Pharaoh’s Cage: Environmental Circumscription and Appropriability in Early State Development

Ola Olsson (University of Gothenburg)

29 mars 2019, 11h30–12h30


Salle MF323


What explains the origins and development of the first states around five thousand years ago? In this research, we focus on the role of weather shocks for early state development in a single region: ancient Egypt. We outline a dynamic extension of Carneiro's (1970) general model of environmental circumscription and early state development where the effective level of a region's circumscription varies with exogenous weather shocks that affect Nile floods in the core, as well as the fertility of the surrounding hinterland. Our key hypotheses is that political stability should be higher when floods are abundant and the hinterland is dry. In order to test our model's predictions, we develop novel proxies for historical precipitation on the basis of recently discovered, high-resolution paleoclimate archives. Our empirical analysis then investigates the relationship between the level of Nile floods and rainfall in the Egyptian hinterland on the one hand, and political outcomes such as ruler and dynastic tenure durations and the intensity of pyramid construction on the other, during 2685 - 750 BCE, i.e. the classical period in dynastic Egypt. Our results show that while both too high or too low Nile floods are associated with a greater degree of political instability, periods with a greater rainfall in the hinterland (and hence a lower degree of environmental circumscription) are associated with an immediate rise in military and pyramid construction activity but also with a delayed increase in political instability since the decline in effective circumscription provides the farming population with an outside option in the hinterland.


Ola Olsson (University of Gothenburg), « Pharaoh’s Cage: Environmental Circumscription and Appropriability in Early State Development », IAST General Seminar, Toulouse : IAST, 29 mars 2019, 11h30–12h30, salle MF323.