern societies. The study, which holds implications for the modern world, provides the first quantitative support for the theory that resilience of political states decreases over time.

Triggers of societal collapse have been well studied and vary from conquest and coups to earthquakes and droughts. This new study shows that the risk of states ending because of these events increased steeply over the first two centuries after they were formed. The research identifies several mechanisms that could drive these aging effects, and notably, some of these are still at work today, including environmental degradation and growing economic inequality.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights the need to understand internal processes that may contribute to the demise of states, said co-author Tim Kohler.

“We tend to concentrate on external drivers such as drought or catastrophes. Yes, these have a role, but often they are just triggers that are effective, or not, depending on the internal dynamics of particular societies,” said Kohler, a Washington State University archeologist.

How states and great powers rise and fall has been an enigma that has puzzled historians for years. In this study, the researchers looked at this question from a new angle, by analyzing longevity in 324 pre-modern states spanning 5 millennia.

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