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Figuring Out The Past: The 3,495 Vital Statistics that Explain World History

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Librarian's Note: an alternate cover and older edition of this ISBN can be found here. Discover the world records that define our history and jump headfirst into the past using scientific data that reveals accurate and insightful answers to life’s biggest questions. What was history's biggest empire? Or the tallest building of the ancient world? What was the plumbing like in Librarian's Note: an alternate cover and older edition of this ISBN can be found here. Discover the world records that define our history and jump headfirst into the past using scientific data that reveals accurate and insightful answers to life’s biggest questions. What was history's biggest empire? Or the tallest building of the ancient world? What was the plumbing like in medieval Byzantium? The average wage in the Mughal Empire? Where did scientific writing first emerge? What was the bloodiest ever ritual human sacrifice? We are used to thinking about history in terms of stories. Yet we understand our own world through data: cast arrays of statistics that reveal the workings of our societies. In Figuring Out the Past, radical historians Peter Turchin and Dan Hoyer dive into the numbers that reveal the true shape of the past, drawing on their own Seshat project, a staggeringly ambitious attempt to log every data point that can be gathered for every society that has ever existed. This book does more than tell the story of humanity: it shows you the big picture, by the numbers.


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Librarian's Note: an alternate cover and older edition of this ISBN can be found here. Discover the world records that define our history and jump headfirst into the past using scientific data that reveals accurate and insightful answers to life’s biggest questions. What was history's biggest empire? Or the tallest building of the ancient world? What was the plumbing like in Librarian's Note: an alternate cover and older edition of this ISBN can be found here. Discover the world records that define our history and jump headfirst into the past using scientific data that reveals accurate and insightful answers to life’s biggest questions. What was history's biggest empire? Or the tallest building of the ancient world? What was the plumbing like in medieval Byzantium? The average wage in the Mughal Empire? Where did scientific writing first emerge? What was the bloodiest ever ritual human sacrifice? We are used to thinking about history in terms of stories. Yet we understand our own world through data: cast arrays of statistics that reveal the workings of our societies. In Figuring Out the Past, radical historians Peter Turchin and Dan Hoyer dive into the numbers that reveal the true shape of the past, drawing on their own Seshat project, a staggeringly ambitious attempt to log every data point that can be gathered for every society that has ever existed. This book does more than tell the story of humanity: it shows you the big picture, by the numbers.

30 review for Figuring Out The Past: The 3,495 Vital Statistics that Explain World History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Keith Akers

    Figuring Out The Past is a reference book. It's sort of entertaining to flip through, but you can't exactly "read" it. Well, you could, but it would be like reading the encyclopedia. You could start with the "A" volume, but you probably wouldn't. You'd probably, instead, find something that interests you, or open a random volume and read that. This book, however, is much, much shorter than the encyclopedia, at 256 pages. Most of the book, pages 1-213, is society profiles. Each of the 57 societie Figuring Out The Past is a reference book. It's sort of entertaining to flip through, but you can't exactly "read" it. Well, you could, but it would be like reading the encyclopedia. You could start with the "A" volume, but you probably wouldn't. You'd probably, instead, find something that interests you, or open a random volume and read that. This book, however, is much, much shorter than the encyclopedia, at 256 pages. Most of the book, pages 1-213, is society profiles. Each of the 57 societies has about 3 or 4 pages or so. The society description has a brief narrative, then lists such things as territory, people, social scale, institutions, economy, agricultural practices, metallurgy, military equipment, well-being, (in)equalities, and religion. You can compare the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate to Antebellum U. S. A. and the Hittite Empire! Time-travel novelists might want to imagine being suddenly transported to the Carolingian kingdom and trying to navigate your way there (assuming that you could speak Latin, Frankish, or Old French). Then there are rankings (pp. 216 - 233), of the 10 most populous societies, 10 largest buildings, 10 most widely attended collective rituals, etc., in different eras. Finally, there is adoption (p. 237 - 253): when such things as scientific writing, novels, postal service, etc. were first adopted, with some maps with a graphical representation of how some of these things spread. Cavalry started in the Middle East and Central Asia and spread from there; many other things followed that same general pattern, although moralizing religions and writing seemed to be slightly more southern in geographical orientation. Gunpowder, however, clearly started in China and spread from there. This book immediately refers you to http://seshatdatabank.info/. I haven't investigated fully, but the web site is rather different from this book in terms of layout. This book is impossible to rank in terms of stars, because what are you comparing it to? War and Peace, or the Encyclopedia Britannica? However, it would be a nice book to have on my shelf to consult in case a question came up, say, about how big Cahokia was, or whether the Ottoman Empire had banking regulations. Enjoy!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ula

    Fascinating and illuminating book. As a reader of "The Economist", I immediately recognized an approach familiar to their "Pocket World in Figures" - but while you probably can estimate the numbers for most of the current statistics, it can be mindblowing to be confronted with the data from a deep past. It can be especially surprising for people educated in the West - this book masterly demolishes our Eurocentric views. For example in the listing of 10 most populous medieval cities not only ther Fascinating and illuminating book. As a reader of "The Economist", I immediately recognized an approach familiar to their "Pocket World in Figures" - but while you probably can estimate the numbers for most of the current statistics, it can be mindblowing to be confronted with the data from a deep past. It can be especially surprising for people educated in the West - this book masterly demolishes our Eurocentric views. For example in the listing of 10 most populous medieval cities not only there is none from Europe, but there are many which names it is possible that you have never heard. There are also delicious categories like "10 bloodiest human sacrifices in the entire preindustrial era" or "Adoption of state-run libraries by world region". I just wish I could have such a book as a student! Thanks to the publisher, Perseus Books, PublicAffairs (The Economist), and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Diego

    Figuring Out the Past es un libro muy divertido, es básicamente un almanaque con estadísticas y datos de una muestra de culturas/civilizaciones/estados alrededor del mundo en distintas épocas, desde el 3er milenio antes de la era común hasta el siglo XX. Como tal es un libro de curiosidades, que explota bien la riqueza de la basa de datos del proyecto Sashet, un proyecto muy ambicioso e importante para recolectar información sobre la evolución cultural del mundo. Como tal esto hace al trabajo de Figuring Out the Past es un libro muy divertido, es básicamente un almanaque con estadísticas y datos de una muestra de culturas/civilizaciones/estados alrededor del mundo en distintas épocas, desde el 3er milenio antes de la era común hasta el siglo XX. Como tal es un libro de curiosidades, que explota bien la riqueza de la basa de datos del proyecto Sashet, un proyecto muy ambicioso e importante para recolectar información sobre la evolución cultural del mundo. Como tal esto hace al trabajo de divulgación de Turchin y Hoyer uno muy relevante. Datos como que el Imperio Acadio de Sargon I tuvieran un impuesto a la herencia, que el Imperio Maurya tuviera un impuesto a la prostitución o que el Valle de Oaxaca y el Reino de Roma (8 siglos antes de la era común) desarrollaran la monogamia al mismo tiempo son datos muy curiosos, el libro esta repleto de ellos y como tal tiene gran utilidad si se busca algún ejemplo histórico. La parte que no me terminó de agradar del libro es justo que su formato es demasiado como un almanaque. Creo que es una oportunidad desperdiciada en esta primera edición que no se aprovechara para contarnos un poco sobre los sitios arqueológicos de donde provienen los datos de Seshat y del libro, darnos una descripción de las fuentes, porque son datos creíbles, como se sostienen algunas de las conjeturas que se mencionan (por ejemplo que no parece que en X sociedad tuvieran acceso al crédito). Es un área de oportunidad para futuras ediciones de este ambicioso proyecto abundar más en este otro tipo detalles. Dicho la anterior es una lectura recomendable, sobre todo para los que como yo sean un poco nerds y gusten de curiosidades así o deseen tener una fuente de consulta de ejemplos para usar en clase, escribir o por pura curiosidad en una conversación.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Patrick J

    Agreed across the board with those who have gone before me regarding this version a reference book you don't really read. It is fascinating to course thorough, and it's full of interesting data, but in the end, the format leaves you wanting. In this world of data visualization, even a spreadsheet you can filter or pivot on is more handy than this. The few charts and tables at the end are nice, but being able to mix the data they show to look for relationships or just to simply compare contrastin Agreed across the board with those who have gone before me regarding this version a reference book you don't really read. It is fascinating to course thorough, and it's full of interesting data, but in the end, the format leaves you wanting. In this world of data visualization, even a spreadsheet you can filter or pivot on is more handy than this. The few charts and tables at the end are nice, but being able to mix the data they show to look for relationships or just to simply compare contrasting stories would be far more compelling. Some of this, of course, isn't the book's fault. In our time, books just fall short as lists when compared to software models and views of data, unless they're accompanied by analysis and theories or conclusions. I suggest Ages of Discord, another Turchin book, that contains his analysis of all of this "polities data." In the end, still glad to have the reference, and I suspect its usefulness will be lasting.

  5. 5 out of 5

    A Home Library

    Thank you for the opportunity to review this book. As a training political scientist, I am often working with statistical data, and a lot of this information is based on historical patterns. Admittedly, this is not my strong suit. I requested this book because I know that I need to practice my skills in this area. Despite my weakness, I actually found this book to be quite accessible. It isn't just for statisticians or historians. Rather, it's a good and interesting read for a broader audience. Thank you for the opportunity to review this book. As a training political scientist, I am often working with statistical data, and a lot of this information is based on historical patterns. Admittedly, this is not my strong suit. I requested this book because I know that I need to practice my skills in this area. Despite my weakness, I actually found this book to be quite accessible. It isn't just for statisticians or historians. Rather, it's a good and interesting read for a broader audience. The data visualization is also quite nice. I want to learn how to do some of this!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Colin

    Some fascinating stuff in here, but it falls well short of its stated intention. There's no narrative, and not even an attempt to draw the information together to even hint at a big picture. The headings are generic, leading to a lot of the book just reading 'no data', and there's a lot missing - most conspicuously any attempt to detail cultural output. Some fascinating stuff in here, but it falls well short of its stated intention. There's no narrative, and not even an attempt to draw the information together to even hint at a big picture. The headings are generic, leading to a lot of the book just reading 'no data', and there's a lot missing - most conspicuously any attempt to detail cultural output.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Eva Hnizdo

    It's not a book to read in one go. But it is fascinating information about states and emppires from history, and figures of various social figures. I found the comparison of gender equality most interesting. But it gave me interesting knowledge about lots of things. It's not a book to read in one go. But it is fascinating information about states and emppires from history, and figures of various social figures. I found the comparison of gender equality most interesting. But it gave me interesting knowledge about lots of things.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rudyard L.

    A useful reference book. Has lots of info you can’t Google.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rainylrclark

    Mad I wasted my time and money on this.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Pierre

    I had high expectations when I opened the book; after all, how can you beat “3,495 vital Statistics that Explain World History”? The book delivers and more on its promises; statistics are aplenty, and they are not only vital but really rare and insightful, e.g. the 10 largest (at global level) fielded armies in the Medieval age (9 of 10 being Asian, the last one South American), or the adoption of monogamy by world region (it arrived in Asia and North Africa way before in Europe!). In spite of thi I had high expectations when I opened the book; after all, how can you beat “3,495 vital Statistics that Explain World History”? The book delivers and more on its promises; statistics are aplenty, and they are not only vital but really rare and insightful, e.g. the 10 largest (at global level) fielded armies in the Medieval age (9 of 10 being Asian, the last one South American), or the adoption of monogamy by world region (it arrived in Asia and North Africa way before in Europe!). In spite of this, I have been disappointed by the way these great data are displayed. In this age of infographics and data visualization, the book is composed of 243 pages of small print tables and lists and only 10 pages of world maps with very poor resolution. I hoped that I could find more on the author’s website (seshatdatabank.info), but to no avail. All in all, this is an amazing source of data, but totally unreadable or usable by a mere mortal like me.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Anthony

  13. 4 out of 5

    Teresa Burger

  14. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  15. 5 out of 5

    Avanti

  16. 5 out of 5

    Carsten

  17. 5 out of 5

    Alex Ishkin

  18. 5 out of 5

    Caralen

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Dean

  20. 4 out of 5

    Leigh Anne

  21. 5 out of 5

    Angelo Rodriguez

  22. 5 out of 5

    ciravegna luciano

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jaylani Adam

  24. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

  25. 5 out of 5

    Andy

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sim

  27. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Janes

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cliff

  29. 5 out of 5

    Heleny Campoy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Craig Rowland

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