Biogeography, writing, and the origins of the state

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The state is an entity that allows for common defense, provision of public goods, and the potential to attain a higher level of production. It may benefit the few or the many. Recent work in historical economics has shown that early states emerged in areas where biogeography favored it because of agricultural potential. But maintaining an early state depended not only on economic potential but also on technologies for governing, and there has been less recent empirical analysis of this latter factor. For several millennia now, there are examples where societies have invented technologies of governance from scratch, but the more common pattern has been for societies to borrow from their neighbors. In what follows I will show this with the invention, adoption, and diffusion of writing. Writing is believed to have originated independently in only three societies: in Ancient Sumeria, among the Olmecs in Mesoamerica, and in China under the Shang dynasty. I will show that societies that were closer to these three points of origin were more likely to adopt writing and to develop states, provided that they were also located in areas with favorable geography for the production of cereals. The lesson here is that the formation and development of states—from the earliest to modern nation-states—has depended as much on the capacity of humans to invent new ways of governing themselves as on circumstances dictated by geography or the natural environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Handbook of Historical Economics
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780128158746
ISBN (Print)9780128162682
StatePublished - Jan 1 2021


  • Geography
  • Political economy
  • State formation
  • Writing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance
  • General Business, Management and Accounting


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